Another Departure: Toward Independent Study

As another year comes to another end, we are tempted, as an outgoing board on our final fling, to cull up all of our wise editorials (and conveniently forget about the others) and piece them together to show you what we have been talking about for a year. If we surrendered to this temptation, we would probably say something about the need for imagination (and realism) in foreign policy, boldness (and gradualism) in domestic policy, and House-ification (and money) in University policy. But that would be dull to write, and certainly worse than dull to read. Either you have seen it before--in which case it would be repetition--or else you haven't--and are certainly not interested now. So we resist the temptation to play the record again--and instead make a stab at cutting a slightly new groove on an old, old problem.

And that problem is Harvard's curriculum. Like so much else around here, the curriculum has been built on the foundations of previous curricula, which in turn were based on earlier patterns. The lecture system gave way to the lecture-field of concentration system, which gave way to the lecture-field-elective system, which was replaced by the lecture-field-elective-tutorial system, which eventually turned into the lecture-field-elective-tutorial-general education system. So if we now propose the addition of a fifth hyphen, it is not because the foundation is faulty, but because it is so strong--strong enough to support a new departure.

This new departure would be in the area of "independent study," and the persuasive thing about adopting this suggestion is that it is really no departure at all. For the University has already put into operation the so-called "course reduction" program under which some students are permitted to pursue an approved project in place of course requirements; and certainly the senior honors essay, or thesis, is the epitome of successful independent study. And even the tutorial program, at least in theory, is the independent pursuit by tutor and tutee of a mutually interesting, and mutually beneficial, program of study and discussion.

But the plain fact is, that of these three areas for independent study, only the thesis succeeds as such. Both tutorial and course reduction fall short of real independent study--although they certainly may succeed in other ways--because they are inevitably bucking three facts about education at Harvard. Two of these concern Harvard, and one concerns education.

The first diversion from independent study is--and we bring this up with some hesitation--the increasing professionalism of extra-curricular activities. Drama is probably the prime example--with nine productions in two weeks last spring--but publications, radio, and music probably fit the pattern equally well. As the end product of students who came up the ranks learning-by-doing, this is natural and not necessarily a Bad Thing; but as a barrier to independent study, it must be taken into account in planning the curriculum, for it concerns over half the undergraduates.

The Grade System

An even greater commitment on time and energy is the grade system, which lures--and always will lure--the student away from independent study until independent study is incorporated into the grade system. This is one reason that the thesis is so successful: it eventually receives a grade--an evaluation of a (presumably) scholarly piece of work by established scholars in the field. But when it comes to a choice between preparing for tutorial or studying for the encumbrances which automatically come with a grade system--term papers, hour exams, finals, generals--, it is only the powerfully-willed student who will choose the former to the detriment of the latter. That a few of these students do appear is a testimony to themselves, but not to Harvard's curricula. The lure of grades, however, is not so much a mania for the marks themselves--at least, we hope not--but rather a desire for what grades ideally should provide: an evaluation of the extent to which a student has mastered, or failed to master, an area of knowledge. If the grade system, which is now under attack from several quarters, at times does not provide this kind of answer--and who has not sometimes received higher marks in courses for which he was less well prepared?--this is the fault not of the system's theory, but of its practice. More exacting, more factual examinations, and at least one term paper in every non-scientific course, would certainly help eliminate the tendency to get by--and sometimes get by well--on what is called bull.

Our support for a grade system as a potential deterrent to glib generalization is related to the third, and possibly most basic, obstacle to independent study in the present framework. This has nothing to do with Harvard, except in so far as Harvard helps produce it: the increasing complexity of knowledge. When administrators lament the fact that fewer students today are engaged in individual research than there were in the 1930's, one is tempted to remind them that things are more complex and fragmented now than they were then. While there may have been seven books on Moby Dick then, there are probably seventy times seven now--with interpretations that range from political, to literary, to psychological, to economic. If Thomas Wolfe became discouraged at trying to read everything on the shelves of Widener, the modern student who wants to "know everything" is appalled by the thought of keeping up with everything published in one day, or even everything published in one field in one day. And so, we inevitably turn to authority, to professors, in short, to the lecture system as a crutch. As advocates of the continuance of the lecture system, we hope to find on the platform creative, searching, synthesizing minds who can provide the latest insights into areas of knowledge: if this ideal were reached more often, there would be fewer complaints about the system. For in theory, the system is absolutely necessary today: it provides the only way in which to get a basic grounding in what is now known, and who now knows it, and what books now contain it, as a prelude to our own ventures into the uncertain. As such, it and its corollary, the grade system, are essential.

For Depth and Study

Merely because the fragmentation of knowledge, the grade system, and extracurricular activities all conflict with independent study does not mean that independent study should be discarded as impossible: quite the contrary, the fact that students can professionalize extracurricular activities and still "beat" the grade system, and the fact that knowledge is so complex, point to the conclusion that any advances in learning and any achievement of real depth of knowledge must be sought outside the course system as it now exists. Take an example. Suppose a student wants to study Dante from the psychological point of view. Where should he turn? Clearly, the course of the "great ideas" professor is not the place, and the linguist would probably laugh. And the Renaissance historian would say it was unimportant to his course, and the practicing psychologist is probably so wound up in his own pursuits that he could only offer a few "behavioral patterns" as guides. The student certainly should draw upon all of these authorities, but as to doing the research and producing the paper in any one course, it is out of the question. Perhaps he could pursue the subject under a tutor, but with four courses, he doesn't really have time to do an adequate job. Course reduction? Well, he tried that, but there were too many competing commitments on his time, and his effort had no recognition, no evaluation, no deadline. Perhaps he will do his senior thesis on it, but when he gets to that, he will find that commitments on his time do not decrease enough to give him that period of unbroken concentration and research essential to a good job. And besides, his field is History.

What we are looking for, in short, is a change in the curriculum which would provide: the opportunity for unbroken research, built upon knowledge gained in courses by applying the student's, and not the instructor's point of view to a subject; and the chance to work closely with a tutor in a product that would not be graded by the tutor, but instead by someone else (as in the case of the thesis now).

In a sense, this sounds like the thesis, but it is different in two respects: first, it would have to eliminate conflicting commitments during the intensive period of production; and it should be available in sophomore and junior, as well as senior, years, to all students, not merely honors candidates. Certainly scope and subject would be less ambitious in the second and third years than in the senior year, but one has only to look at the average College Board scores and I.Q. ratings to know that almost any student admitted to Harvard is capable of undertaking more than one challenging independent project. If there are exceptions, that is the fault of the Admissions Board, not the curriculum: and with the increasing flood of applications, there should be no trouble in keeping admissions standards high.

Of the many plans for changing the curriculum that the Committee on Educational Policy is now considering--and apparently there are a good number under discussion--only one fits these requirements. It has so far received no publicity, probably because it would demand such a radical departure from the status quo.

This plan would divide the college year into three terms of twelve weeks each. For freshmen, the change would mean only that he would be tested in December, March, and June--fulfilling his General Education, language, and introductory courses in possible fields of concentration.

In the sophomore year, the three-term schedule would begin to have effect, for it would mean that the student would take four courses in the fall, four in the spring, and in most cases, none in the winter term. Students taking elementary language and science courses would probably have to miss the "free" winter period, but for the rest, it would be like the present reading periods put back-to-back and doubled. It would not be similar to the present reading period, however, for now this is really just a "cram period"--and one of the greatest aids in beating the grade system.