The Case for the College

Eventually the Program for Harvard College will have raised most of the money it wants, will have invested a good bit of it at a healthy interest rate, and will have spent the rest in improving undergraduate education. In all the discussion about the nature of this improvement, however, little serious thought seems to have been given to a re-evaluation of the objectives of the College.

It is clear, of course, that the money will be spent in expanding educational facilities in all areas of undergraduate life. There will be more and, hopefully, better residential quarters. The health services will be increased and improved. The status of the commuting student will be altered to produce greater equality; the libraries will grow, and Harvard will continue to pay salaries attractive to the best minds in the country.

But all this progress seems to lack any clear objective beyond that of maintaining Harvard's high academic standing and standards. And while this is an undeniably praiseworthy goal, it does not embody any vital or constructive concept of the purpose of a Harvard College education.

At the moment the only clear trend in the College is the pressure toward higher and higher academic achievement with the presumed purpose of subsequent scholarly specialization. Certainly such pressure is not out of place in a university community. Every generation needs competent and inspired teachers, and every generation of teachers sees insits students the raw material of its successors. But one can seriously question whether the emphasis on academic pre-professionalism which at present characterizes the College is, in fact, a proper one. To the contrary, it is possible to suggest that this emphasis may work to the exclusion of other equally worth-while aims and is therefore detrimental.

Two recent changes in the method of Harvard education are clear evidences of the strength of this academic force. The first is the growing tendency of undergraduate courses to fatten up their reading lists without any clear motive beyond a quest for scholastic respectability. The result of this tendency can be seen most forcibly in the crowds in Lamont, struggling to complete reading assignments which demand too much of both a student's time and capacity. The second change is in the new regulations on Honors study which require of every sophomore a much stiffer tutorial program than had previously existed. Coupled with the failure of the Faculty to devise any attractive non-Honors program, the new rules bring added academic pressure on the under-graduate, again to the exclusion of a broader education, within and outside of the curriculum.

The net result of these reforms--and in some respects they are most worthwhile--cannot yet be clearly gauged. Only one statistical piece of evidence has so far been submitted as proof of the growing stature of the academic spirit. The intentions of the Class of 1958, polled prior to graduation, revealed that sixty-five per cent more of '58 than of '57 planned to continue academic training at graduate schools of arts and sciences. Nearly ninety per cent of the best scholars in the class planned to study for a Ph.D. degree, intending presumably to go into college teaching.

Now it can be persuasively argued that one class does not constitute a trend. But there are factors in the College community conspiring to make such a trend permanent. Primarily and most understandably, there exists the natural affinity of a group of scholars for its own profession. For the undergraduate guided by the predilections of his tutors, advisors and professors, the pressure toward scholarly achievement becomes a significant force. But an undergraduate who looks on college teaching, particularly at Harvard, as the highest calling of an educated man, may neglect the fact that he will, in all probability, not end up teaching at Harvard and that there are professions equally valuable to his society.

The community-as any intellectual community might be expected to do--attaches its highest values to academic achievement. In its expanding demands on the undergraduate's time and because of the very nature of its particular ethic, Harvard is fostering its own special set of values at the sacrifice of others.

One other factor contributes to the growth of pressure toward academic pre-professionalism. As the number of applicants for admission rises, the level of proficiency and of entrance standards also increases. The Class of 1958, which indicated such an unusual proclivity for doctoral training, was the "brightest," i.e. the most academically promising, class ever to be admitted. Each subsequent class has broken the 1958 record, and there is every reason to believe that the trend will continue for at least ten years.

To a great extent the curriculum reforms have been aimed at exploiting this greater scholastic potential. But it seems that this exploitation is resulting in the over-academization of the undergraduate community and in the sacrifice of non-academic systems of values.

There is, of course, nothing intrinsically evil in the desire of teachers to perpetuate themselves. But when this desire acts to exclude all but academicians from the advantages of a Harvard education, it becomes extremely dangerous. Currently this desire is producing an unfortunate intensity of academic training. Concurrently, it is producing an undergraduate generation unaware of any public responsibility beyond its responsibility for scholarship.

The concept of public responsibility is not a particularly clear or easily formulated one. It embodies the realization that educated men can and should take prominent parts in the affairs of their society, as lawyers, politicians, ministers, businessmen and journalists, no less than as educators. An undergraduate training which fails to value these professional capacities or subordinates them to an obsession with producing teachers is not a training aimed at meeting the broadest demands of the community.

Yet Harvard's present emphasis on scholastics does neglect or produce neglect of public activities. The men who should be attracted to extracurricular participation in the political clubs or the publications are in increasing measure lost to these activities because of the demands of the curriculum. It is argued that the non-academic societies do not draw the best people because their standards are not as high as those of the scholarly community. But this is a circular argument: if the "brightest" students were able to give more of their time to outside interests, extracurricular standards of performance would obviously rise.

Under the present circumstances, however, it is impossible for these students to give much of their time to anything beyond scholarship. Inevitably, and probably unintentionally, Harvard has created a community dominated by the academic ethic. The pressure for admissions, the mandatory Honors program without a respectable alternative in non-Honors, the increased course and departmental requirements, the emphasis which graduate schools place on good undergraduate grades, and the scholarly mystique of the University all add up to a trend towards over-academization and against a truly liberal education.

Harvard can, of course, work to reverse some of this pressure. It could attempt to make greater use of Dean Bender's policy of basing admissions on a broader range of talent than mere academic proficiency. It could try to check the growth in quantity of course work. It could cultivate in its undergraduates the realization that their value to society has little to do with their Group standing. It could affirm the value of organized non-academic activity and encourage participation in extra-curricular work beyond the level of encouragement it has so far maintained.

In short, Harvard should strive to fulfill the purpose for a college set for itself in "General Education in a Free Society"--"It is to give to the nation and the world as far as it can both trained skill and responsible judgment." At the moment there is too much emphasis on trained skill, whether intentionally on the part of the Administration or inevitably. There is too little emphasis on the exercise of responsible judgment during a student's undergraduate career. More important, "the world" is increasingly becoming the essential, but limited world of scholarship.

To reverse the inevitable academic pressure, Harvard must reaffirm its commitment to the sort of liberal education which prepares men for the assumption of public responsibility, in civic affairs, no less and no more than in academic pursuits. If it cannot do this, Harvard College will increasingly become a principally vocational school for scholars and will deprive its society of the worthwhile contribution which many of its graduates have made in the past and must make in the future.