President Emeritus James B. Conant '14 said last night that the urgent demands being made on American colleges and universities challenge the nation to develop "new procedures by which the planning of education, especially of higher education, can be improved."
In a speech at Brandeis on problems facing European and American universities, Conant stressed that there is a "ferment in higher education in Europe and the United States." He said institutions on both sides of the Atlantic face the demand to expand facilities, the increasing need for highly trained individuals, and the problem of identifying and educating all the potential talent available.
Conant, who presided over the first phase of Harvard's growing involvement with the Federal Government from 1933 to 1953, said the massive entrance of the government into educational development made planning both more complicated and more necessary.
He claimed new mechanisms are needed to coordinate federal policy with the plans of individual states, and of particular institutions, and said the basis of planning should be the question: does our educational system fit the needs of our country today, and the needs we can foresee for the future?
In a speech which ranged widely over educational problems here and in Europe, Conant also repeated a proposal "which has been ignored before and will probably be ignored again"--that graduate and professional schools establish a set of comprehensive examinations in science, mathematics, English composition and literature, and history, which all applicants would be required to take.
No Standards Now
He said the place to set standards in American education is at the higher levels, where the educational system begins to be selective, and noted that it was an understatement to say that the standards for the A.B. are far from uniform--"in fact there are no standards at all, except the requirement of staying for four years and paying your money at some institution."
Conant predicted that setting rigorous academic standards at the graduate level "would have a revolutionary effect on instruction not only in high schools but in our colleges as well."
Though he warned at the outset that comparative education is "a tricky and dangerous field" and stressed that "education is not an exportable commodity," Conant said that American and European universities both face the problems of streamlining professional courses of study that are becoming longer and longer.
One reason for the recent exodus of European and British scientists to the U.S., he explained, is that advancement on American faculties is relatively more flexible and rapid than "the long, laborious process" by which scholars gain professional stature in Europe.
Conant said he was happy to seize on Clark Kerr's term, the multiversity, to describe the difference between American universities, which combine undergraduate and graduate instruction, and European universities, which are solely for professional education. Selection in Europe, he noted, takes place at ages 10-12, when only ten to 20 per cent qualify for academic secondary education; half to two-thirds of these are later dropped.
By contrast, Conant said, Europeans are surprised at the selectivity of American colleges and universities, which may flunk as many as 40 per cent of entering freshmen, and at the procedures "by which a person is guided out of a university.