The College: An Academic Trade School?
80% of '64 Entered Graduate School; Percentage of Scholars Has Doubled
For most Harvard men their Harvard A.B. is no longer enough of an education. Four out of five of last year's seniors went on to graduate school. The largest group of these--about a quarter of the class--is doing graduate work in the arts and sciences. Only a seventh of the class went immediately to work, and for the most part these were the academically poor or mediocre.
The post-graduate plans of '63 were much different than those of '39. Then one-third of the class went to work, a group not exclusively composed of the academically impoverished. The other-two-thirds did go on to graduate school; but only an eighth did grad study in the arts and sciences.
In one generation the percentage of Harvard men doing graduate work has increased by a quarter; the number becoming academics has about doubled.
The figures are stark, but their significance is by no means certain. Some responsible men have used them to indicate dire change; to others they are statistical signs of heartening progress.
One faction of critics takes a baleful view. The University they contend, is in danger of becoming a high-level prep school--a place to be gotten through because of where its merit badges lead, not an experience to be savored for its own value and for what it contributes to a rich life. Wilbur J. Bender '27 clearly had this in mind when he wrote his final report as dean of admissions in 1961. "We may be attracting students," Bender said then, "who look on school as preparation for college, college as preparation for graduate school, and graduate school as preparation for they know not what."
Even worse, in this view, the Faculty may have become principally committed to reproducing itself. Instead of educating a broad elite that might fill the top ranks of business, government, law, and medicine, Harvard may be producing simply an army of Ph. D.'s These men may do useful work, but much of it will be dull, competant, safe academic mediocrity.
Talent that might have provided leadership elsewhere may just become grist in the academic mill. Harvard may be encapsulating itself in an academic cocoon, deserting its country and--perhaps less cataclysmically--deserting its alumni.
But deserting the alumni is not something to be shrugged off lightly. Alumni support has given Harvard the financial endowment that bolsters its independence and academic freedom. If Harvard should alienate its alumni, it would become dependent upon government funds which might limit its freedom of inquiry and expression. Government controls on the Cambridge Electron Accelerator indicate the dangers of government largesse.
The process of breeding academics, the critics maintain, is accomplished principally through the monopoly professors enjoy as models of successful careers. In the cloistered world of the Houses, Mass Ave., and Brattle Street, students see few successful men in non-academic fields.
This explanation was made forcefully by Michael Shinagel, the associate director of the Office for Graduate and Career Plans, in his report on the performance and prospects of the class of 1961.
The professors are Prometheus, shedding light from the lecture podium, confident, knowledgable, urbane. Other models are remote. Some, particularly businessmen, are scorned. Academic values are prized to the exclusion of all other values. Honors students receive the attentions of their tutors; non-honors men are pariahs.
Moreover, in some cases, the faculty actively recruits among its undergraduates. This year it nominated 220 men for Woodrow Wilson Fellowships, given exclusively to those becoming professors. Fifty-five seniors received these awards and accepted them.
The concerns of the critics thus range from the basic nature of the college to the daily motives of the professors. As an aside, some critics castigate the motives that prompt some seniors to enter graduate school: for them graduate school is a device to postpone the dread day when a man must earn his living; it is also a means to evade the draft that requires less commitment than either marriage or expatriation.
However, the increasing number of Harvard men in graduate school and academic life can be viewed in a much more favorable light. If one grants the merit of academic work and the special merit of Harvard in fostering it, then it becomes highly desirable that more Harvard men be academicians. Indeed, it may represent a scandalous squandering of Harvard's resources that four-fifths of its graduates do not become scholars, especially in view of the keen demand for academicians.
Furthermore, it is rather easy to debunk the notion that Harvard should train men to occupy top positions in nearly all fields throughout the country. In contrast to Britain (where Oxford and Cambridge men dominate business and the civil service, and academic life) America is far too diverse and democratic to accept a small homogeneous elite. Political leaders and business leaders gain standing in particular states and in particular companies, not through their undergraduate education.
Since Harvard is powerless to change this historic pattern, it is futile for it to attempt to train a "broad national elite." Instead, it should concentrate on what it can do best--training an academic elite.
This line of argument has won most of its supporters in the sciences and is particularly associated with George B. Kistiakowsky, Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Chemistry.
We do not have to accept it, though, to dispute those who view "sterile academicism" with excessive alarm.
In the first place, the critics do not distinguish between the attractiveness of academic careers, and the increasing professionalism of all careers. These are two different phenomena. The first is measured by the number who become academicians. Shinagel calculates this is about a fifth of the last few graduating classes. The figure is lower than the number of men who do graduate work in the arts and sciences, for about half the scientists (who comprise about two-fifths of this group) take jobs in industry.
General professionalization is measured by the number of men going to graduate school who do not become academics. This group has comprised about 60 percent of recent classes. In the late 1930s it was about 50 per cent of each class. This not too spectacular rise mainly reflects the greater number of men who take degrees in law and business administration to prepare for business careers.
The increase of interest in academic careers has certainly been substantial. Academic life claimed 10 per cent of the class of 1939; 15.5 per cent of the class of 1948; and about 20 per cent of the class of 1963. But even 20 per cent is not high enough to justify the charge that Harvard graduates are becoming a homogeneous group of academicians.
Moreover, the expanding number of men entering the academic field has been matched by the expansion of the field itself. The most apparent expansion has been in numbers. During the past decade employment opportunities in college teaching have boomed, and men have naturally moved where demand was great.
The academic field has expanded in another respect: money. Professors' salaries have increased substantially since World War II. Men no longer are deterred from college teaching by the penury it entails. In consequence, academia has been opened to middle class men. No longer is it dominated by the well-to-do who have independent incomes. Academic life has become a prime avenue of social mobility.
But the change in the character and range of "academic life" has probably been its most significant form of expansion. No longer is it a field of scholarship and teaching closely confined to the library, lab, and college classroom. The scope of the academic scientist has expanded spectacularly. Many now direct extensive research groups in costly projects, advise government agencies, do consultant work for corporations at substantial fees, travel widely to professional meet-ahead of the faculty. We were reading avant-garde works. English literature courses stopped with the Victorians. Now the students can't be ahead. They are faced by extraordinary, wide-ranging, and erudite men; worldly men, one of whom may have criticized Naked Lunch before any student saw it."
"In the 20s and 30s," Riesman continues, "professor was seen as a sheltered person who was not very manly. This view was somewhat false then but now it is widely askew."
How much does this new sort of professor "seduce" his students into the academic life? Clearly, he does not lure them to prize academic values to the exclusion of all others, as the critics charge. His own values are by no means exclusively academic.
Furthermore, it seems from an informal sampling that senior Faculty men do not downgrade non-academic careers. For instance, one eminent member of the History Department this spring took a special interest in a senior who intends to become a professional soldier.
Junior faculty members, on the other hand, seem more exclusively committed to their own fields. For example, in biology there are many accounts of lab men steering bright students away from medical school.
This attitude may be partly responsible for reports from many medical schools that they no longer attract the best science students. Harvard Medical School, however, has not yet noted this phenomenon. Neither has Harvard Law, although some other law schools have complained of a comparable problem--the siphoning off of top students by the social sciences.
Despite this evidence, though, Shinagel is probably correct in maintaining that exposure to the Harvard faculty reinforces well-considered academic inclinations. But this reinforcement does not seem to be as great as the critics suppose.
Harvard faculties have probably always tended to increase academic interests among their students. What is so different now is how widespread and serious academic interests are among entering freshman.
This is largely the result of the change in Harvard's admission policy. Until World War II, Harvard was essentially a rather non-competitive Eastern university dominated by preparatory school boys from established families. Nearly everyone who wished to enter passed muster; but not many outside those who naturally expected to come to Harvard asked to come in. For example, 90 per cent of the boys who applied for the class of 1937 were admitted. Twenty-four years later Harvard admitted only one quarter of those who applied for the class of 1961. The University had become a national institution, drawing to its cornucopia many boys of middle class families and and many immigrants' grandsons.
Naturally, there was a toughening of academic standards; there was also a considerable heightening of competition based on academic achievement. The Admissions Office, in emphasizing diversity and special talents, has struggled against this movement. But by and large it has understandably succumbed. Most boys are rightly admitted to Harvard on the basis of "academic promise."
But the result of this policy has been to increase academic competitiveness in high schools, and hence raise the standing of academic values. "It is during this formative period of calculated planning for college," Shinagel says, "with its emphasis on high and consistent academic performance, that any intellectual or academic professionalism may owe its origins."
However, the chain of causation goes back farther than this. As Riesman stresses, both the change in Harvard's admissions policy and the competition to be admitted to Harvard are reflection of major changes in American society. Especially since World War II, leadership in American society has been democratized; "class" institutions, such as the Ivy League colleges, have been opened to all who qualify by "meritocratic" standards.
"There is a much greater desire by students now to do something useful," Riesman says, "and making money is not regarded as useful."
This movement has recieved its greatest expression at small liberal arts colleges such as Reed, Swarthmore, Antioch, and Oberlin. Riesman notes that a far larger proportion of their graduates become academicians than do Harvard graduates. The orientation of Harvard seniors to academic careers is symptomatic of a national cultural change in which Harvard has been rather laggard.
Shinagel would like to bring many more men in non-academic fields into the Houses. He would give groups of doctors, lawyers and businessmen a status in the Houses similar to that of the journalists on Nieman Fellowships. Through this means he hopes students will realize that satisfying intellectual careers can be found in many fields--not just in college teaching. The innovation would tend to break down any "career monopoly" that the faculty might have.
Before we agree to adopt it, however, we should be aware of two points. The critics have probably exaggerated the extent both of the "career monopoly" and of the pressures toward academicism.
Secondly, there are sound reasons to doubt the efficacy of any institutional remedy for the problem of over-emphasis on academic values. For if Riesman's analysis is correct origins of the focus on academia are to be found in a basic transformation of American culture. Tampering with admissions or with the House dining halls would have little effect on so fundamental a process.
The attractiveness of grad school is not principally a reflection of Harvard's academicism, for that academicism, though ascendent, is still far from overbearing. It has been produced instead by changes in American-society--principally, its increasing democratization--and by changes in American values--especially, the veneration of the expert. There has also been a vast expansion of what academic includes. More men then ever are crowding into academia, but the wall between the academy and the world is dissolving