Harvard is a feudal institution. Despite a bewildering number of nominal monarchs and conseils d'etat--the president, the overseers, the corporation, the deans and their secretaries--real power rests with departmental baronies, lorded over by the various chairmen. If the institution moves, it is the barons who move it.
Generally they prefer the status quo. Departmental chairmanships are not, to put it discretely, the University's most popular jobs. They involve all sorts of administrative trivia. Those who take them do so stoically, imbued more with a sense of duty than with any real zeal for reform. As a result, the departments, which control the bulk of every students's education, are headed by men with little time or energy to think about students--or education.
This much must be understood to appreciate the importance and uniqueness of what is going on in the Economics and Social Relations departments: Soc Rel has announced tentative plans to place students on many of its subcommittees. Several members of the Economics faculty are pressing their department to allow students to write their theses junior year.
It is not yet clear how the Soc Rel faculty will choose students for its subcommittees. There are many possibilies, from elections at mass meetings of concentrators to selection by grades or intensity of interest. But the method of choice is far less significant that the fact that a large department is at last trying to implement the idea of student-faculty cooperation that has proved so helpful in reinvigorating the curricula and rules of small concentrations, such as the Social Studies program.
The proposal of the Economics professors appears less daring, but it may presage a major revision in Harvard's educational policy. Senior year presently demands for more than a year of work and endurance. These must be written, general exams taken, graduate schools decided upon and applied to, careers charted. There are dozens of deadlines, each requiring an important decision that in turn requires an atmosphere of reflection and tranquility. Because there are so many deadlines, this atmosphere does not exist, and the decisions are often arbitrary, the work sloppy. Even more important, the general frenzy of the year preclude any systematic review of the total college experience. There is no chance to take that last look at one's liberal education, to draw whatever generalizations or "lessons" might prove useful in the future.
The Economics proposal would allow a student to break up this logjam. In conjunction with the new General Education program, it could revolutionize the senior year. Writing a thesis as a junior would free the student to spend senior year planning his future, reassessing his departmental training for generals, and pondering the larger questions of his education by fulfilling the new Gen Ed requirement with "upper level" courses.
These two innovations--student-faculty committees and junior theses--bear directly on the educational policy of the entire college. If the curious parochialism of the "baronial" system prevents them from spreading spontaneously through all the departments, the Faculty as a whole should step in and recognize the ideas for what they are--natural consequences of the spirit and decisions of the recent debates on General Education.