A Harvard Education: Does It Do a Student any Good?
Jeff Elman, a junior in Eliot House, organized the Harvard Education Project, a study of all aspects of the College sponsored by the Harvard Policy Committee.
At some time during the four years as an undergraduate at Harvard, nearly everyone asks himself whether or not he really belongs here. For some, this uncertainty may occur only briefly during the freshman year; others experience it more intensely as part of their "sophomore slump." And there is always the small--but disturbingly increasing--number of seniors, who even at the end of four years feel vaguely out of place. They suspect that what they wanted from Harvard was not what Harvard wanted to give them.
Harvard probably never has been free of such discontent, and dissatisfied students are to be found at any college. Sometimes the school is at fault, but when the dissatisfaction is confined to a small number, one tends to think the problems lie with the students. What perplexes and dismays many at Harvard is that this number has been growing past the point of comfort.
Most faculty members and administrators here blame this situation on the draft. Until now, Harvard's solution for unhappy students has been to suggest a leave of absence. David Riesman, Harvard's guru-in-residence, expressed this attitude when he said that "in the absence of the draft, dropping out is a very good thing, both for the student and for the school." After a year or so of living in the big outside world, the student decides that either pumping books is preferable to pumping gas, in which case he returns, or else it isn't, in which case he stays away. For a long time this alternative remained Harvard's ultimate therapeutic trump card, a sign of flexibility the school pointed to with great pride. Director of the Bureau of Study Counsel William G. Perry often refers to himself as the "head of Harvard's drop-out program."
The draft has messed many things up, not the least of which is the "drop-out program." The war is on, draft calls are up, and the students who insist they march to a different drum than Harvard's must do their marching in the Yard.
But the crux of the problem is not that these students can't get out--it's why they got in in the first place, and once in, why they should feel cheated. When a significant proportion of a school's students are unhappy with the school's education, then one must either revise the admissions policies which accepts them, or revise the educational policies which instruct them. To quietly encourage them to leave is an easy way out, but it in no way solves the basic problem.
Middle Class Pattern
Harvard is not alone in having to deal with a new kind of student population. Since World War II, there has been a gradual but steady change in the character of incoming college classes. Thirty years ago, only a small proportion of American college-age youth actually went to college. Today, over 50 per cent of high school graduates attend some sort of college or technical school. It is fast becoming an established middle class pattern for American youths to complete high school, go to college, and frequently pursue post-graduate professional training.
The result has been that many students go ot college today who wouldn't have thirty years ago. The opportunities are greater, the motivation different. During the Depression, only those who were highly motivated academically or very rich could afford a college education. Today, the typical college student ends up on the campus because social pressure drives him there, and also because of the vague feeling that the more education one has, the better a
The result has been that many students go to person one is. He tends to be less of a pure scholar than his predecessor, and because it was relatively easier for him to get to college (despite comparatively more stringent admissions requirements), he is less likely to be docile about his education.
Whatever one thinks of this situation--and there are many Old Guard educators who deplore it--the fact remains: the modern American college has gone a long way toward redefining its function by the mere process of redefining its student body. The college was yesterday what graduate school is today in the educational step-ladder: it has become what high school used to be. Students don't go to college now to become teachers or professional academics, although they may later go to grad school for this purpose. They go with all-defined but very real expectations, recognizing that the complexity of our society demands more education than high school can provide them.
It is entirely to the credit of the Office of Admissions' Chase Peterson and his predecessor Fred Glimp that not only are the more able and creative members of this new student pool admitted to Harvard, they are sought out and encouraged to come. Board scores and academic brilliance are not ignored, but selection is made increasingly on the basis of "feel." What kind of person one is often means a lot more than what kind of grades one got in high school.
Harvard's problem is that, while its admissions policy has kept up with the changing context of education in society, its educational policy has not. Most of the Harvard Faculty, trained at a time when college meant something vastly different from what it means today, have difficulty in understanding just how radical those changes are. The commotion which followed President Pusey's unfelicitous report to the Overseers illustrates that the problem is not simply one of lack of communication: there are very basic differences of opinion as to what a university should be like.
It shouldn't be surprising, then, that so many of the students brought to Harvard by a farsighted Admissions Office should be sorely disappointed after arriving in Cambridge. They soon find that the flowery rhetoric of General Education and the General Catalogue may be more advertising and wishful thinking than anything else. The College claims to look "first of all to [the student's] life as a responsible human being and citizen," but the glances seem at best sidelong. The "delicate balance" between the University, "dedicated to the advancement of knowledge," and the College, "whose purpose is the development of the individual," is not-so-delicately weighted in favor of the University; perhaps because no one really knows what the College should be doing.
It is wrong and simplistic to think that, simply because these "modern students" are not the same kind of dedicated academics their predecessors were, they are antagonistically anti-intellectual. To be sure, they resent the emphasis on professional training, on medieval scholasticism, and on ethereal abstractions. But this does not mean they are anti-intellectual, any more than it means that the medieval scholastic is a true intellectual. Often, just the opposite is the case: we've all had times when we've felt that we've learned far more from a good bull-session than we have from a lecture.
The intellectuality of these students is one of personal and social relevance. They see around them a society which, for all its potential and promise, seems bent on destruction and the thwarting of human fulfillment. As the presumed repository of society's knowledge and wisdom, it seems proper and fitting to them that the University ought to be concerned with salvaging what worthwhile remnants of society are left. They recognize that the distinction between a socially responsible university--which Harvard admits it should be--and a politically responsible one--which Harvard maintains it is not--is frequently not a fruitful one. They are sophisticated enough to know that the actions of a billion dollar corporation are not unfelt by society, and they argue that it's naive to think that this power can be exercised neutrally.
Instead, they find a Harvard College which appears to have in no way significantly departed from the Ivory Tower of the past. Only instead of an Ivory Tower, the university's protective wall is called "value-freedom." "Technology," Harvard's President explains, "cannot be used to support an opinion." Hence television is not used to broadcast a recent Vietnam teach-in. (How the dissemination of opinions differs from the dissemination of information is left unexplained, unless one assumes that the teach-in was totally devoid of any information whatsoever.) The renunciation of social obligation is the same; the harm wreaked is infinitely worse. Value freedom allows one to wallow in the mud without feeling soiled.
What values Harvard does espouse are drawn from the past--this is in fact the premise to the General Education program. Men are made whole by an appreciation of history; presumbaly an inculcation of the classic virtues leads one to contemporary herismo.
Only recently have some members of the Harvard community, notably Winthrop House Master Bruce Chalmers, suggested that what is even more important than knowledge of the past is an understanding of the present; the former does not inevitably lead to the latter. Appealing as the idea of "learning from the past" is, there is a tendency for this kind of scholarship to indulge in obscure irrelancies. If students today are less academic than previously, it is only in the sense that they have no tolerance for the preoccupation with minutiae which frequently typifies the academic.
It would be foolish not to recognize that many students--perhaps the majority at Harvard--are fairly content with the system as it operates. A large number not only intend to go on to graduate school, but see the College as a prep school for the University. This sort of student is almost ideally suited to the education Harvard is able to give him.
The other kind of student, the one who was told by the Admissions Office that he's just the material Harvard wants, and then discovers to his dismay that he's not after all; this sort of student really has no alternative here short of dropping out.
For all the courses in the General Catalogue, for all the extra-curricular activities, there is a surprising lack of genuine diversity in the education Harvard has to offer its students. Many disciplines are represented in the Faculty, and there's a shopping market glut of courses to choose from each term. But essentially, the courses and the Faculty are frighteningly alike; there is an assumption common to both that Harvard students come to their courses already excited and motivated. The role of the professor is simply to present the pertinent body of information--rarely is there an attempt to stimulate or inspire.
The only real variety lies in the student body; this is Harvard's strength. It is also its weakness.
Given such a heterogeneous student body, one would expect a reasonable amount of flexibility, freedom, and opportunity for independence at Harvard. Administrators are quick to point out that there is a minimum of rules, and that almost any regulation can be broken for the right person. If a person is willing to scream and kick enough, he can get almost anything.
This is partly true. The liberal tradition has reached its heights in Harvard's structure. There are restraints and guidelines--some justifiable, some not--but the men who administrate the structure are wise enough to keep the pressure valves sufficiently open so that the pot never quite boils over. If one learns how to operate successfully, one can get by doing just about all he wants.
Unfortunately for many students, there are even stronger forces which discourage making use of Harvard's curious freedom. The prospect of manipulating a system overgrown with 300 years of ivy can be over-whelming. It takes a certain amount of security and self-confidence to buck a school with Harvard's reputation. Few students are able to do this without some advice or prodding.
The paucity of such help is what makes Harvard's flexibility uncomfortably rigid for a great many students. Harvard insists that it "does no nursing job," but says that anyone who needs advice can get it readily if he wants to ferret it out. Here again, part of the claim is legitimate: advice can be gotten by those determined and sure enough of themselves to go out and seek it. The dilemma of the unhappy and confused student is that he rarely has the determination and confidence to seek help. Either the student is half-ashamed of his problem, and doesn't want to admit its existence by seeking help, or else he's so far gone off the deep end that he literally cannot get help on his own initiative.
The very attitude of the Deans--who do "no nursing job" --as well as what Riesman calls the machismo of the Harvard student (we all see ourselves as self-sufficient "Harvard Men"), operate to intimidate students from admitting that they have problems which they cannot solve themselves. Dr. Perry of the BSC claims that Harvard is forced into this posture to avoid charges of paternalism from students who resent an overactive counselling staff.
This would seem to indicate a gross misunderstanding of paternalism, as well as what it means for one human being to help another. Paternalism is obviously repugnant to students when it is manifested in an administration that regulates the college environment so completely that there is opportunity neither to err nor to do good. But there can be another form of paternalism, and this seems to have completely escaped Harvard. There is nothing wrong with a faculty, which, as older and hopefully wiser people, advises and helps its students--much as a father would his grown son. There's a certain amount to be said for encouraging people to stand on their own two feet, and work problems out on their own--this is one way we develop self-confidence. But on the other hand, there are times when we all must learn that it is only humility and common sense to know our own limitations, and not feel that it is degrading to go to others for help.
It can hardly be a good object-lesson for students to see such help and advice thought of by Harvard as interference. Perry once said students had yet to learn that people can get help for themselves without getting it by themselves. It is ironic that Harvard evidently expects its students to learn this important piece of wisdom by themselves.
Hopefully, help and encouragement to the discouraged student might be found in informal student-faculty contacts. That such is rarely the case is doubly tragic: not only is the student left to fend for himself, but the quality of academic intercourse is impaired.
Intimacy Among 400
Tutorial and the House system are supposed to countervail the size and impersonality of the University with a degree of personal contact and intimacy. The Houses, now with an average population of 400 students, two-thirds more than the number originally intended, have become little more than overcrowded dormitories; there is no excuse for such waste of what might have been Harvard's most attractive feature.
Tutorial has worked out slightly better. Here, at least, there is opportunity to meet on a relatively individual basis with one's instructor. When difficulties arise, they usually come either from the tutor's transient interest in education (most are graduate students working to continue their own studies) or from the fact that students are so accustomed to sitting passively in large lecture halls that they simply do not know how to behave in a one-to-one classroom situation.
Despite the occasional successes of Tutorial and the Houses, most students experience Harvard as a lonely, impersonal place. There is little or no sense of community--the CRIMSON is about the only thing Harvard shares in common. And such lack of community is regrettable, for it is in community that one is able to learn and share with others on a personal basis; it is in community that one finds relevance and immediacy in education; and it is only in community that a college can flourish.
With neither the community, nor for many the relevance and immediacy, the increase in students who feel alienated from Harvard is not surprising. Now that the alternative of leaving is temporarily closed, the student who might have otherwise left will be around to voice his discontent. If self-criticism is a virtue, then perhaps the draft will have served Harvard well.
Harvard is certainly in for its share of self-criticism; it will be as long as it continues to maintain discordant admissions and educational policies. Since the admissions policy is by far the more admirable and realistic of the two, it is the education Harvard offers which needs scrutiny.
Harvard, as well as every other American college, is caught in a difficult situation. It has to abandon its old function of professional training, which has been taken on by graduate schools, and find a new role for itself in American society. That the college will have a role is inevitable. The American people are convinced of the magic of a college education, and will continue to make it part of the life pattern for their sons and daughters.
The Purposeless Grind
There is nothing bad with a society which says that all its youth should go to college. As long as one has faith in the ability of men to learn much more than most are taught, there is no reason why college should not become a life experience for all Americans. No special cynicism is required to admit that colleges today contribute little to the quality of American life. It is not difficult, however, to envision a college which does raise the level of our society.
For this to happen requires a radical and thorough reorientation in the sorts of things colleges are to do. Most men may be capable of advanced thought, but most are not academics.
It is not too soon to expect Harvard to consider what its new role in society should be; it may be too much to expect that it will. For the draft is only temporary; even now there are those who leave in desperation, unwilling to suffer any longer what they consider to be the inanity of a purposeless grind. And the frank, radical self-probing which will be necessary for meaningful change to take place may well prove to be beyond the capacity of a community noted for its "liberal cool." If such be the case, then Harvard will be around for a long time--its $1 billion bankroll assures that--to remind us all of a glorious opportunity missed