House Courses in Peril

Brass Tacks

HOUSE COURSES have been the Harvard equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. Everyone knows that hordes of students apply to get into them and that tutors teach them with religious enthusiasm. And to those who complain that the lecture system is impersonal and often ineffective, administrators can hold up house courses as evidence that Harvard is, after all, a progressive institution academically.

This year the courses have a new number (Nat.Sci. Hum., and Soc. Sci. 96), there are seven of them, more than ever before, and it looks as though they are assuming a larger and larger role in the General Education program, just as their many admirers have been demanding for several years.

But the courses actually have a tenuous hold on life. They were renewed, and for one year only, by a rare split vote of the Committee on General Education last winter. Edward T. Wilcox, director of General Education, says that house courses will be reviewed again this year, and probably brought before the full Faculty sometime next spring.

There is no debate over the popularity of house courses with students. But at least for some members of the Committee on General Education, the enthusiasm of students being taught is not an adequate measure of the success of an academic innovation. House courses "are a policy issue regardless of whether students like them," Wilcox says, and in at least five ways, they have been accused of being bad academic policy:

House courses are a major step toward decentralized instruction, and except for the system of residential tutors, Harvard has long resisted that concept. Last year both faculty and student committees at Yale recommended that the colleges (the Yale equivalent of Harvard houses) take the lead in developing new curriculum. But Yale has nothing like the Gen Ed program, and some argue that part of the function of a college-wide Gen Ed program is to develop new courses on a college-wide basis. They argue that house courses may move Harvard toward the English college system in which appointments and even admissions are decentralized.

A variation on the first argument is that given the arbitrary distribution of students into houses, it is unfair to make a student's chance of taking one of the courses rely so heavily on the luck of the geographical draw. While the courses have been open to Radcliffe and to students in other houses, Wilcox says there has been no more than "token integration." About 80 per cent of the Harvard students in most of the courses have been from the house in which it is being offered. One faculty member even suggested during last winter's debates that such discrimination might be legally actionable.

Others worry that the rapid growth of house courses is putting pressure on every house to come up with a full roster like Winthrop's, that the pressure may lead some Masters to recruit volunteers, and in the long run, might make willingness to teach house courses a criterion for hiring resident tutors.

The idea of giving junior faculty, and in many cases teaching fellows, their own courses, is still objectionable to some traditionalists. Unlike tutorial, where the junior faculty are more or less limited by departmental rules, house courses give tutors almost unchecked freedom to run the course the way they want.

Financing house courses may be the biggest obstacle to increasing the number offered. Most of the seminars enroll about 15 students and most are taught by more than one, perhaps as many as seven tutors. "It's self-evident that I couldn't run the whole Gen Ed program this way," Wilcox says; "Mark Hopkins at the other end of the log may be ideal in educational theory, but that's not workable here." Though the added expense has not yet been computed with any precision, some faculty will probably use the financial argument to demand that house course be proved not just vaguely worthwhile, but worth an extra investment.

When the debate on house courses began last spring in the Committee on General Education, their originator, Bruce Chalmers, Master of Winthrop House, was away on leave. He said last week that he is as convinced as ever of the value of house courses and he sounds unimpressed by any of the arguments advanced against them.

If the seminars really are changing the character of the houses, it is all for the best, Chalmers argues. He says that A. Lawrence Lowell's conception of the houses as purely social rather than academic units is as anachronistic as the idea that house libraries should be gentlemen's reading rooms, and that the traditional separation of "intellectual" activity in the houses from "academics" serves no useful function.

CHALMERS admits to ideas about General Education "which to some of my colleagues are subversive." The program, he says, "ought to move in the direction of relevance, and confront undergraduates with problems that relate to the real world. A good case can be made for this work being done by relatively young instructors.

"Traditionalists don't like to see this contemporary stuff. There are still some mutterings that General Education is really about cultural heritage. I think it ought to be about now rather than then."

Just how the Faculty will go about passing judgment on house courses is not yet clear. Last spring Dean Ford created a committee chaired by George C. Homans, professor of Sociology, to study the role of Faculty in the Houses, and it seems probable that this group will consider house courses as well as less formal ways of pulling faculty members into the houses.

The logistical arguments against the courses are as yet unproven, and the theoretical ones seem adequately answered by Chalmers. It is difficult to believe that a Faculty which this fall approved two "radical critiques" courses virtually controlled by students, will jealously withhold the privilege of giving Gen Ed courses from instructors and teaching fellows. It is difficult to believe that traditionalists will predominate and quash an experiment that has so far been so popular with students. Difficult to believe, but a little bit frightening all the same.