Some Thoughts on Educational Reform
THERE IS RARELY any political activity on campus to support change in the educational system. Probably the question is too near at hand to generate much excitement: students usually prefer to get involved in such remote questions as the role of the University in Angola. Day-to-day concerns can hardly present themselves with the same glitter as supposed bloody repression far away, so they tend to be ignored even though they are much closer to the real welfare of students.
But perhaps it is not really unfortunate that politically active students have ignored the question of educational reform. Had they reacted to problems in education with the same sophomoric lack of moderation and good judgment with which they approach the sundry causes thrown up to us by activist groups, it seems sure that the Administration would have given in to their demands at least in part, and education at the University would have suffered. If we consider the kind of changes likely to command support from vocal students, on the basis of causes popular at other universities, we see that their neglect of these possibilities is benign.
One common suggestion for educational reform is that grading, being inherently unfair and restrictive, ought to be abolished entirely. Students are supposed to be nervous and cowed when faced with a teacher who has the power to mar their college record. Spontaneity and cheerful effort disappear, to be replaced by rote memorization and dreary cramming, or so the argument goes. The most ambitious of the critics have even managed, in good Marxian fashion, to link the dog-eat-dog competition for grades with the ruthless struggles in America's business world.
THE LAST ADMINISTRATION defused the potential force of this argument somewhat by instituting a limited pass-fail option. But the University has not given in to the weak pressure for more drastic reform, and that is all to the good. One of the most important differences, between self-education and schooling is that the school provides discipline in the formative years which gradually leads to self-discipline. If the student at college has the interest and the self-discipline to keep up with his work, external discipline plays no part in motivating him: but if he has not yet managed to muster quite the dedication he should have, the discipline of grades keeps him hurrying along.
It is that grading of often capriccios-and, what is worse, it is usually too lax-but nonetheless it is better than alternate methods. All of us have times when we are laxier than usual, but rather than defending our indolence, we should try to eliminate it. Those who aim to abolish grades only encourage the weaknesses which grades can help to eliminate. For those who protest that they have no interest in outstanding academic achievement but would rather be well-grounded, which is to say moderately good at all things, it is important to receive moderately good grades rather than outstanding academic achievement but would rather be well-grounded, which is to say moderately good at all things. It is important to receive moderately good graders rather than outstanding ones. And if they complain that they need better grades to get into a good law school, it seems only fair for the University to reply that better grades must be earned by better efforts.
SOME ARGUE, HOWEVER, that the pass-fail option permits them to take courses outsider their fields. Students are not prevented from taking these courses by say rule, of course, but their argument is that without pass-fail they would not elect them for fear of getting bad grades. One must question the student's commitment to study a new subject, however, if the mere necessity of working for a grade discourages him. Moreover, it is hard to see what real benefit can come to him from taking a course pass-fail if he has not the interest to take it otherwise. Such an option only discourages real understanding of other fields by favoring dilettantish exposure instead, and it should be eliminated.
Another common suggestion for change is to relax General Education requirements under the name of liberalization. Paradoxically, this proposal means that further steps away from liberal education should be taken. The idea that an educated man should have a comprehensive understanding rather than competence in one narrow field led at Harvard to the establishment of courses aiming to provide that understanding. Unfortunately, these courses have become increasingly specialized and irrelevant to the proper concerns of students: it is mere wishful thinking to suppose that a math major can achieve a liberal education by taking a course on painting in Renaissance Italy and one on prison reform.
Students are property dissatisfied with Gen Ed courses and wish they could avoid them. Here the University bears the responsibility for change, but to case requirements would be to fall to recognize the underlying problem. The need is for courses which consider the fundamental human questions across the lines of the specialized fields, and courses which are not edifying but instructive. There are a few Gen Ed courses which point in the right direction, but to formulate others should be a first priority of the Administration, far ahead of pleasing the Mayor of Cambridge.
A THIRD proposal often made is that students be given a larger voice in courses. On the most immediate level this idea takes the form of a demand for more discussion and fewer lectures. Lectures are dull, discussions are exciting, or so we hear. But it is only fitting that teachers speak and students listen, since the teachers aim to communicate some knowledge which they have and the students lack. If students are bored by this process, the fault is not so much with the teachers as with the lack of interest which the students bring to the course. Of course, some lecturers are more scintillating than others, but college students ought to be mature enough to cast aside surface defects and pay attention to the argument of the lectures. Still, it cannot be called maturity to study a sterile overspecialized subject; that should better be called docility. Students should avoid these subjects systematically, not seek to replace useless lectures about them with pointless discussions.
The principle that teachers, not students, should have the main voice can be applied more broadly to the questions of faculty hiring, concentration requirements, and reading lists. In each case teachers should have control; and, though student reaction may be appropriate in some cases, teachers should make the final decisions without regard to student pressure.
Students should abandon causes aiming to relieve them of the serious work which is necessary for a good education. Rather than seeking to make college life easier, they should try to eliminate barriers to learning.
For instance, it is time that Harvard reversed the current trend toward shorter library hours and curtailed services. Every penny that goes to build community housing should go to the library instead. The excellence of the University must derive from its people and facilities, not its soft heart, and there is no excuse for siphoning off money for extraneous projects at the expense of the urgent work of the University, which is education. Cuts in library staff should be restored, and the libraries should be open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as they are at other great universities.
In this case, as in others, students who understand the importance of education in a free society should encourage administrators not to give in to the demands of a few loud and unreflective types. Serious reforms for the University are in order, but they must improve education at Harvard instead of weakening it.