DIGGING THROUGH the fatter-than-ever course catalogue, the Humanities situation looks discouraging, at best. General Education is in a sad state of limbo, and the Humanities may be suffering the most. Dean Rosovsky's commission to reinvestigate undergraduate education should not simply look for remedies for the ills of an outdated system of General Education, but attempt to rebuild the entire structure that is presently in ruin.
General Education has ceased to function effectively. The framework set up for it in 1945 by the Harvard Committee's report, General Education in A Free Society [The Redbook], and modified in 1965 by the Doty Report, is no longer suited to existing intellectual, social and institutional conditions. No longer does General Education serve as the fundamental core curriculum that was originally intended. The broadly-based intellectual and "cultural experience that was available to students particularly freshmen and sophomores, twenty years ago is gone. And instead of being replaced by, an updated system adapted to the universally changing conditions (rising cultures, new social theories, a worsening economy) that have rendered the old system anachronistic, it has not been replaced at all. What has taken over is an almost random assortment, of increasingly specialized individual courses that appear to bear little relation to each other and form no unified whole.
Two of the six lower-level Humanities courses listed this year deal, respectively, with Portugal and the literature of Spanish-speaking nations. Twenty years ago there were also six lower-level Humanities courses. But rarely if ever was the material covered in each limited to a single nation, culture or epoch. In one year alone, one could find Hum 1. Humanism in the West; Hum 2. Epic and the Novel; Hum 3. Crisis and the Individual i] In Drama and Biography, ii] In History and Fiction; Hum 4. Good and Evil in Western Literature; Hum 5. Ideas of Man and the World in Western Thought; and Hum 6. The Interpretation of Literature. Although for the most part based on the now unacceptable assumption of the primacy of Western culture and civilization, each of these lower level Humanities courses promised exposure to a startlingly wide range of material. Such enormous breadth was surpassed only by upper level Humanities, courses such as Hum 115, Language, and Hum 134. Freedom and the Spirit of Heresy.
BY 1964, only four of the original lower-level Humanities courses remained. By 1968 there were only three. By 1972, only two. And those that had disappeared were not being replaced by courses of comparable stature.
A combination of factors encouraged this discouraging trend. Professors retired or left Harvard for personal reasons. Assistant professors, even those who have found time to offer large General Education courses, frequently do not receive tenure and leave, taking their courses with them. In his letter to the Faculty last October, Dean Rosovsky cited important factors that have altered the needs of both faculty and students, among them the recent exponential growth of knowledge, the expanded research function of the university, and ever-increasing preprofessionalism amongst students.
Unlike twenty or even ten years ago, the admissions offices are now admitting students with widely varied academic experiences in high school. Professors can no longer assume that most freshmen have reached a relatively consistent level of knowledge in certain fields by the time they come here. Not only, therefore, has a clear conception of what a core course ought to be become increasingly difficult to form; but a core curriculum that would be a logical continuation of the student body's secondary school education, is unthinkable.
Professors and administrators have not been alone in questioning the value, or even feasibility, of the traditional theory of education based upon a core curriculum. Back in 1966, a former Harvard proctor recently noted, general opposition to authority inspired students to question the value of certain long-established basic requirements. In 1968, the compulsory lower-level General Education requirement was abolished. Audiences in lower level courses shrank severely as a result. Students were demanding something new from their courses; they wanted something tangible, to get out and do something. Students were asking to be able to put their energies into something that would have a visible effect. Members of the faculty, it seems, responded negatively. Instead of re-evaluating their courses and reinvestigating the entire system at the very time when the problems reached crisis point, they took cover.
At a time when countries and cultures that previously had been viewed as insignificant were coming into international prominence and previously unknown philosophies and religions were finding acceptance, students found themselves unable to study current intellectual and sociological trends. Yet professors, rather than face the challenge of re-examining their own values in order to teach new ideas, turned back to their specialties. Instead of renovating their courses and re-examining traditional analyses of, for example, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare and Freud, and reinvestigating the basis of civilization and culture when accepted theories were coming under fire, there was a general retreat from the mass of angry, frustrated students. Although the consistently popular professors continued to lecture to large audiences, they were not being followed by a younger generation that would take their places when they left. The risks seemed too great. In an interview with The Crimson several months ago, Robert J. Kiely, professor of English, said that he, along with any number of other faculty members, would be very hesitant to offer a broad General Education course, simply because he would have no way of knowing who would be at what level, who would want what.
The Committee on General Education has been forced to stand by and watch the program's decline. With no power either to initiate courses or make appointments, the only action it can take is "to plead, cajole and beg" said Kiely, chairman of the committee. It is entirely dependent upon the initiative of a Faculty that should have a clear idea of what General Education is and is meant to be. In the recent past the committee has been unable to reflect, as it ideally should, the visions of the Faculty; for the Faculty has been unable to form its own vision of a program of General Education. Until some real power is put in the hands of the committee, any program of positive reconstruction seems unlikely.
Traditionally, two of Harvard's major educational goals have been, as Dean Rosovsky said in his letter, a "broad acquaintance with the major areas of knowledge" and a "detailed knowledge of a single subject." Such goals have, perhaps, an eternal educational validity almost in spite of change. Even now, when the second is becoming increasingly important, the first is still invaluable, for without a broad perspective, a single area of detailed knowledge can only exist in a vacuum. And basically, without a broadly based foundation of general knowledge, an informed decision concerning a field of concentration is impossible.
WHILE RECENTLY the tendency in the Harvard curriculum has been towards an increased number of options and a reduced number of requirements, it seems not only sad but unfair that a once so inspiring General Education program has fallen into such a severe state of disrepair. Although the abolition of restrictive requirements was a necessary and popular change, the subsequent loss of any opportunities even to take broad lower level courses voluntarily has been an unfortunate consequence. Furthermore, it was unnecessary. Increased specialization need not and must never exclude the opportunity for exposure to the wider foundations upon which detailed knowledge has always been, and should always be based.