Cloudy Discourses


THERE'S A MYTH at Harvard that undergraduates are ignored by departments and faculty members because graduate students are getting all the attention. In the Philosophy Department though, even the graduate students are ignored. Philosophy grad students are very low on faculty members' list of priorities: research, writing, coordinating national philosophy clubs, organizing conferences, editing journals--all come before students. One can imagine where undergraduates stand, then.

The senior faculty of the Philosophy Department includes some of the best minds in modern philosophy--each was hired because of a recognized pre-eminence in his part of the field. While this does a great deal for the prestige of the department among philosophy connoisseurs, it does little for the education of undergraduates and graduate students. The faculty is the product of a hiring policy which searches for the "best scholar in the world" for each position. Since there is a limited number of superstars in a field such as philosophy, this policy necessarily restricts the applicant pool. As a result, philosophy has unfilled positions that are unlikely to be filled in the near future. Every year, the department reportedly sends letters to a few chosen experts inviting them to apply for positions here. And every year, the few experts here receive offers from some of the other top graduate programs around the country. They all think about the offers, they all turn them down, and meanwhile the positions here remain open. As professors reach the retirement age, more positions will soon be opening up. Sooner or later. Harvard will have to settle for the "almost-best" in the nation, or the department will dwindle away to nothing.

Very few of the concentrators here seem satisfied with what is offered to them. Course selection is limited and incomplete. The biggest problem is that the luminaries of the department are such experts in their small fields, so involved in their research, that none of them is willing to teach historical survey courses or introductions, or even generalize about their field. This gap has traditionally been filled by making the non-credit tutorials treat an historical author--more a formal solution than a real one, as the non-credit courses rarely cover more than one book, and that in a rather shallow manner. Next year the tutorials will be for half-credit--a welcome change, but still unlikely to fill the need for a general background to philosophical study.

Too many of the senior faculty members seem unable to relate to beginners in the field. One professor is known to spend hours explaining elementary logic (a logic course is required for concentrators) and then gloss over complex metaphysical concepts.

Graduate students grade papers and exams, and often there are no sections, so the professor can be totally oblivious to the class around him. He also can lecture practically off the top of his head, sticking to material that relates to his own carefully-fashioned nook of knowledge.

One ironic result of a department such as this is that it is now just about the only philosophy program in the country whose graduates can find jobs after completing their degrees. Philosophy jobs are hard to come by, but Harvard graduates are finding them. Harvard graduates are finding them. Harvard's reputation for excellence seems to nourish itself regardless of the hollowness at the core. The prestige of having studied under a Harvard Heavy at Harvard apparently carries more weight than the reality of an incomplete and frustrating education.