The Books


Courses of Instruction

Harvard University;

Rules Relating to College Studies

[Vol. I, General Academic Rules; Vol. II, Fields of Concentration]

Harvard University;

The Freshman Register

Harvard Yearbook Publications;

...on the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, "background" quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic. --Erich Auerbach

EACH IN its peculiar, "problematic" way, these three books portray a narrowly circumscribed portion of a large, complex world. One is no less a catalogue raisonne of human knowledge; another is an improbably tangled set of rules or bylaws; and the third is a sort of portrait gallery, with literally hundreds of faces staring off its pages. For all their diversity--and it is hard to imagine how three literary works could be more generically dissimilar--Courses of Instruction, Rules Relating and the Freshman Register share an odd way of looking at what is, after all, a very real Harvard College. They are unevenly illuminated, often fragmentary and obscure, always episodic and conventionalized--they exemplify perfectly, Auerbach would say, representational techniques perfected for the first and last time in the Old Testament.

But these publications, which have appeared in slightly altered form every September for many years, are more than neutral representations of various aspects of Harvard. It is impossible to ignore their special, didactic purposes--purposes only faintly hinted at in the texts themselves. Early in Rules Relating, an entire page is devoted to this brief statement

Each undergraduate is expected to be familiar with the contents of this booklet and the Handbook of Undergraduate Regulations.

What better example of the "suggestive influence of the unexpressed"? In form, this statement is identical to the thousands of thinly disguised imperatives that follow, each heavy with the weight of the unsaid: "In addition, every undergraduate must satisfy the requirements of an approved field of concentration"; "A student will be promoted at the end of any term upon the basis of total final credits accumulated"; "A student in an honors program may have his work judged unworthy of honors in the field, but worthy of a degree."

EQUALLY SUGGESTIVE is the spurious reference to the Handbook of Undergraduate Regulations. Undergraduates receive such a booklet, it is true, four times, in their September registration envelopes, but few still have it in their possession by November, and virtually none is familiar with its contents. Nor is there anyone, apparently, who actually "expects" them to be--the passive voice, here as throughout Rules Relating conceals a pseudonymous or perhaps shadowy, Kafkaesque figures than those lurking among the pages of this small handbook, here surfacing as "the Senior Tutor," there as "the Administrative Board," but always making their presence felt.

In contrast, the characters in the Freshman Register seem, at first glance, to be clearly in the foreground. The invisible bureaucrats and administrators of Rules Relating had neither faces nor identities; this slim volume provides both, for nearly 1500 freshmen. And as much as Rules Relating and Courses of Instruction, this is a book with a purpose, a function that far outweighs its stylistic merits. Given, say, the name of a freshman, one can quickly determine where he lives, where he prepped and what field he intends to concentrate his college studies, and one can also get a reasonable idea of what he looks like. Given a face, the task takes on new dimensions, however. The alphabetical organization of this book tends to undermine its most popular use: many are the freshmen who, catching a brief glimpse of some face in the Union lunch line, will peruse the Register for hours in search of a name or (with the help of the Student Directory to be published in October) a telephone number. Perhaps it is time for the editors of the Register to consider a new system of organization, perhaps various facial features--chin curvature, nose length, or the like.

THERE ARE OTHER WAYS to use the Freshman Register. Some have tried leafing through it as a way to get dates (hence the appellation, now rarely heard, "Meatbook"). There are those who feel that asking people out on the basis of their photograph, hometown and field of concentration shows an insensitivity to local mores and customs, but the fact remains that some studious men at Harvard never need to be introduced to a woman in their class.

The appearance of orderliness in the pages of the Register and the abstract, highly distilled information it provides give it a simplicity that is its greatest flaw. And yet there are hints that beneath the Freshman Register's tranquil, even complacent surface lies a conception of Harvard that is neither simple nor static. It is possible to spend hours staring at tiny representations of people one knows--representations that already belong to the past, photographs, concentrations, sometimes even names hopelessly out of date. What blasted hopes are hinted at by the obsolete ambitions expressed here to major in such fields as Law, Natural Sciences or Comparative Literature? One senior will soon acquire her seventh Register, completing a set that includes in its scope everyone who attended Harvard during her four-year tenure, and conclusively giving the lie to the common view that the Register conveys no sense of Harvard as flux and continuity.

Of necessity, however, this collection of photographs lacks the depth and the linguistic intrigue of Rules Relating and, even more so, Courses of Instruction. The latter presents an ambitious, systematic cross-section of all human experience. "The Meaning of Life" (Philosophy 10) is no longer to be found here, but there are still entries on such indispensable aspects of life as food ("Human Nutrition"), language ("Language"), the weather ("The Atmosphere, the Oceans and World Views It"), and accounting ("Financial Accounting"). And these commonplaces are only the beginning--this volume holds the key to the foreign and the arcane as well: covering spaces, manifolds, simplicial and CW complexes, Gibbs states, fibre bundles, spectral sequences, saturated structures, and totally transcendental theories, all within the space of a few pages.

Courses of Instruction, like the world it portrays, changes little from year to year, but in one respect the 1975-1976 edition embodies a near-revolutionary change. Professors and lecturers alike are listed by name only, Oscar Handlin (Pforzheimer University Professor) taking his place beside Orest M. Subtelny (Lecturer on History) without the distinction of his title. This move towards egalitarianism in the faculty has been loudly deplored by a number of senior professors who worked hard for tenure, and may be reconsidered in time for next year's edition.

COURSES OF INSTRUCTION depicts a world safely ruled by reason. a world where knowledge and order prevail over the alien and the unknowable. The most trivial-seeming remarks in this catalogue suggest the existence of a firm underlying logic. A note appended to a course in art history--"Enrollment: Limited to 390"--must be either unthinkably arbitrary, or the visible part of a much larger, perfectly rational order.

Even the language of this book, like that of Rules Relating, is most rational when it seems most unreal. A course entitled "Sound and Light: Mass Telecommunications as an Avenue to Civilized Society" has this note following its description:

Sections develop case studies by adducing firsthand evidence and primary source research.

This sort of lengthy euphemism--twelve words where the more mundane "sections watch television" would do as well--is characteristic of Courses of Instruction. And, no less so, of Rules Relating. Both volumes are filled with prohibitions that "ordinarily" apply--"ordinarily" meaning that the prohibition is customarily waived for those willing to endure a bit of red tape.

The world of these volumes is both sane and sinister in the tradition of Kafka. Rules Relating offers this scenario:

Any student who becomes ill during an examination should report the illness to the proctor. The proctor will have the student escorted to the University Health Services, where the student will be kept incommunicado until able to resume the examination for the remainder of the examination time to which he is entitled.

It is a world of knowledge and uncertainty. These books are published to explain, by parts, Harvard College--to cast light where otherwise there would be darkness. But, like the Old Testament, their light is fragmentary and uneven, ambiguous and problematic; and like all literature, they help create the shadowy world they describe.