Remedy for an Ailing Ego

This is the second of two articles.

NOTHING THE DECLINE of General Education over the last decade. Dean Rosovsky five years ago designed a ploy to rescue Harvard's sagging prestige--and he succeeded. The Core Curriculum managed to resurrect the Harvard myth throughout higher education, even earning the accolades of a usually skpetical press: "a radical departure from established methods of undergrauate education" (The New York Times); "Not since 1945 had the academic world dared to devise a new formula for developing 'the educated man' " (The Washington Post). Even The New York Daily News was praising the Core as a "refreshing contrast to the sophomoric whims and caprices that marked the do-your-own-thing revolt on campuses in the '60s." For the time being, at least, Harvard's reputation is secure.

But eventually the media will catch on to what Harvard students know only too painfully already: that the Core is a superficial attempt to boost the Harvard ego and not the harbinger of a sincere commitment to undergraduate education. The Core's novelty will soon wear thin because it possesses the same defects as the General Education program it was designed to replace. In fact, in the five-year span from conception to birth, the Core has already managed to pass through stages startlingly reminiscent of Gen Ed's deterioration--a sort of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny.

Like its Gen Ed predecessor, begun in 1945 and now enjoying a quiet dotage, the Core has suffered from bureaucratic jostling and the turf-protecting impulse that accompanies any academic institution. By the time Rosovsky had made enough compromises to get the Faculty's vote, Harvard's "revolution in education" had degenerated into an amorphous mass containing few innovations or specifics. Eight newly established Faculty sub-committees would resolve the details over the coming year. No one else need worry.

Once the secret committee meetings had begun, however, the territorial instinct of individual Faculty members took over. Each professor pounced on Rosovsky's vague, loophole-ridden Core legislation, arguing that his own specialized field could not possibly be considered superflous in a liberal education. But they had little fear of being frozen out of the Core altogether because the Faculty had voted to allow 80 to 100 courses, even more than Gen Ed offered in any single year. In truth, this mulitiplicity belies Rosovsky's aim of providing a "solid and shared base of knowledge" to stem a growing tide of academic specialization and pre-professionalism.

The vagueness of the Core legislation permitted these committees to approve courses on topics catering to each professor's narrow specialty, rather than facing the challenge of devising broad foundation courses. So instead of eight to ten essential courses on the great works of literature, the history of Western civilization or the nature of scientific inquiry, the Core offers ten times that many classes on esoteric subjects ranging from the ridiculous ("Comedy and the Novel") to "The Sublime in America"; others, equally confined in scope, include "Nationalism, Religion and Politics in Central Eurasia," "Tuberculosis in the 19th Century," "The Development of the String Quartet," "Chivalric Romances of the Middle Ages" and "The Emancipation of the Jews."

ROSOVSKY'S JUSTIFICATION for the remoteness of these courses veils a bureaucratic stratagem for getting professors to teach them. In the generation since Harvard's first curriculum overhaul, the dean intones, man's knowledge has grown so vast that "there is just too much information" for any current course to use the survey approach implemented in 1945. The new Core course, in contrast, is meant to forsake breadth of scope in order to emphasize the various methodological perspectives on a given subject--"modes of thought" in the Core vocabulary.

But this is rather a thin deceit to cover the grim truth of Rosovsky's predicament, that few professors are willing to stray from their chosen academic niches. Indeed, the decline of Gen Ed in the last two decades testifies to the gradual disappearance of broad-based academicians willing to synthesize the range of material necessary to lead a survey course. The students, it seems, are not unaccompanied in their march toward specialization.

But instead of admitting and striving to counter this tendency, Rosovsky conceals it with the methodological dogma that although Western civilization traces back 2500 years, only in the last 30 have academicians faced "too much information" to attempt an overview of the whole. And though the emphasis on a plurality of perspectives should be applauded, as should the Core's innovation of many team-taught courses, it is hardly novel to set the subject matter in a contextual framework. Harvard ought to stress this approach in every course--not just the revolutionary Core courses.

While many of these new classes may prove to be fascinating electives, a smorgasbord of diverse and arcane courses does not an educated woman or man make. The Core has settled in snugle as little more than a 26-page supplement to the already voluminous (766-page) course catalogue. Despite the media hype, it appears that after a half-decade of task force reports, interdepartmental committees and Faculty votes, all that is left, as one professor puts it, is Rosovsky parading before academia and the press in an emperor's new clothes.

Before we write off the Core entirely, we must credit it with one accomplishment: focusing the attention of secondary schools across the country on the problem of undergraduate education. Rosovsky's offer to Core professors of semester leaves and course development funds--plus the ego gratification of participating in an educational "revolution"--provide Faculty a needed incentive to concern themselves with those who pay their salaries--the students.

But he must do more. To insure Harvard's reputation in years to come--not to mention his own--Rosovsky must demonstrate a real concern for undergraduate education. He should apply the spark now, while the spotlight is still on Harvard, and initiate reform at both the upper and lower extremes of Harvard's educational bureaucracy. As long as the highest level, tenuring, de-emphasizes teaching, the tendency will be for aspiring graduate students and assistant professors to do the same.

Although tenure decisions adhere to no exact criteria (instead following, in one administrator's words, a "common law"), all evidence, such as the recent decision not to promote four assistant History professors, points to the fact that the ad hoc tenure committee does not take teaching into account. One necessary reform is to increase undergraduate input into promotion decisions by including student letters of recommendation, CUE guide evaluations and course enrollment statistics in the dossier of each tenure-track candidate; Danforth Center videotapes of his teaching should also be required for his file.

DESCENDING TO THE bottom of the ivory-tower hierarchy, we meet the more tractable problem of coordinating sections in large lecture courses. The ever-dwindling availability of graduate students makes it more essential than ever that departments take responsibility for training their teaching fellows, may of whom may be familiar with only a fragment of the course material.

Here Social Analysis 10 (nee Economics 10) is the role model of a class whose designers have defined their course goals and mobilized section leaders to teach them. In group meetings before the fall semester, fellows discuss methods of teaching and receive a booklet to guide them during the term. As the semester progresses, the course staff videotapes each section twice and analyzes the instructor's performance, offering suggestions for improving his teaching. At the conclusion of each term, students complete an elaborate questionnaire assessing their section and the course as a whole. As a result, sections synchronize with lectures, work assignments are standardized throughout the course, and the dismal science becomes more palatable for another thousand undergraduates.

Every course can attain these standards, but only if each professor meets once a week with his section leaders and teaches one section himself or, alternatively, rotates through different sections. Every section should be videotaped at the Danforth Center, where any instructor, whether a professor or graduate student, can receive confidential advice on his teaching.

Greater concern for teaching will yield considerable side benefits as well. If the classroom and not just the lecture hall becomes a locus of learning, papers and class participation could determine a more substantial portion of the student's final grade. The whims of anonymous final exam-graders and the vicissitudes of test-taking would have less sway over the undergraduate; grades as a whole would better indicate his performance in the course. Because more students take make-up exams in courses where the final weighs heavily in the semester grade, as reported to the Faculty 18 months ago, de-emphasizing final-exam grades will reverse the epidemic of make-up tests. Thoughtful class participation and short, challenging papers will also obviate the rote memorization and regurgitation that now characterize so many final exams.

Next year's students will face these uphill struggles alone. Sidney Verba '53, professor of Government, chosen to replace outgoing Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Glen W. Bowersock '57, will be on sabbatical; because Rosovsky did not deem it necessary to appoint a temporary replacement, students will lack an administrative ally during the critical early stage of Core and tutorial legislation, a time when many educational reforms are just beginning to gather momentum. Deprived of their most valuable resource, students must assume even more initiative in calling for better teaching at Harvard: they must rise from spectators to actors. For only then, in a few years' time, might Rosovsky still be remembered as the man who ushered undergraduate education into a new age.