For Whom the Bell Tells

Brass Tacks

HARVARD SOCIOLOGIST Daniel Bell tells of trying to drum up funding for a 50-person commission to predict how society would change by the year 2000. He appealed to and eventually received financial support from the Ford Foundation in 1964, but not before undergoing some questioning.

The foundation's president told Bell he would give him the money on the condition that he make one great prediction for the future. Bell's single prediction: that there would be presidential elections in the U.S. in 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976...and, well...up through and beyond the year 2000.

Bell related this anecdote Wednesday in the introductory lecture for his course "Political Sociology," Sociology 129. Although it was registration day and the first day of "shopping" for classes, he did not allow several students to listen to his lecture because they arrived after he had started speaking. He complained that such interruptions interfere with his lecturing, in which he enters what he calls a "semitrance" state. He was more concerned with maintaining his trance than with teaching--the ostensible purpose of his lecture.

Political sociology is, according to Bell, the study of how the extra-political relates to politics. Institutional stability--such as the regularity of American presidential elections--is one component of this.

Bell's unbridled faith in institutional stability is ironic in light of his disregard for the customs of this institution, Harvard University. Not only did he disregard the principles of the long-established shopping period, he also repudiated students' intellectual curiosity for selfish reasons.

I was not one of the students Bell turned away, but I was offended by his attitude and treatment of students. My reaction was an emotional one: to leave the class obtrusively, so that Professor Bell would know I was upset, after he had turned away the third or fourth student. Afterwards, I wished I'd explained my action and roused others to leave in protest with me. I'm sure many would have.

BELL'S ATTITUDE UNDERMINES the very foundation of a center of learning: mutual respect between teachers and students, as thinkers and as human beings. Bell would argue that it was the tardy students who undermined this trust, by interrupting the lecture. Such interruptions do disrupt the learning process; they are one disadvantage of the shopping system. They must be weighed, however, against the merits of the system--the most important being that it encourages intellectual exploration.

The desirability of a shopping period is a reflection of the wealth of interesting courses available at Harvard and the unfortunate necessity of choosing only four or five. A dilemma which, in turn, reflects the broad intellectual curiosity and expertise of the students and professors here.

Inevitably, students will want to hear more than one or even two courses meeting at the same hour and will plan to go late to one. And it is a testament to the "institutional stability" of the shopping system that the overwhelming majority of professors respect this interruption and the accompanying chaos of the first few class meetings.

By turning students away, with an authoritarian, "I'm sorry, you'll have to leave. I'm not allowing latecomers," Professor Bell says quite clearly that it is his position at the podium which is important to him, not teaching.

Sure, a professor has the right to do as he wishes in his classroom. If he wishes to humiliate students or refuse them the benefit of his wisdom, he may do so, probably without University admonition.

He shouldn't be shocked, however, if he's eventually thought of more as a prima donna than a professor. He may even end up lecturing to an empty room in William James. But, then again, he probably wouldn't mind.