Education: The Real Issue
Ideological controversies obscure Harvard's true purpose.
I suspect, thought I do not know, that several of the columns on this page predict that the key issue of the coming semester will involve ideological confrontations of one sort or another. Although apolitical in theory, universities have become ever more welcoming to ideological concerns.
Now, where once was found a dedication to dispassionate, although not unimpassioned, pursuit of truth, one now discovers an all-pervading smog of unrecognized political presuppositions. Unsurprisingly, this shift of intellectual direction has provoked a corresponding shift of popular focus. On a politicized campus, ideological "controversies"--even when of tangential importance to students--easily capture public attention.
Nothing better illustrates this point than the furor provoked by Professor Harvey Mansfield's testimony for Colorado's Amendment Two. Uttered miles away from Harvard, and with little or no possibility of affecting Harvard undergraduates (as Harvard undergraduates), Mansfield's impieties struck an ideological nerve and became the biggest story of the semester.
By comparison, the decision to close down the Linguistics department passed swiftly through the College's collective consciousness. The differing receptions afforded these two issues demonstrates on a small scale a rule that holds true for campus events generally. If a Harvard professor debates gay rights, though he do it at the bottom of a Tasmanian mine shaft, it will attract more attention than any reform affecting undergraduate education.
This obsession with the political could not be more unfortunate. One can, I suppose, argue about the degree to which Harvard fulfills its political responsibilities. But Harvard's primary raison d'etre is not to further social justice, insure domestic tranquility or provide for the common defense. Rather, the College's job, or at least a significant part of it, lies in the education of undergraduates, and this, not some nebulous web of social responsibility, is the obligation which Harvard fails to fulfil most consistently and spectacularly.
The Core curriculum, which has assumed almost cult status as the perfectly useless system of academic requirements, is the most obvious, though by no means the only, example of Harvard's neglect of undergraduate education. Only at Harvard can one find requirements that usurp a quarter of an undergraduate course load without guaranteeing that any student will actual learn anything.
The Core's unique combination of tediousness and superficiality, however, can easily be matched by the sheer disdain for students which characterizes the teaching and organization of many introductory science courses. Some bad lectures are excusable--perhaps the world's greatest scientists are not the best explicators of basic material. Nevertheless, students paying $25,000 a year deserve better than to be kept waiting for three hours because their lab has only one mass spectrometer. They deserve more than lab TFs unaware of the course's syllabus and problem sets that routinely require knowledge of reactions not yet taught in lecture.
There are problems with Harvard directly traceable to ideological differences, but these are not among them. Indeed, it would be almost refreshing if students could hold some form of misguided idealism responsible for Harvard's flaws. But ideology isn't the problem. Departments that give teaching assignments to graduate students who can't speak English aren't motivated by some sort of bizarre linguistic pluralism. They simply don't care about students.
Thus, if any of my fellow columnists predict that some crisis of theory will be the "big issue" of the coming semester, they will, in one sense, be correct. The issue that captures the most attention will be ideologically charged.
Perhaps it will be another carefully directed impetuousity from Professor Mansfield. Perhaps an offensive speaker will be invited (we haven't hosted a Nation of Islam speaker for some time). Whatever issue around which the firestorm centers, it will likely have much less effect on the lives of undergraduates than would a decision to replace the Core with distribution requirements or mandate English proficiency for teaching fellows.
The most obvious problems with Harvard, the problems which should be the primary foci of discussion, are not ideological in scope, and do not always fit easily into the familiar clash of left and right. The attention we lavish on the political ensures that the "big" issue of the coming semester will also be the wrong one.
Ben Auspitz was Managing Editor of The Salient in 1993.