Shopping for an Education

“Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.”

— Daniel 12:4

This year’s rise and subsequent suspension of the idea of course preregistration teaches many lessons. One is surely that students aren’t fooled by Orwellian Newspeak. They detected inside the candy-coated “Early Course Selection” the outlines of early course exclusion, which became more visible in the final proposal’s requirement of the instructor’s permission to add a course even during the first week of classes.

A deeper lesson of the preregistration controversy is to distinguish educational ends from means. The principal objective of preregistration was the prediction of course enrollments, and with that understood, better alternatives could be considered.

The first public mention of preregistration was last August, in a pamphlet published by GSAS. Thus the driving force behind preregistration was the important issue of employment security for graduate students. Improved undergraduate advising was an afterthought, convenient for awhile but awkwardly abandoned when it was agreed that other methods might be used for predicting enrollments.

By the time the debate ended, a great many sensible things had been said about the educational disadvantages of preregistration. But preregistration was a bad idea also because it wouldn’t work as a predictor of course enrollments. Our registrar so advised the deans last summer, based on her prior experience as registrar at two schools with preregistration, Boston University and the University of Arizona. Preregistration is a useful method for allocating scarce enrollment slots where many courses have caps. But it does not produce good results if enrollments are open, unless students are not allowed to change courses. In any case, without a clearer picture of the magnitude of the problem—how bad are current enrollment estimates?—it would have been hard to know if preregistration had improved matters.

Another lesson of the preregistration debacle is to remember Harvard history, because so little now happens at Harvard for the first time. Ever since University President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, first instituted that “Free Elective” system in the 1860s that allowed students choice in their class selection, professors have been complaining about students “shopping” their lectures. After several failed proposals to curb the phenomenon, a preregistration system was put in place for a few decades in the early 20th century but was finally abandoned in 1954, when the Faculty acknowledged that it didn’t work. In the words of a report from 1949, “preliminary registration is of little use as an indication of enrollment in the Fall since students make extensive changes in their final registration, and does not succeed in making students think seriously about their future programs, being aware of the opportunity to change their minds later.” Here, in one sentence from more than 50 years ago, based on extensive experiential evidence, we have both a definitive dismissal of the justifications for the recent preregistration proposal, and proof that those who ignore our history are doomed to repeat it.

The end of course shopping was clearly visible in the background of the preregistration drama this year. Official pronouncements stated that the end of shopping was not the objective, but most of the faculty conversations to which I was party focused less on predicting enrollments than on ending shopping. It was this ambivalence about goals that led to student mistrust of the proposal. Ultimately strong objections from several professors in the March Faculty meeting caused the proposal to be shelved, even though most faculty would probably have preferred that shopping be eliminated.

Today, as 100 years ago, many faculty express indignation about shoppers, as though they think, “I am a Harvard professor. I am not a peach or a loaf of bread, to be picked up, squeezed, sniffed, and put back.” But until this year’s controversies reminded us of its importance, shopping was largely taken for granted here. I myself never thought about it much as a student or a faculty member until a graduate student advisee from Senegal came to my office some years ago in great distress after his first Harvard class, which was my first lecture of the year. In the French system in which he had been educated it would have been almost a capital crime for any student to do what he had witnessed dozens doing in my class. “Welcome to America,” I remember telling him at the time, “where we shop for everything.” He recently told me, “It was big cultural shock for me to see students sleeping, eating, roller skating, with their bike in class. I almost left to go back to my country. I should say this, after being in the U.S. for now 10 years. Harvard has given me really the guts to believe in myself, to make my own decision...on what I would like to be now and in the future.”

The great irony of the near rebirth of preregistration had a miniature irony within it. After the heated faculty denunciation of preregistration in the March meeting, one item remained on the agenda. The next presenter, however, had to stand patiently at the microphone, as many faculty who had come for the preregistration debate shuffled noisily out of their chairs and left the room, unwilling to stay for 10 more minutes until the adjournment hour. Apparently voting with their feet is acceptable behavior for faculty members.

Now it seems to me inevitable that some courses are going to be more popular than others and will draw larger enrollments. Yet a good deal of “big courses are bad courses” rhetoric is being heard in the context of the curricular review, which goes hand in hand with the “students should not pick courses by shopping” rhetoric. One wonders what utopian world would hold no educational benefit from shopping, and hence no student pressure to retain shopping, and would also have no big courses.

We are in a morally and economically peculiar place about course enrollments. Institutionally we support catalog shopping, by printing, at considerable expense, both the Courses of Instruction and the CUE Guide, complete with instructor ratings. But live shopping is frowned upon, in spite of the familiarity we all have with the differences between catalog descriptions and the real products. The argument that one can’t begin teaching for a week because of shopping period seems odd, given that it is the instructor and not the student who is giving the lectures, assigning the homework and recording the grades. Shopping is not and has never been a valid excuse for negligence.

The main reason large courses are large is that a lot of students want to take them, for sensible reasons including educational quality and appeal of the subject matter. Complaints about large courses because they are impersonal are much less bitter than complaints because students were unable to get into them. And what is wrong with Moral Reasoning 22: “Justice” being so much larger than Moral Reasoning 40: “Confucian Humanism”? The right response to the size of Justice is not to be embarrassed, but to be proud, and to hire more Sandels and to provide some incentives for others to be as good at teaching and as appealing in their choice of subject matter. Strangely, the curriculum is determined almost entirely by what faculty feel comfortable teaching rather than by what students want to learn. It is very hard to force Harvard faculty out of their comfort zone, even to teach introductory or survey courses.

I cannot think of another marketplace where the vendors rather than the consumers so determine what product is sold, or where selling a lot of product is viewed as a negative. If professors were retail stores, many of us would have gone out of business long ago. But we are almost invulnerable to negative consequences of small enrollments, and are even encouraged to teach small courses rather than large ones.

Certainly course enrollments at Harvard should not be an unfettered free market. We need requirements in order to meet our educational goals. We do not want competition between courses based on price, or on grading, or on workload. And some courses, Akkadian 153: “Old Akkadian” for example, we want to teach because we are agents of cultural preservation, not because they will ever interest many students.

But it is not a terrible idea for faculty to take pride in drawing a lot of students, and perhaps even to be punished on occasion if they draw too few and be rewarded—rather than viewed with suspicion—if they draw many. Faculty might even be given incentives to evangelize for their subject, not just to take whoever comes and to blame the admissions office if there are too few takers.

Our students are our basic reason for being in business at all. We who teach at Harvard have the privilege of a captive audience of eager, bright and intellectually engaged customers, and while we shouldn’t pander to their every fleeting taste, we do have a responsibility to give them a menu that is varied, nourishing and delicious. Our faculty egos can handle a little squeezing and sniffing, if that is the cost of just a little bit of the competition which in every other marketplace is held to improve quality. If we leave our customers with the deep happiness of learning well and of understanding the importance of what they have learned, they will leave Harvard better educated to make a difference in the world, and will support Harvard’s mission in the future so that the generations that follow them here can learn as they did.

Harry R. Lewis ’68 is McKay professor of computer science and dean of Harvard College. At the end of June his deanship will end and he will become Harvard College Professor. He is grateful to Maier Professor of Political Science Benjamin M. Friedman for the lesson from scripture.