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The suggestion advanced in the current number of the Advocate to overcome undergraduate academic inertia by raising the scholastic standard in the College, comes at a time when thoughtful constructive criticism is badly needed. American university education is going through a critical period and here at Harvard, in particular careful handling is necessary to avoid on one side the danger of "swamping" from overcrowding,--and on the other the menace of overpaternalism. The College cannot afford to become merely a pleasant place to spend four effortless years nor can it restrict itself to the requirements of an overgrown high school.
To keep the proper balance the "dead-wood" must be eliminated, the interest in scholarship maintained and, as the writer in the Advocate aptly expresses it, a spirit of inquisitiveness revived. His plan to raise the requirements for an A.B. degree to four Bs in a total of sixteen courses that a man must pass, with no more than two Ds, and an allowance for failure of one whole course, undoubtedly would prune effectually if not entirely remove the "deadwood". But it is very doubtful whether the mental growth of the remainder would be permanently stimulated. Men would have to get better marks to stay in college, but that would not necessarily make of them better scholars in the true sense of the word. A rise in the general level of prices leaves the value of each commodity unchanged.
There is, of course, a sharp distinction, to be made between scholarship and marks. One of the most frequent comments made by European professors contrasting American university education with that of England or the Continent is the overemphasis put by Americans on the importance of marks. Scholarship cannot be measured to fit into convenient pigeonholes marked A or C. The ineffectiveness of the standard is obvious under present conditions. A. D. in one course may be worth more to a man than a B in another. Raising the standard would change the hunt for "snap Cs" to one for "snap Bs" without lessening the present exaggerated position of marks sought for their own sake.
The needed change in attitude, the growth of a "spirit of inquisitiveness", cannot be brought about by artificial stimulation from above. Raising the requirements would be a mechanical external remedy for an internal defect.
An incentive for scholarship must be developed, couched in such terms that the average undergraduate,--the "high-average" of the Advocate,--will be attracted. Such a development will be slow because it involves not an official change of standard, accomplished like a ukase with a stroke of the pen, but the gradual shifting of some six hundred individual points-of-view. When first established, the free elective system seemed the magic formula which was going to bring about this composite metamorphosis, but the abuses which crept in with this formula made it evident that some revision was necessary. The present system of regulated choice of electives, substituted instead, has not so far accomplished the desired change, but, grafted to it the tutorial system, still too new to be fairly judged, holds the greatest promise for the future. There will always be the "lame duck" referred to in the Advocate as well as the "high-average" student, and the tutor is the one representative of organized scholarhood who can go among both with any reasonable chance of success.
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