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Believes That Recent Developments Have Made University Suitable for Formation of Groups


The following discussion of the recently published report of the Student Council Committee on Education was written for the Alumni Bulletin by O. B. Roberts '86. Mr. Roberts picks the question of subdividing Harvard into smaller colleges as the central theme of his article, and points out several previously unmentioned ways in which Harvard can benefit by the English system.

Among other suggestions he advances the establishment of groups analogous to the English 'pass' and 'honors' divisions. He also agrees with the Committee's opinion that academic residence is an essential part of membership in the proposed smaller college groups.

Mr. Roberts further points out that the recent physical development of Harvard has been adaptable to a ready subdivision of the College. The complete article follows:

The suggestion made by the Student Council Committee on Education that the overgrown Harvard undergraduate body might with advantage be divided into groups analgous to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge is worthy of serious consideration by the graduates who must have been well aware that the growth of the College during the last 25 years has been too rapid to permit satisfactory internal adjustments to keep pace.

The formerly-existing solidarity of the class has been so far diffused that the class numeral has nearly ceased to signify anything but a date of graduation, the old student-room life has all but disappeared, and the club table, whether in Memorial or a private boarding house, is in large part superseded by the cafeteria, save for a necessarily limited number of student clubs. In many respects, doubtless, Harvard today offers more to the undergraduate than in the eighties, but as a price of growth has lost some of the values which smaller colleges have preserved.

Scope of Contacts Restricted

Many conversations with my sons and their Harvard classmates have convinced me that the overgrowth in undergraduate numbers has had the effect of restricting, rather than widening, the scope of useful and stimulating social contacts; this in spite of the Freshman dormitories.

Naturally and not unreasonably, we want Harvard men to "have their cake and eat it too," to restore if possible the social wholesomeness of the smaller college, while accepting and enjoying the advantages of the greater. I believe that all Harvard graduates, and especially those who lived their college life under the old conditions, will regard such a combination of academic characteristics as highly desirable, and will agree that, if the example furnished by the collegiate units at Oxford and Cambridge is encouraging, it should be followed with such departures as differences between American and English environment render inevitable and desirable.

Groups Aid Tutorial System

The tutorial system of education has been highly perfected in the English universities largely because of the social and academic compactness of the colleges, and there is strong reason to expect that division of Harvard undergraduates into college groups would make it easier to administer the tutorial system and increase its values to the students.

The basis of value inherent in the collegiate grouping and tutorial staffs in Oxford or Cambridge may fairly be summed up as personal contact, interest, and reaction. The head, tutors, and undergraduates are all members of one body. In the opinion of the late Dr. Arthur L. Smith, Master of Balliol, in most instances the tutor knows the undergraduate more intimately and thoroughly than do even his parents.

The management of an English college seems, to an American, characterized by absence of system, of hard and fast rule. Discipline, where required, is administered by admonition, by persuasion or pressure, to suit the individual case. And with respect to instruction and education, the personal element predominates, especially in the training of undergraduates who are reading for honors. In most English university colleges there are two classes of students, the "honors" men and "pass" men. Here again, a reasonable elasticity, a recognition of the personal inclinations, needs, and capacities of the undergraduate, is the governing principle.

The curriculum of the "pass" man is designed to give him a respectable quantum of liberal information, that of the "honors" man, to develop his maximum power of original and constructive thinking. While both classes of students come in contact with and are guided by the tutors, the "honors" men meet their tutors much more frequently and intimately than the "pass" man.

But, it should be borne in mind, there is no invidious distinction between a pass man and an honors man. Each presumably is receiving the academic training best suited to his character, personality, and inclinations. There is a difference of opinion among the Oxford and Cambridge teachers in regard to the two educational schemes; some, like the late Master of Balliol, holding a stout brief for the "honors" system exclusively, others, like Sir Joseph J. Thompson, Master of Trinity, Cambridge, believing a mixture of the two classes of undergraduates to be more wholesome for all concerned.

The latter, by the way, alluding to the large number of Trinity men who have achieved distinction in public life, told me that most of these had been pass men, whereas their invaluable private secretaries had been honors men, and that neither group could by any possibility have adequately performed the functions of the other.

Similar System Suggested

This suggests that a similar elasticity of system and administration might be adopted with signal advantages at Harvard, provided the present college mass were to be divided into groups small enough to establish complete mutual personal contact and understanding between students and teachers. Moreover, there is no reason why some such college groups, like Balliol at Oxford or Kings at Cambridge, should not constitute themselves wholly on the "honors" system, and thus demonstrate their thesis for the encouragement or warning, of other colleges.

Obviously, the suggested subdivision would, if carried into effect, greatly facilitate intelligent selection of candidates for admission; limitation of numbers, already imposed at Harvard, enforces selection, and surely any measure which will make equitable selection easier than it can be at present is to be advocated. The foregoing considerations relate chiefly to educational and disciplinary administration and therefore may only remotely appeal to Harvard men at large.

But other aspects of student life in Oxford and Cambridge, which may more directly interest Harvard men, and which I have had opportunities of observing, strengthen my opinion that an establishment of resident student groups at Harvard, analogous to the English colleges, will restore to the undergraduates all the opportunities for social contacts, foundations of lasting friendships, and mutual intellectual stimulus which the men of my generation enjoyed in full measure and which the smaller colleges offer today. Even in the larger English colleges, like Christchurch at Oxford, and Trinity at Cambridge, mutual acquaintance extends over the whole undergraduate body, and each student can claim a relatively large number of his fellows as intimate friends.

Whole College Are Friends

All become imbued with the spirit of the college, which is as real and potent as it is indefinable. The achievement of one who wins a "double first" in the university examinations is a triumph shared by the whole college with as much enthusiasm as that of the athlete who wins the "blue". There prevails also a generous appreciation of any degree of merit manifested by a member of the college, and an equally wholesome willingness to make allowances for aberrant peculiarities, provided these do not conflict too sharply with

In short, I found in the Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates a practice of taking and generously judging, each according to his merit as a man, which approaches closely to the ideal of social attitude and conduct, and I believe that the compact solidarity of the college is responsible for this whole-some condition. I am of opinion, therefore, that there exists a strong case for dividing the Harvard undergraduate body into compact and wieldy groups, and, by necessary implication, making academic residence, so far as possible, a condition of membership in a college or group.

If the graduates of Harvard will observe how the recent additions to dormitories have been grouped with the older buildings, they will perceive that under the far-seeing leadership of President Lowell the college dwellings are already physically adaptable to college groups. The trend of thought among the undergraduates, who are intimately in contact with the social conditions now prevailing, as shown by the report of the Student Committee, further encourages the hope and expectation that Harvard will soon progress to a stage where the advantages to the student, of a small college, can be enjoyed in full together with those of the large and cosmopolitan university

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