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It is, of course, impossible not to be in sympathy with President Conant's very evident ideal of making Harvard the best educational institution of its kind in the country. A cardinal point of that policy is the gradual collection of men equally gifted in research, graduate teaching, and undergraduate instruction, Undoubtedly the theory is a golden mean, its application may well be another story.
To sprinkle the ideal with a little coarse sand of realism seems, in a very real sense, unforgivable, but past experience, confirmed in some measure by recent appointments, proves that it is possible to get this happy combination of proficiencies only in the isolated instance. Experience has shown that if the teacher-scholar fulfills his function ably in two out of three departments, he is a relatively happy choice; further, that today the result of this policy is to attract men who are capable research scholars and to a lesser degree, able graduate teachers, but not capable instructors of undergraduates.
The student who comes to Harvard is convinced that this college offers the best education there is. He pays for the privilege of entering by passing high entrance examinations, later by a considerable expenditure of effort, by tuition, and high living costs. There is, however, a substantial, if not entirely vocal body of student opinion which denies Harvard's superiority as an undergraduate institution. These students wonder if the College will ever again see a Bliss Perry or a Charles Townsend Copeland, and whether the educational ideas of Harvard are not being transformed into a pattern which may eventually resemble that of the Carnegie Foundation.
Projected against this background, the panorama of departmental life becomes more understandable. Although the Physics Department by no means stands alone, it provides an excellent illustration. It numbers among its faculty some of the bright lights of the physicist's world; it's pains-taking investigation and teaching of graduate students bear the hall-mark of authority.
The undergraduate side of the picture, however, shows no predominance of rosy tints. Although the lecturing in the three elementary courses, for example, is regarded with considerable favor, students believe that section men, in many cases, are unequal to their assignments. As a further indication of the lack of fundamental "grounding" in the subject, the percentage figures of the students attending tutoring schools last year ran well above average in each of the elementary courses. It is especially significant as an indication of a trend, rather than as a particular case, that in one elementary course in which a brilliant research man and capable graduate teacher temporarily assumed the lecturing duties, the number of tutoring school applicants sky-rocketed to a figure representing a quarter of the total enrollment.
Further, there seems to be a real stratification within the Department. It is possible to receive adequate instruction from the professors, who are relatively secure in their position and enjoy qualified independence. But the instructors and tutors, concentrators believe, are, by and large, unable or unwilling to fulfill that function which their title suggests. Back of this generality lies the crucial fact that the young men of the Department must drive themselves unceasingly toward goals in research if they wish to be reappointed. The type of student attracted to Physics, even more than the general run, is seriously intent upon doing more than merely scratching the intellectual topsoil of his subject. It is equally obvious that the possibility of thorough cultivation fades away if the tutors' and instructors' energy is devoted almost exclusively to research.
According to persistent critics, the maladies of the Department are the same as those which afflict, to greater or lesser degree, the whole college organism. Feasible combinations of abilities seem to be double-decked at best, and the real "triple-threat" man as rare as an autumnal leaf in spring. Potentially the choice may seem ideal, but in actual experience limiting factors, such as the amount of the instructor's time, the sum of his energy, and the direction of his main interest prove almost insuperable. The fear, simply expressed, is that the tide is running strongly away from excellent teaching and toward research; further, and even more serious, that teaching is no longer regarded as being truly creative in the same sense as scholarly investigation. Charges of this grave nature, often ably and intelligently supported, suggest a re-examination of the College as an entity in the University life.
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