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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

THE EPIC OF AMERICA

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Incorporated in President Conant's latest report to the Board of Overseers-a statement which surveys the Tercentenary, the Conference of scholars held in connection with it, the University Professorships, the National Scholarships, and the Teacher's Oath, among many other vital matters-is a novel and pertinent suggestion, the organization of the extra-curricular study of American history. The purpose, foreshadowed in the Tercentenary address, is to "find the principle that is needed to unify our liberal arts tradition and mold it to suit our age", "the common denominator among educated men which would enable them to face the future" with real breadth of vision. It is a fine ideal, carrying with it a willingness to experiment beyond present educational bounds and a determination to offer more and more to students.

The plan is, of course, worked out on a purely voluntary basis, and is especially directed toward concentrators in fields other than American history, literature, or philosophy. Its goal is the breaking open of the hard, self-sufficient nuggets of specialized knowledge, and correlating them with the main streams of life. The thought is a variation on a familiar theme; the chord has been struck by President Conant time and time again. It is, today, most concretely expressed in the University Professorships which require men without pigeon-holed ideas but with great synthesizing powers.

A catholic and philosophy inquiry into American history, including the cultural, scientific, social and economic aspects, was chosen because it most nearly approximated the ideal-that of giving students the opportunity to grasp what are or should be the fundamental realities of contemporary society and their evolution from the past. A specific illustration is the current discussion of the Supreme Court, the misinformation expressed and the lack of understanding shown by partisans on both sides. Yet the question is as pertinent and as closely related to any individual as the memorandum on his office desk or the test tube in his laboratory. The new plan attempts to give the student not only the ability to live in the past to some extent, but also better equipment to think and act in the present because of a larger perspective.

As for the details of the plan, they will provide many possibilities for experimentation. For one thing, the selection of books may be stimulating and varied, but must never be overburdensome in number or recondite in treatment. Again, any examinations will, necessarily, be on a comprehensive plane; they might well pose unusual questions which will stir the creative brain cells rather more than memory. Tangible incentives might take the form of certificates, individual prizes, or House trophies, or a combination of several. In any case it must always be kept in mind that the plan should be as all-inclusive as possible; that, therefore, the certificate would perhaps be the most likely answer.

Whatever the technique used, the idea of a non-academic study of American history is an educational contribution of great importance. Nor does it signify only as a means of broadening the intellectual base at Harvard; it has dynamic possibilities as far as later study and thought are concerned. Its reception will depend largely upon the first launching-the attention to detail, the attractiveness of the reward, its inherent usefulness, above all, perhaps, the preservation of some measure of informality in its organization, for it runs afoul the worst enemies of any non-compulsory undertaking the twin devils of apathy and lethargy. The Committee's report and the reaction to, it is awaited with eagerness and optimism.

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