Student Council Report on Education

In the spring of 1939, the Student Council committee on education made a long and detailed report. Its recommendations are receiving attention now by the Faculty and by various Faculty Committees. Below is a summary of the report, written by the committee's chairman, James Tobin '39.

Definition and Aims of a Liberal Education

The proper function of Harvard College, the Council believes, is to provide a liberal education. In Harvard College vocational preparation as such has no place. The Council's idea of a liberal education is not one which is free of requirements but one which is designed to free human beings from ignorance and prejudice. Liberal education accordingly should give the student some idea of our common tradition of human experience and also the intellectual tools with which he can confront new problems successfully.


The Council rejects the notion that for the accomplishment of these aims one curriculum is as good as another so long as it is well taught. To become acquainted with the common tradition of human experience, the student must be required to expose himself to the broad areas of knowledge. To develop independent intellectual tools, he must be encouraged to pursue thoroughly some limited field of learning. In other words, there is a definite content to liberal education; and the present failure of Harvard College is that it supplies the specialized part of this content to the neglect of the general part.

Though emphasizing the content of education, the Council does not overlook the problem of the method of education. Harvard's peculiar contribution to college teaching methods is the tutorial system. Fearing that tutorial instruction may pass from the Harvard scene, the Council proposes to make it a regular part of the education of every man.


Major Proposals of Report

1. Introductory Area Courses: The Council's idea of the components of liberal education does not differ essentially from that of the theory behind Harvard's distribution and concentration system. But the weakening of the distribution requirement has meant that the four courses for distribution are no longer the broadening influence they were intended to be.

Harvard education as it now exists fails to provide any broad common content. The failure manifests itself in over-concentration and in inadequate and poorly selected distribution. The report, for example, points out that the average number of courses taken in the field of concentration or allied fields by members of the Class of 1989 was 9.3 or well over half the courses required for the degree. Of the remainder, one or two are usually devoted to satisfying the language requirement, leaving only three to five courses for genuine distribution.

Inadequate Distribution

Moreover, the report shows that the courses which the members of the Class of 1939 selected for distribution do not adequately cover the main fields of knowledge. The most glaring short-coming is that men concentrating in the social sciences and humanities gain very little acquaintance with the natural sciences.

The Council's proposals are designed to remedy the over-concentration and inadequate distribution which the Council finds at present exist; they may be viewed as proposals to reinstate distribution in Harvard education. To replace the present distribution requirement, the Council would substitute five required introductory courses expressly constructed to give a broad education. Of these, two would be courses in the humanities, two in the natural sciences, and one in the social sciences. The two in the humanities would really compose one two-year course in intellectual and cultural history. Of the two in natural sciences, one would be concerned with biological sciences and one with physical sciences. The one social sciences course would be an analysis of contemporary society. These five courses would be taken mainly in the freshman and sophomore years.

Following the appropriate introductory course the student would begin concentration as at present, but courses of the order of Government 1 could be on a higher plane. Or the student could concentrate in one of the projected "area" fields of study recommended by the Faculty Committee on Broader Fields of Study, to which the proposed courses would be a natural introduction. The area committees on the humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences, authorized by the Faculty last year, would administer the introductory courses proposed by the Council.

The Council is of the opinion that the Faculty Committee's programs for broader fields of study will not solve the difficulty of over-specialization unless supplemented by broad introductory courses for distribution. The Council does not believe that the danger of superficiality and the additional administrative and teaching problems are decisive objections to the establishment of introductory courses.

2. Direct Sanctions for Tutorial Work:

The second major proposal of the Council is the integration of tutorial instruction into Harvard education. Tutorial instruction is necessary to make concentration something more vital than counting courses. But at present there is danger that the tutorial system is passing. This danger arises partly from problems of personnel which are not the direct concern of this report, but partly also from indifference on the part of students.