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Condensing Education


It is getting to be the time of year for recriminations. Masses of undergraduates solemnly march to and from the masses of books from which they are imbibing in the face of clever academic ostentations so soon to be required. Amidst the muffled footsteps and unshaven faces of Lamont a reading period realization regularly grows that the currently popular method of passing courses by cramming is one of the most lamentably inadequate educational devices yet blessed with institutional recognition.

And so, this is the time of year for recriminations, and for resolutions to work continually rather than sporadically when the next term begins, resolutions not to get behind in courses, dreams of making reading period into a period for exploring special interests rather than memorizing texts and mesmorizing students. And, as any Lamont librarian can tell you, these resolutions will vanish with the month of January, returning only with the sun and May.

It seems just possible that administrative recognition of undergraduate study habits and procrastinations could help implement these resolutions. Consider, for instance, the possibility of giving courses one at a time instead of four at a time, with each course aimed at a brief but complete immersion in the subject rather than an extended sporadic acquaintance with it. Hypothesize daily lectures for four weeks, followed by a final examination or, better, a final paper, with each course covering the same material as those now offered.

Certain advantages are obvious. With the examination never more than four weeks away, procrastination would be far less likely. With only one impending examination, the student would be far less likely to work himself into the usual reading period dilemma of post-poning all four courses until there is time enough to do justice to only one. With the pressure of other courses removed he would be able to explore interests in the subject as they developed out of the required reading, without feeling that such unassigned work was consuming time which, for purposes of academic recognition, would be better spent on the required reading of another course. The necessity of simultaneously dealing with four or more of less unrelated bodies of knowledge would be eliminated, and with it the current fragmentation of understanding.

This principle is already recognized by professors who do research on one subject at a time, not four. It is even recognized by the administration to a limited degree, since half courses are concentrated into one term rather than stretched over two. But if it is better to cover a given amount of work in sixteen weeks than thirty-two, why is it not still better to take it in four weeks than sixteen? Certainly undergraduates believe this is the case, since they do the work for most courses in far less than four weeks. The trouble with their realistic understanding of the need for concentrated doses is that they try to concentrate four doses into one reading period pill.

Such a system would also have advantages for the professors. Most of them are now required to give more lectures than they have material, as a result of which they fill out the year with padding readily available in secondary sources. By concentrating the material into four weeks, the professor would be free to lecture as often or as seldom as he wanted without fear of having the undergraduate lose contact with the course. Lectures could be as long or as short, as frequent or as infrequent, as the lecturer wished, since both he and his student would have this single obligation. Moreover, by concentrating the teaching obligation at certain times, professors would not only be more likely to become really involved with their courses, but would be completely free for the rest of the year to follow their research interests. This might well help reduce the current competition of courses and research for the professor's time and interest, a competition which seems more often than not to work to the detriment of both interests.

Such a program would also allow more flexibility in scheduling. Fulfilling prerequisite requirements for courses would be more likely to move smoothly if the undergraduate program were broken into 32 sections instead of eight. Students working on theses, or supposedly doing independent research for course reduction or tutorial-for-credit programs would be completely free to follow these interests for a short period, instead of finding that other course requirements drained their time and attention. Not least important, it might be possible to schedule vacations between courses, so that a vacation would become a real period of relaxation, free from the psychological pressures of oncoming deadlines.

There are, of course, potential disadvantages. Some introductory courses, such as languages, might prove intolerable in concentrated doses. The Army, however, has had much success with this sort of program. Other courses, such as General Education, work through slow digestion as much as through devouring of material. Academic conditioning of the kind that General Education attempts seems to require time as much as labor. Perhaps the freshman year should be excluded from such a program, with a series of extended exposures to varied fields of learning.

It is also possible that such a concentrated program would strain facilities in laboratory courses, which already work somewhat in shifts. In the case of lecture courses, there would be less rather than more strain on facilities, and scheduling would be simpler rather than more difficult.

Another problem is that the loss of freedom to ignore the academic would tend to undercut time consuming extra-curricular activities. But the frenetic character of the extracurricular at Harvard could well stand alteration.

The imminent pressure of examinations would to some degree eliminate the student's right to be irresponsible. While cramming is certainly not an efficient way of gaining understanding, it may be better to rest in the hope that students have the foresight and self-discipline to solve the problem for themselves.

Yet the academic responsibility of the undergraduate is highly questionable, and his capacity to exercise it seems in practice to be slight. A program which would force the undergraduate to channel his energies along more academic lines is worth serious consideration.

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