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ONCE the subject of an important and vital debate, the Harvard House may now be turning into a "way of life" in the worst sense: an institution that is insulated against re-evaluation, never subject to adjustment, and wholly inorganic.
With two new Houses in the planning stage, the College's commitment to its residential network seems firmly established. And yet educational and cultural policy is frequently initiated with little apparent concern for the Houses. A most dramatic example, if the pun is excusable, lies in the Loeb Drama Center, which has permanently thinned the ranks of House theater groups.
The University, whose remarkable capacity for self-improvement belies an inability for self criticism, lets several questions go unasked. Perhaps the most important of them is, quite simply: how many students at Harvard see the House system as a restrictive and unsatisfactory residential code?
A Crimson sampling, conducted one week ago, showed 268 of 540 respondents either anxious to switch Houses now, or ready to consider the hypothetical option of moving off-campus as seniors. In many cases, material or culinary considerations accounted for the present discomfort; but in many others, a shift would mean the chance for contact with students or faculty members on other Houses (i.e., would serve the primary function of residential education). Although there has been an apparent effort to place tutorials in the Houses and to institute a broad seminar program, fewer than 30 per cent of those polled thought the Houses played any significant role in the academic side of their undergraduate existence.
Nonetheless, the House, to the great majority replying, meant more than the sum total of its physical and cultural parts. The assumed advantages of the Houses (contact with resident faculty, incorporated library and dining system, cultural and athletic organizations), though not specified on the poll, were felt to be inherent and unique in Harvard's residence system rather than merely part of any good dormitory set-up.
Still, only in the cases of Eliot and Quincy was the House Administration credited with supplying a special flavors to the House. More than a few Eliot House residents went out of their way to attribute the House's distinction to Master John H. Finley. Conversely, many at the College's newest House blamed its Administration for a multitude of shortcomings. Despite its superb physical plant and very high rate of "first choices" on freshman applications, residents of Quincy rose to heights of vituperation in criticizing the House and their fellow members.
WHAT was striking about the poll was the number of people, more than a handful, who complained bitterly about their quarters. One student said he was "about to get married because he couldn't take Winthrop any more." Another said he had taken an extended leave of absence so he "could finish up
at Quincy." One can argue that a CRIMSON poll would attract such gripes, but the other hand, few people like to admit such deep personal dissatisfaction.
Dunster and Leverett had the highest rates of satisfied customers, but Dunster also drew some caustic complaints. Eliot reported a similar majority of contented residents, but here complaints that the student body was "stilted and narrow," came repeatedly.
In seven of the Houses, about two-thirds of the dissatisfied would more readily switch to another House than move out of the House system. But in Adams House, 38 of the 41 who would entertain a move wanted out of the system. The implication is clear: Adams, with its more liberal rules and lack of physical unity, is the closest thing to living off-campus; the next step is out.
In listing the Houses into which they would like to transfer, students praised Quincy's food, Adams' student body, Dunster's relaxed atmosphere and Kirkland's library. Someone from Kirkland (who was eating interhouse at Eliot the night of the poll) said he would like to switch "To Eliot! To Arcadia!"
If every House came in for a little bitterness, Quincy came in for the least sentimental praise. Somebody summed up his disenchantment by writing, "We began with the great toilet-paper chase and we've kept on being silly."
PROFESSOR David Riesman and Christopher Jencks have recently published a study in general praise of the system. They observe that the inequalities of the Gold Coast days seem to have disappeared, but offer no statistics to show whether people of varying backgrounds really talk to each other quite as much as theory assumes. And it might be noted that the democratic achievement of the Thirties is not proof of a sustained, progressive system.
Actually, most of Riesman and Jenck's arguments in defense of the system can be reversed and used in criticism of it. For example, the very process that throws a sophomore among new acquaintances also cuts him off from all but the closest of his freshman year friends.
Also, the House system supposedly provides centers for specialized extracurricular interest groups. Quincy House, for instance, which is "political" by reputation, has provided a base of operations for leaders of the Young Republicans and Democrats, Tocsin, the Liberal Union and YAF. Centered in a House instead of spread throughout the College, the leaders can discuss their projects at dining tables or in adjacent rooms; they have all the advantages of proximity. The third floor of Quincy has become one of the greatest smoke filled corridors in American politics. And yet, precisely as a result of this concentration, a group like Tocsin is making its presence felt less and less in other Houses. To the leaders of the disarmament organization, Quincy, and not the community-at-large, has become the dominant center of discussion and activity. Tocsin members from other Houses pled at the annual election meeting for executives who reside outside Quincy and will be more conscious of their University-wide obligations. (They succeeded in electing only one of four such persons last year.) Finally, to the freshman interested in Tocsin, Quincy is the obvious choice of residence. Master Bullitt complained last Spring to Tocsin's chairman that over twenty freshman, or the entire active membership in the Yard, had applied to Quincy.
The Young Democrats have had similar problems. Last year a group of Lowell House activists tried to combine with Dunster members in an effort to wrest control of the club from the Quincy element. The attempt, which was only partially successful, was made for purely House, rather than ideological commitments.
IT is argued, in defense of such specialization of interest, that if the number of Harvard students seriously interested in a given activity were spread evenly throughout each House, no organization could thrive. It is better, therefore, to allow students with common interests some degree of congregation than to force an artificial and messianic "mingling" across interest lines.
But this policy is only inconsistently followed: if a positive value is to be placed on such concentration, why not allow students who have been placed in Houses where they feel their real concerns are ignored or neglected to switch? Why, if contact with resident faculty members is valued, shouldn't a student be allowed to transfer when he develops a fruitful relationship with a tutor in a different House?
In seeking a limited diversity and a considerable concentration of interests, the House system has set up a rigid set of administrative rules that often makes the compromise unworkable. More significantly, those who feel stultified have no place to go (except on leave); they often feel sacrificed to a mere theory of residential education.
LIVING off-campus as an alternative to House residence seemed attractive or worth serious thought to 23 per cent of those answering the poll. Their reasons were largely material, though it is hard in discussing residence to distinguish completely between material and educational advantages. Most singled out parietal hours, prohibitive costs and erratic food quality as the main disadvantages of Harvard lodging. But two per cent stated flatly that they didn't like the intellectual atmosphere of House life. And while a vast majority found the House serving as the center of their social lives at Harvard, a loud minority yearned for something like a student union where "you can meet girls on an informal basis."
Even if off-campus living generally permitted in the senior year, inertia would probably keep a great many of the 23 per cent rooted where they are. When faced with the obligations of finding and maintaining campus residence, the attractiveness of the life diminishes.
THE University's arguments against off-campus living and the switching of Houses are roughly the same: both would endanger the House system as presently constituted. Switching of Houses would probably lead to a "first choice" House and a "reject" House. The pockets of various types of activists would deepen, while the valued, if minimal, diversity that currently prevails would be undermined. It would also create Administrative problems of serious proportions.
A more permissive off-campus residence policy at the College, it is claimed, would complicate the already touchy
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