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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Gen Ed and the Freshman Seminars

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Under the potent blessing of Dean Bundy, the Freshman Seminar program was begun in the Fall of 1959 amid a general spirit of cheerful anarchy. The benefactor had given generously, stipulating in a vague way that his money should go to make the Freshman Year more interesting. With this stipulation, the thought given to the reasons behind the program, its purposes, and its philosophy, appeared to end. Faculty members with a longing for different teaching jobs or for fresh subjects of research, or even for fledgling research assistants, arose to present sketchy plans for a seminar. Since the full Faculty reasoned that an "experimental" program should be permitted the widest possible tolerance, some 17 seminars (one led by Bundy himself) opened after an extraordinarily cursory review of their aims and content.

Each professor (most were members of the senior Faculty) was primarily interested in giving his students a kind of intellectual experience they were unlikely to meet in lower-level courses. Each had a highly individual notion of how to accomplish this, and the predictable result was that a Faculty meeting that Spring heard the program described as representing "many different . . . educational philosophies and departments." Bundy, tacitly acknowledged to be the spiritual overseer of the seminars once they got under way, approved thoroughly, like the educational pluralist he was. Nobody, in fact, controlled them at all--if one discounts the passive Advanced Standing Office that actually decided only technical points, and the General Education Committee that had to determine how to exempt Freshmen from requirements long before it could discover whether their seminars really satisfied them. "To let a significant experiment which seems to have monopolized the experience of participators proceed without from," the CRIMSON sourly commented in April, "is to commit the College to a policy by default."

The College is now in its fourth year of Freshman Seminars, and the program is evidently more shapeless than ever. If its originators dimly hoped that the experiment would operationally define its own goals, and settle into an integral part of Harvard's undergraduate education, the hope was utterly unfounded. Pluralistic beginnings have spread the seminars well beyond the fragile boundaries once imposed by the fact that they were taught by professors with some sense of the College's more traditional concerns. A huge network of 41 seminars of wildly varying scope now embraces over a quarter of the Freshman class. And although the responsibility for administering them has largely passed to a junior faculty, the College's interest in setting up fundamental policies for the corps to follow has if anything declined.

No force, in other words, has worked to prevent the proliferation of courses that are either too specialized, or too deficient in structure and content to have much in common with educating undergraduates. On the one hand, seminar leaders have, in the estimable cause of making the Freshman year more interesting, exploited all too thoroughly the fact that a Freshman's enormous energy may be channeled into nearly any unusual project. They have introduced students to methods of research and techniques of scholarship in some of the most advanced work in their fields. Perhaps it does not matter so much that the instructor's department will figure too heavily in a Freshman's choice of concentration; it decidedly does matter that the seminar should define learning for the student as the most limited and formal kind of scholarship. On the other hand, some leagues apart from the idea of treating Freshmen like graduate students, lies that of treating them like experimental rats. Absolutely informal seminars of this type often provide students with enviable personal experience and memories--some have retained devotion for them throughout their College years--but the connection of these seminars to the rest of the College curriculum is obscure. Assume that an important function of the Freshman year is to accustom undergraduates to Harvard's strict intellectual requirements, and it is difficult to sanction these formless, lackadaisical seminars.

Why should all this happen? It happens because the College still seems to find unbearable difficulties in making a profitable distinction between professional scholarship and a more general education--or rather, when it does make this distinction, it lapses into flaccid indirection. Not that this is the departments' fault: outside of tutorial, departments are too busy to concern themselves specially with undergraduates. But granting this to be true, it is pure foolishness to give the special fields unregulated control over the most essential instruction of more than 300 Freshmen.

There is in the University only one group that would seem to have the competence to make decisions on how the Freshman Seminars might find paths of general education between overspecialization and the amorphous schmoo. That group, not surprisingly, is the Committee on General Education. At the very least, it has experience with administering courses that attempt to feed students sufficient information to make discussion meaningful and at the same time to train them to think about concepts unusually significant to their civilizations. It should assume direction of the seminars as soon as possible.

This is not to suggest that seminars turn into survey courses, for it is obvious that the small group's peculiar value is its capacity to explore limited subjects, but rather to urge that more catholic observers have a say in determining what subjects are important. The Gen Ed Committee, composed of minds actively engaged in education rather than administration, might do a remarkable job of choosing instructors for the program, deciding on the value of seminars for Gen Ed exemption, and judging closeness of their alignment with the rest of the curriculum. It is not enough to know that some splendid teaching has emerged from the drifting, mindless expansion of the Freshman Seminars: the College must see to it that its program finally has a policy.

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