Whitla Study of 'Academic Averageness' Poses a Challenge for the College Today

"As colleges and universities emphasize academic excellence they become obliged to recognize the special psycho-social problems of an academically oriented student population and especially...the concomitants of academic averageness."--Dean K. W

In his final report two years ago, former dean of Admissions Wilbur J. Bender '27 warned that as Harvard became more competitive, many bright and able students might suffer anxieties and frustrations because they were only "average" in a college where considerable academic ability was not the exception but the rule.

Bender was concerned about the consequences, for the College and the individual, of an admissions policy which would select students solely on the basis of apparant academic promise.

But though he directed his warning to the future, the problem is of more immediate concern. The College today must face the fact that large numbers of students are feeling the tensions of being "average" in an academically elite community.

The man who has done the most work on this subject is the director of Harvard's Office of Tests, Dean K. Whitla. In his latest study, "Guidance in the University Setting," which appears in the current issue of the Harvard Educational Review, Whitla has used a series of interviews with recent Harvard graduates as the basis for a discussion of "academic averageness" and its significance for the College.

In an earlier study Whitla defined the academically average to include students from the 30th to the 70th percentiles of their class--roughly Groups III and IV of the Rank List.


His thesis is that for many students the feeling of averageness serves as the greatest single bar to effective participation in the intellectual life of the College. And the problem will become even more serious, Whitla implies, as the general intellectual level at Harvard and other colleges continues to rise.

The academically average student is caught in the tension between the ideals of the Harvard community and his position in that community. He is taught to value independence and the pursuit of excellence, but too often finds that independence means isolation, and that excellence jars harshly with his own mediocre standing.

For the student beset by doubts about his intellectual worth, the role of guidance can be crucial. Because they cannot derive the satisfaction which comes from obtaining the highest grades, academically average students tend to rely heavily on the influence of teachers for stimulation and direction, Whitla says.

Such students desire and seek guidance; and often their academic work is successful only to the extent that they are inspired by a particular devoted teacher.

"I did find that contact with professor, tutor, and House Master was an important factor to these academically average men in developing a sense of personal direction," Whitla writes.

'Yet," he continues, "the very status of 'averageness' kept many of them, as students from entering situations where such contact would be possible, and thus, kept them from finding the kind of guidance they were seeking."

Because students felt themselves to be intellectually mediocre they hesitated to seek out faculty members and to put forward their own ideas. The very things which should have pushed them toward more contact with faculty--their own feelings of averageness and the impersonality of the system--actually impeded such contact.

For this reason Whitla plays down the importance of the charismatic relation between teacher and student. Instead, he stresses the role of educational programs which seek to involve the student personally in his work.

"In other words, the first step a college must make is to recognize that special problems exist for these (academically average) students, and then to try to cope with these problems by tailoring programs to individuals, by stressing seminars, by setting up tutorials, and by trying to bring the honors program to more and more of the undergraduates. These are the ways Harvard has tried to make each student feel the college is concerned with the course of his education and with his status as an individual."

This would be fine if it were true. But too often, the effect of tutorial and the honors program is to make the student feel that the College is concerned not with his status as an individual but with his progress as a a scholar. And it is at least open to question whether the proper cure for a student's feelings of academic aveageness is to involve him even more completely in academic work.

Academic work at Harvard creates its own pressures and tensions, quite apart from those generated by a student's academically average status. Conceivably it would be possible to eliminate the frustrations of academic averageness by significant changes in the lecture and exam system, and in grading--though even this is unlikely.

But the tensions resulting from academic work will only be heightened by laying more stress on scholarship Pressures are pressures no matter what causes them, and if one chooses more "involvement" in academic