During the past year the Harvard Faculty finally turned its attention to undergraduate education. But like a writer returning to a 20-year-old manuscript, the Faculty found it had forgotten the central issues and could only dimly recall the proper approach to the subject.
Not one original educational idea has emerged from the current debate. The goals or proper content of a College education have not been discussed. The Faculty has not decided nor even considered whether there is any knowledge or experience that a college education ought to include. How despite this the Faculty can still debate what requirements to impose on undergraduates remains a mystery.
The sterility of the Doty debate is particularly unfortunate since an overhaul of the education offered in the College is long overdue. As a start, the lecture system ought to be curtailed as quickly as possible. The trend of the past few years toward small-group teaching is a good one, and it ought to be encouraged.
Economic considerations will help maintain the lecture system, but no excuse remains for retaining the present examination system. As an educational device, the exam is worthless. A long term paper, or several shorter papers, would ensure learning far more effectively and might encourage original thinking. It a policing mechanism is desired, short quizzes are far more efficient than a three hour exam.
A year ago a series of essays on the examination system by faculty members was published in a short booklet. But no legislation or further discussion is presently planned by the Administration.
Tutorial-for-all, the freshman seminar program, and Independent Study are all welcome departures from the lecture-exam routine of rote learning. But all these programs were put into effect more than five years ago. If they are successful--and student response indicates they are--why hasn't the Faculty expanded them? Why are some departments cutting back their tutorial programs?
There are signs of growing concern within the Administration over the inferior quality of teaching, a chronic undergraduate complaint. By 1966, the new teaching fellowships instituted by Dean Ford last year should begin to improve the quality of section men. Unfortunately, high scholarship does not always bear the fruit of good teaching as senior Faculty members prove time and again.
On the other hand, teaching and scholarship are not incompatible. If departments would simply add the requirement of teaching ability to their present standards of scholarship, the result would be a faculty of greater pedagogical skill without any loss in eminence. The Law School insists on high teaching standards, and few would question the academic qualifications of that faculty.
Education for Some
Even the staunchest defenders of the present system do not claim that every undergraduate receives a good education. They insist, however, that good education is available to any student who is willing to pursue it. Their argument assumes, however, that only some undergraduates will desire a good education.
But if the entire enrollment in a lecture course were to appear during a professor's one or two office hours per week, Harvard's system would collapse. What is perhaps the ultimate indictment--not of the Faculty but of the Harvard student body--is that the system does work, that it has not collapsed.
The mechanical reforms have been clearly needed for some time. The Faculty's failure to discuss them and act quickly is inexplicable. But where it has chosen to discuss, the Faculty has only disappointed.
The Doty committee report is a singularly unexciting document. In evaluating the Gen Ed program, the core of the College education, the Committee turned to administrative detail. It set the number of required courses at six and a half because that was the number presently required. The Committee proposed a two part division of courses, not for any substantive reason, but for administrative convenience.
What was needed was a rethinking of the role of the College specifically in terms of the content and mechanics of education, and it is still needed. Where this academic thought will come from is not clear: there has been virtually none for the last five years.
Apparently the most important source of new ideas must now be the Faculty itself. President Conant, from the end of the Second World War on, and President Pusey, have had to devote themselves to raising money, planning new construction, and strengthening, one by one, each graduate school.
While the ultimate responsibility for the development of the College must lie with the President, more immediate policy planning rests with the Dean of Faculty and with the Faculty itself. Perhaps in the coming Doty debate, the Faculty will consider the reforms necessary to restore Harvard as a leading educational institution, as well as a leading center of scholarship.