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THE lecture system at Harvard gives Professors a chance to develop their ideas on some chosen topic at length and regularly over a period of time. It is far superior to the British, system, say, in which lectures are sporadic events to be made use of or not as the mood strikes one. Nevertheless, the course system at Harvard does not work very well largely because all the reading is assigned--as if it will be done simultaneously with the lectures. Another drawback is that the educational process is rounded off, in good European fashion, by a massive examination.
One way of countering these problems which would squeeze the greatest educational benefit possible from Harvard's lecture system would be to start each semester with three weeks of reading period followed by an exam, and then embark on the lectures. Obviously this pattern would apply only to most(though not all) Humanities and Social Science courses and not to Natural Science courses, since these latter depend, peculiarily, on a gradual, step by step, accumulation of skills and knowledge.
The defects of the present system are twofold: in the way it actually works and in its theoretical basis.
The argument for relocating reading period starts from the assumption that an overwhelming number of Harvard students do not, in fact, adequately keep up with their assigned reading. This results in the frantic last-minute burst of catching-up that recurs every reading-period--an orgy that leaves little time for reflection on the real meaning of the reading.
IN any case, not having done the reading during the year the student has already lost the value of the lectures. Going to these unprepared, he is able only to retain the most striking fragments and insights of each particular lecture, with no real understanding of the unity of the lecturer's thought or any conception of the significance of these insights.
NOT DOING the reading till the end also means that the course paper is done with a very sketchy understanding of what the course is all about. This forces most courses to allow almost complete freedom in the choice of paper topic--and often people write papers that they might have written without having taken the course at all. In short, anybody who does not read throughout the year loses much of the educational benefit of the lecture system.
Undoubtedly many people at Harvard do keep up with their reading, but even these people suffer from inherent defects of the present system.
It is not at all clear, for instance, that in the Humanities and Social Sciences absorbing snatches of information on a steadily growing number of topics can ultimately add up, as if arithmetically, to a meaningful synthesis. The process of linear learning--involving gradual increments in received knowledge over a period of time--works reasonably well in math and science courses but that is no guarantee that the study of human affairs ought to be conducted in the same way.
Rather, it would seem that human affairs should be approached in a circular manner, beginning with the incorporation of a total viewpoint. Once one has a conception, however vague it may be, of the whole field of play one can then proceed to ferret out the truths that it contains--much as a quarterback might spend some time sizing up the opposing team before he starts mapping his own strategies, instead of launching into all his tricks straightaway in the hope that he will learn by trial and error.
Certainly the Professor delivering the lectures speaks with the perspective of one who knows the whole of the story. He knows what is to come later and what bearing each bit of information has on the entire message. The professor is, in effect, creating a jigsaw puzzle with the completed picture before him. The student who has not been granted a preliminary look at the completed jigsaw puzzle becomes a passive observer who fails to appreciate the significance, intellectual as well as aesthetic, of each piece as it clunks into place.
THE second theoretical defect in the present system is that a person who does do the reading diligently throughout the year usually ends up not paritcipating in any outside activities--for sheer lack of time if for nothing else. People who point with pride to Harvard's flourishing extra-curricular life may fail to realize that it exists only because most people do not do the reading till the end of the year.
It is said that you don't suffer because Harvard's system is so set up--with a reading period at the end--that you can get away with it. And in a sense you can. It is not very difficult to get good grades around here, but as has been argued above much of the true educational value of the lectures has been inevitably lost.
In addition there is the psychic strain that flows from neglecting one's assigned work. The feeling of guilt that plagues one for going to see a movie in mid-week is real--but, perversely, not real enough to force one back to one's books. In short you get the worst of both worlds.
THE proposed reform is designed to assure that the reading be somehow done before the lectures unfold.
The first week of school, a disorganized time at best, would be given over to lectures from professors suggesting an approach to the reading. Reading lists, and perhaps written synopses outlining the aims and methodology of the course, would also be given out.
The next three weeks would be reading period proper. Students would have to make up their minds about courses earlier than in the past, perhaps after the first week of reading period and would do so on the basis of their observation of the lecturer, the reading lists, the synopses, an actual stab at the reading and perhaps even the Confi Guide! Students wishing to drop courses later in the year would be permitted to take make-up exams.
Reading lists would not be much shorter than the regular course reading lists since the whole purpose is to get the bulk of the reading out of the way early in the year. Only the most difficult, most analytical or philosophical texts would be held over for later in the year. This would no doubt mean that a huge amount of reading would have to be plowed through, but since the new system would not apply to Natural Science courses, to Language courses or to tutorials and since exam period stretches out the reading period anyway, it would not seem to be an impossible amount of reading.
Reading period would be a fairly hard time but its difficulty would be balanced by the fact that one probably has more energy at the beginning of the term which is quickly dissipated in the present system than at any other time. Reading period now, coming at the end of an exhausting year, is a source of pure agony. The climate too must be taken into account: spring and early summer in frigid New England is not the time for concentrated reading, February certainly is.
FINAL exams would follow. There can be no pretense that such a rushed reading of a large body of material will leave one with more than very hazy understanding of it and exams should be designed with this in mind.
The proper function of exams has been widely mis-understood. As instruments for checking up on the mechanical aspects of the educational process they are ideal. However exams cannot and should not attempt to produce creativity. The superficiality of most exam answers and the difficulty of honest grading are legendary among teaching fellows. Besides, anyone who feels that a one-hour essay written under conditions of stress can accurately plumb the depth of his or her intelligence and understanding must be in a pretty bad state.
The exam then should be designed so that anyone who has done much of the assigned reading can get a good grade. Profound searching answers you're not going to get anyway, so you might as well not ask for them. These exams should count about a third of the final grade.
The courses then would start in earnest with lectures, which could begin to make sense of the reading. The themes that interest the professor could be developed, the categories set up, the mode of apprehension crystallized, comparisons could be made, all with the confidence that a large majority of the students present would be in on the proceedings--the jigsaw puzzle lovingly reassembled before everyone's eyes!
A knowledge of the reading might even induce people to go to the lectures in the first place--just as it would be far more pleasant for the lecturer to know that his audience was responsive. Students would be expected to review the reading and meditate on its implications as the various relevant issues crop up.
The paper should be the heart of the course, as it is at the graduate level. It should be judged in general on the basis "How much better is this paper for the fact that this person took the course?" Most papers would extend the themes the professor develops in his lectures.
But this does not mean a restriction of the freedom in choice of topic, because papers that absorb the methodology or the ambience of a professor would also be indications that something of educational value has been transferred to the student during the course.
THE above proposal for reform is intended only as a basic pattern supplanting the present basic pattern. It will allow for as many variations in particular courses as the present one does.
None of the possible objections to such a system appear insurmountable.
The administrative objection to having another exam period at the end of each semester could be eased by ending classes a week early for the Humanities and Social Sciences which would be utilized for finishing papers. This would leave the classrooms empty making examination rooms available forth those courses that have an exam at the term's end. There would be no need for another reading period because Natural Science and Language courses do not have reading periods anyway, and if they were needed a professor could stop his lectures early.
The football season in the fall would not be thrown hopelessly out of joint because the pressure would not preclude Saturdays off during reading period. The biggest games would come after exams were over. Football players would be permitted to take make-up exams if they wished.
Freshmen, arriving, as they do, a week earlier, would not be intolerably hard put to adjust or to choose courses. In fact, it may not be unreasonable to expect that a dose of high-schoolish discipline early in the year before the Great Dissolution sets in may even be psychologically helpful to freshmen.
There are other minor objections but the overwhelming advantages of the proposed system, in terms of educational benefit and mental happiness, not to mention the eternal extinction of hour-exams, make it seem at least worthy of a try.
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