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Harvard New College Has Begun-Again

By Sandy Bonder

A LOT of strange events took place in the wake of the occupation and bust last spring. One of the strangest was that all sorts of Harvard people began to learn, and to enjoy learning, about issues that really mattered to them. In colloquiums, in bull sessions, in impromptu discussions on the street, people worked together on touchy and pressing problems. The strike brought a sense of liberation; it was hard to resist the excitement and euphoria.

With all this in mind, a group of undergraduates and teaching fellows created Harvard New College. We hoped to preserve the spirit of learning that emerged during the strike by exploring supplements and alternatives to traditional undergraduate education. We hoped that people would join us and help pressure Harvard into reforming its drastically archaic educational system.

Under the circumstances the New College got off to a relatively good start. By the middle of May, we had set up about thirty discussion groups. The group leaders ranged in academic status from professors to freshmen; their topics ranged from the "Philosophy of Wittgenstein" to the "Tapes of the Baba Ram Dass," and included a whole lot in between. Several hundred Harvard and Radcliffe students attended one or another of the groups before exam time rolled around. Many discovered a whole new dimension of meaning and excitement in these educational experiences.

The other, equally important activity of the New College last spring were its weekly "mass" meetings. There was a lot of administrative trivia to be taken care of scheduling the groups, distributing leaflets, etc. But the chief concerns weren't trivial at all. To develop a sense of common purpose (and to raise money), we had to work out a coherent critique of the existing educational system and to form some guidelines, however temporary, for our initial educational experiments. It wasn't easy.

THE RADICAL criticism that we all came more or less to adopt was not original. Paul Goodman, among others, had been saying some of the stuff for years. But our ideas did have the integrity of arising straight from experience.

We centered on the values of objectivity and efficiency as the primary illusions of modern university education. Everybody should admit by now that objectivity is a lost cause. You can't make a statement about the world without assuming, either implicitly or explicitly, the rightness or the goodness of certain values- and statements containing value-assumptions are by definition subjective, not objective. Intellectual knowledge does not exist in a moral vacuum- or in an ivory tower. Neither its discovery nor its application is carried out objectively.

(A contemporary example: the professor who would do research for the Cambridge Project- say, on mass movements in underdeveloped countries- couldn't help but go about it with opinions and preconceptions which would inevitably influence his results. He might assume that such knowledge is good in itself, regardless of how it would be used. Or he might assume that both the knowledge and its probable use are good and right. In any event, he'd be no more objective than the student who would protest his involvement with the Project.)

If objectivity is an illusion, then it will follow that the quest for efficiency is inimical to learning. Knowledge is essentially subjective: it cannot exist independently of the learner's (or knower's) perception. And it is in variably altered by that perception. Knowledge, in other words, is at best informed opinion. To pretend that learning is an efficient process of assimilating an external body of known truths, is to ignore the basic personal and moral aspects of learning and knowing.

From that point of view, grading- a sort of systems-analysis-efficiency-check-up- inhibits learning and thinking. From that point of view, the traditional modes of instruction- the lecture and the discussion class or section- are, in reality, un-educative processes. In lectures, a professor transmits the ideas and methods of his professional discipline as efficiently as possible to the students. But the students have no opportunity to think and question. This is often true of sections too, especially when the section leader has to "cover ground."

In any event, the section leader or professor is responsible for grading. And students, who are seeking a personal identity and a viable world-view, can hardly function within the narrow professional standards set by academic experts who lecture and grade them.

For the world-view many students seek must be in sharp contrast to the prevailing scientific world-view, which is enshrined in official educational epistemology and exalted in modern society. Today's education breeds the sort of scientific experts who can't abide ambiguity, or anything that won't yield to scientific explanation. There is great need for people to be exactly the opposite.

THAT, in brief, is the critique we worked out last spring in the New College meetings. Delivering it to you in a few quick paragraphs is as unfair as lecturing to students- you don't get any indication of the process by which we arrived at it. It is argued more persuasively, perhaps, in our prospectus. (A lengthy little document, now in its third revision, which practically no one at Harvard has ever seen because we've never typed it on stencils.) But you get the ideas for now.

Back to history. While we were refining our criticisms, we were also trying to answer the obvious question that arose from them: if traditional educational processes don't allow for meaningful learning, then what will?

We had a head start in the educational experiences of the strike. Also, a few New College people had been into encounter groups and sensitivity training, and some had been members of the Free University of Cambridge which operated in Winthrop House last year. It was clear from the start that our learning environments would have to be small, intense, cooperative groups. But we had to define them more clearly, at least to begin with, and we also had to define the function of the New College itself. Here are the provisional guidelines we eventually came up with (I've lifted them straight from the prospectus), along with explanations:

The New College will act as an educational clearing house in order to facilitate and encourage greater flexibility and scope in the university curriculum. Anyone can lead or participate in a group on any topic he chooses. The New College will schedule and publicize the group. If people show up, great; if not, too bad.

The New College will emphasize the initiative of students in planning the form and content of the discussion. Most groups will have a leader who will suggest initial directions, but the sense of the entire group should determine the course the discussions take. We want to encourage cooperative inquiry because it engenders communal sentiment- which is rarely found in atomistic, competitive teacher-centered discussion classes. Not that we want to discourage intellectual guidance- rather, we want an educational structure which will encourage teachers to relate their knowledge directly to the personalities and interests of their students. Moreover, we believe that student participation in determining methods of study is central to the learning process.

The New College will attempt to merge the intellectual with the personal and communal search for values. Ideally, we hope to create a university which is an independent critic of society. That's a far cry, of course, from what the university is now: a center for training and consultation to render more efficient the bureaucracies and professions which run American society.

The groups will be flexible in their duration. As long as people are still interested in the topic- an hour, a month, two years- a group will go on.

Encounter groups and techniques can play a crucial role in New College groups. Rather than ignore the phycho dynamics of discussion- and surely what you say to anyone is affected by your personal relation to him- we hope to explore them, and in that way to enhance our understanding of the subject matter and ourselves.

There isn't room here for lengthy examples, but some of our groups last spring did make use of encounter and psychodrama techniques. One group studying the operation of research in American universities confronted its leader with the charge that he was manipulating them. The resulting discussion yielded great insight into the often manipulative workings of researchers. Another group, studying "Legitimacy and Authority," was getting nowhere with intellectual discussion and decided to construct a psychodrama. The device yielded vivid non-intellectual insights which they then successfully integrated into their theoretical models.

Trained psychologists will work with us in developing encounter group techniques for the New College, as such techniques can be dangerous when used by the untrained.

Grading has no place in a New College group. But serious self-evaluation of group techniques and direction does.

The New College seeks to destroy the myth of the ivory tower. We plan to have groups integrating social analysis with actual participation in social change. Groups tentatively scheduled so far will deal with community control of education (to be led by a lawyer in the Ed School) and legal reform (by a local lawyer). There will be more. We hope that many of the leaders of these groups will be members of the larger Boston and Cambridge communities.

We also want to bring down the illusory ivory towers that exist within the universities- the walls separating the academic disciplines. There will be at least one group working toward departmentalizing Harvard. Furthermore, we hope that the New College will be a real community of learners itself.

Most important, the New College is an innovative enterprise. We need constant and critical examination of our work. For this purpose, we will hold weekly meetings open to anyone concerned. We hope, in addition, that our group leaders and some participants will write detailed evaluations of their group's work.

THAT'S about where we got to, in ideology and planning (hoping), last spring. We didn't ever get any money from the few foundations we approached, but we had a lot of enthusiastic and talented people. Also, there was a lot of talk about getting credit for the New College from Harvard. Master Chalmers of Winthrop House, a member of the Committee on Educational Policy, had a subcommittee working on student-initiated courses. The future looked fairly bright.

There were some changes over the summer. Of the two teaching fellows who were more or less leading New College, one joined the WSA and left the New College in a hurry. The other, released by his department for allegedly poor teaching techniques, went to work for the Massachusetts Legal Reform. He can't do much more than support us this year.

All of the organizing we planned to do never happened. We tried to raise money from local foundations, issued a hard-line circular on rules of instruction which definitely excluded student-initiated courses.

But these seemingly ill fortunes may work to our favor. We recognized from the start the dangers of trying to operate through traditional forms of leadership.

In the same sense, it is just as well that we don't have a bustling, efficient organization. An anti-bureaucracy bureaucracy is self-defeating. We'd be better off to keep sacrificing efficiency for some healthy anarchy. And if that anarchy is to exist at all, then we'd rather be poor than well-financed and well-regulated. Foundation money around here is even more conservative than it is everywhere else, and it rarely comes without tight strings. Besides, there is a chance now that we can geta few hundred dollars from Harvard, through the HUC, without strings- or with loose ones at worst.

We have to do some serious thinking on that issue of credit. Master Chalmers is still behind us. But credit will no doubt mean restrictions, and the New College has to be wary of restrictions. Then there are the larger questions of whether we should accept a status that we believe illegitimate, and of how we expect to change anything around here if we don't.

Without credit, though, our groups will face the same big problem they had last year: an often crippling rate of attrition. A lot of people quit because of the demands made upon their time by Harvard Old College. A lot more quit because they expected miracles without trying to cause them. If a New College group is successful, it is because the participants make it that way. If they sit back and wait, they'll probably be disappointed. Without the undeniably negative incentive of credit, many people will see no reason to keep on trying.

There are other problems. Our ideas haven't changed much over the summer. For instance, we're all the more convinced that encounter experiences are educationally valid. But encounter has become another Great American Fad. It's a serious and extraordinarily delicate undertaking, but people are rushing into it mindlessly. Even as we try carefully to integrate encounter with university education, there is a chance that the New College might degenerate into a far-out headquarters for home-made encounter groups. The same dangers exist in other areas. We want to avoid meaningless frivolity, but it won't be easy.

And there will be sticky decisions to make that we certainly can't foresee. The New College will no doubt be criticized sharply in educational terms from the right and in political terms from the left. We'll have to deal with such attacks- or will We?

Last Tuesday night we had a meeting in the Winthrop House Tonkens Room. More than a hundred people showed up. We talked about everything: what we did last year, what we hope to do this year, how broke we are, what kind of groups we've already set up. It was as exciting and encouraging as those first meetings during the strike last spring. After it was over, many people stayed and talked.

We may not have any particular reason to be optimistic- but we are.

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