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Brass Tacks Reform: An Undramatic But Vital Job

By William R. Galeota

WHEN DEAN MAY called for curricular reform last week, he couched his announcement in dramatic terms: "We should re-examine fundamental issues of the nature and purpose of education."

Despite the drama in the announcement, and the undoubted importance of the issues involved, the coming review will lack most of the customary trappings of major policy re-examinations at Harvard. There'll be no blue-ribbon committee headed by a nationally-known Faculty member supervising the work, and perhaps not even a nicely bound report published by the Harvard University Press. Rather, the College will take stock of these educational issues in a series of meetings in the Houses, each of which will produce proposals of greater or lesser quality, which will then somehow come before the Faculty, either as a package or separately.

Given this attempt to introduce a measure of decentralization and greater popular participation into the decision-making process, one question immediately arises: What kind of chance will the proposals produced by the Houses have of meeting with the approval of the Faculty-the body within whose jurisdiction such matters ultimately lie? The answer of course, depends largely upon what the proposals are, but the Faculty's present attitude toward curricular reform, in general, seems encouraging.

There does not appear to be any automatic opposition to changing present patterns of undergraduate education; the issue does not break along the "liberal" and "conservative" political lines predominating in recent Faculty meetings. Before May released his announcement, he circulated it among a variety of Faculty members, and received encouraging comments even from some professors usually most resistant to political change at Harvard. The detailed series of questions which May put to the Houses-should action-oriented or vocationally-oriented programs be given credit, for example-aroused some opposition from Faculty members who mistook them for specific proposals by the Dean when they were made public. This initial flare-up-only a small one in numbers, it seems-has now mostly quieted: by and large, the Faculty has settled down, and is willing to discuss and ultimately to act upon curricular reforms.

AVARIETY of reasons underlie this fairly open-minded attitude, but three considerations are particularly important:

As May noted, the curriculum of the College has been constantly, if incrementally changing during the past 25 years-from one with a core of strictly-defined General Education surrounded by watertight departments to a pattern where General Education means departmental courses with a wider perspective and where interdisciplinary majors are not uncommon. The periodic discussions over minor reforms-loosening Independent Study requirements for example-have led some Faculty members to begin their own private reassessment of what a college education should be.

Some Faculty members undoubtedly see curricular reform as a way to channel student energies into channels they deem more constructive than occupying buildings every other week. To put it another way, changing educational patterns may be one means to lessen the general malaise contributing to the recent turmoil here.

Curricular reforms-even fairly drastic ones-may not really affect the interests of many, perhaps most. Faculty members. As long as they can continue to work with the students who interest them-the dedicated upcoming economists or biologists-a large number of Faculty members probably wouldn't care where the remaining students majored: in a department, General Studies, or wherever.

Even if the Faculty now seems generally receptive to curricular reform, however, a coalition of particular interests and general apathy could still spell the doom of specific proposals unless they gather significant momentum-particularly among Faculty members-before they come to the Faculty as a whole. Thus, one test of the overall Faculty response will be the attendance of Faculty associates who attend the initial House meetings on curricular reform. If their participation is high-in other words if many associates wean themselves away from the departments to the Houses-the chances for curricular reform may be bright indeed, as may be the prospects for the long-range increased Faculty association with the Houses which the Homans Report hopes to promote.

Though the politics of curricular reform look initially encouraging, there are probably definite economic constraints to reform. May devoted only one paragraph to the costs of education among his pages of questions about it, but the paragraph is an important one. It asks the House proposals "to be realistic, in the sense of at least giving consideration to cost differentials among alternative proposals." While May did not say so, it seems probable that the funds available for undergraduate instruction can only be shuffled around, not significantly increased, in an era when the Faculty is already running a hefty deficit on its all-important Unrestricted Account (the money which can be spent anywhere within the Faculty). Such a limitation on funds means that certain types of proposals which would significantly increase costs-completely abolishing the lecture system to cite one case-would prove difficult, if not impossible to accomplish.

Curricular reform faces one other obstacle. If the political atmosphere of the University heats up and students. Faculty, and administrators find it necessary to manage one crisis after another, the time, manpower, and energy needed for the undramatic but vital job of reshaping the College's educational system just might not be forthcoming.

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