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Innovation In Procrastination

Brass Tacks

By Peter M. Shane

LAST SEPTEMBER 28, President Bok told the Faculty: " is disheartening to find how much research has been done on the effectiveness of undergraduate education and how little it has affected our planning." Now, almost eight months later, the same thing can be said, but with a heightened sense of frustration. Still more research by faculty, students, and administrators has been added to the corpus of investigative material already available, but the commitment of the Faculty to innovation in Harvard education remains to be demonstrated.

Bok correctly suggested that educational change encompasses not merely the introduction, for example, of more courses on ecology. There must be, as he noted, an evaluation of the place of scholarly research within the University and the community, an assessment of the current "modes of instruction," as well as, by implication, a reevaluation of the relationships among Faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.

Evidence of dissatisfaction with the current state of things abounds. Increasing numbers of undergraduates are finding four straight years of Harvard College an oppressive experience, and more are likely to take time off or leave as the pressure of the draft is further eased. Increasing numbers of graduate students are failing to complete their doctoral programs, especially in the social sciences and the humanities. The statements of the Graduate Student and Teaching Fellows Union testify to discontent among graduate students with their role in the University on more than merely economic grounds.

More and more, it is occurring to undergraduates--as tuition fees rise exorbitantly--how little control they have over the teaching to which they are subject, the curriculum they are offered, and the advisory system on which they rely. The humanistic view, which holds that students, faculty, and administrators together represent a community in which all members must contribute to decisions affecting the whole, has been ignored. Yet students have not been granted a decision-making role commensurate with their financial payment to the College. Even such a crass capitalist stance would be a considerable step forward from the medieval view that students are apprentices, who will soon be paying $3000 a year, in tuition alone, to subject their academic lives to the standards and demands of the Faculty.

The first step in reform, as Bok in fact stated, should not be the appointment of a "grand commission" to consider in some abstract way the nature of undergraduate education. Concrete issues exist which must be addressed immediately, and the potential for some reform, at nominal cost, does lie within the current University structure. In a statement entitled "Innovation in Teaching and Education," Bok outlines the proposals which would be considered under the program of grants for educational experiments that was cited in his remarks to the Faculty. The grants are intended to defray the costs of developing new courses or "new modes of instruction," to offset lost compensation for teaching time sacrificed in developing new programs, and to subsidize experiments in the development of graduate students as teachers. In eight months, there has been no further word on the projects to be funded. In fact the process for evaluating proposals has never been clearly defined.

One student, for example, proposed that fifty freshmen be allowed to forego all distribution and concentration requirements. He asked for funds to set up a system for coordinating their programs and providing them with advisers. Having submitted the plan to Bok, Dean Whitlock, et al. last December 13, he hoped to begin working in early April if funds were authorized. After some confusion as to the proposal's subsequent whereabouts, the plan was next located in Whitlock's office on April 27. At that time, Whitlock's recommendations on the idea had not yet been forwarded to Bok for consideration.

Other efforts have been similarly treated. The idea of a House council of undergraduates, tutors. Fellows, and Associates was outlined in a "Report of The Committee on the Role of the Faculty in the Houses" (the Homans Report) published in November 1969, and repeated in a confidential subcommittee report for the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life in October 1970. It has yet to be implemented.

In December 1971. CHUL endorsed "in principle" House Committees on Instruction for the development of education in the Houses. Some department chairmen have opposed giving responsibility for House courses to committees outside the departments. One Master called the plan an "imposition" on the departments. In interviews of House Committee chairmen conducted last February, none at that time had even heard of the proposal. Only two Houses have yet moved to institute the committees.

The importance of resident tutors and the ambiguity so far evidenced in defining their role in the Houses were stressed in the Homans Report of 1969. Last year, subsequent to an abortive attempt to charge tutors rent, meal pool funds were cut, forcing tutors to eat fewer meals with students or to pay for those meals. A report prepared for Bok in February by Steve Burbank Assistant to the Dean of the College, read: can the University possibly expect resident tutors to take seriously the responsibilities of the job, when they are being asked not only to forego an element of their compensation but as well to pay for meals which, from a financial, to say nothing of a digestive, viewpoint, they might prefer to take elsewhere?

Earlier the report had stated:

...the recent trend towards diminution in benefits for resident tutors has not been based on analyses which reveal either the value of a system of resident tutors or the risks entailed in curtailing benefits. Such analyses may indicate that, even at present, resident tutors are underpaid.

On April 26, the Masters' Committee reaffirmed the meal pool cuts for 1972-73.

Other measures proposed in Bok's own address have been substantively ignored: the development of short, intensive courses in particular specialties; experiments in doing away with grades for concentrators in departments: consideration of different forms of instruction, with particular efforts directed toward substituting seminar groups for lectures. To quote Bok again: "Recent studies suggest that reforms of this kind can be carried out at no increase in instructional cost."

The inept handling of these proposals is extraordinary: few of them even remotely threaten the existing structure. The failure to implement these stop-gap proposals or essentially preliminary measures is chiefly a reflection of power interests within the University or of general Faculty unconcern regarding change. Were any attempt made to develop a coherent philosophy of education for Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges, much less to arrange some "grand commission," students, faculty and administrators would have to face at least the following issues: to what degree a university education actually serves the individual; the value of a university education in modern society; the relative strengths and weaknesses of a research-oriented Faculty; the responsibilities of faculty to students either as consumers, fellow scholars, or, hopefully, as people who deserve some basic control over their community; and the responsibilities of a university to the community-at-large.

FURTHER consideration would be necessary on equal admissions for women, opening up Harvard to lower and lower-middle class students of all races, budgetary priorities, government and military research, University investment policies, and even less lofty issues like the usefulness of course grading, the position of students on House Committees on Instruction and in evaluating faculty, and the current structure of the scholarship and financial aid program. Bok stated: "We do not share a single, animating philosophy of education that gives order to our curriculum and coherence to our deliberations on curriculum matters." Given these greater tasks yet to be faced, the recalcitrance of the Faculty on issues of lesser importance is truly frightening.

Clearly, a University such as Harvard which plays so crucial a role in America's economic structure may never free itself of the dehumanizing aspects of its educational structure so long as the "relations of educational production" emulate the relations of material production in society. However, since the Millennium is somewhat distant, there is no excuse for ignoring the potential of the tools and ideas which are presently at hand.

It is crucial to work out a theory which will provide the framework for progress in our education experiments; for now, it is more crucial to begin working out that theory in action and to demonstrate the University's concern for people. Though these first steps, we may learn to implement the values to be incorporated in a coherent educational philosophy. By experimenting in less rigid forms of instruction, in making planning and administration more democratic, and in improving the relationships of undergraduates with graduate students and faculty, Harvard may work slowly toward a humanistic philosophy and toward a more socially responsible and self-fulfilling form of education.

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