Redefining the Renaissance Man

For almost thirty years Harvard's reputation as an innovator in undergraduate education has rested on the laurels won by the ground-breaking 1945 report, "General Education in a Free Society," informally known as the Redbook. When the report was published in 1946 it was hailed by the media as a "blueprint for education at all levels." The Redbook set out to suggest for the nation and to provide for the student at Harvard the core of knowledge "essential" for a "citizen in a free society" by requiring undergraduates to select a minimum number of courses fron a "General Education" curriculum. But over the past years other colleges have drawn new and influential educational blueprints, and universities which once followed Harvard's lead have set out in their own directions.

Meanwhile the Redbook's pages have yellowed in local eyes as well. With the multiplying number of Gen Ed courses, the focus of the program has dissolved. Since the Gen Ed pages of the catalogue have come to provide a refuge for courses that do not fit into the neatly compartmentalized offerings of the departments, the program no longer possesses even the shreds of an underlying purpose and philosophy. What President Bok has called the "substantial disarray" of the University's undergraduate curriculum is a commonly voiced criticism. In light of Harvard's increasing financial restraints and the competition of improved (and cheaper) programs elsewhere, Dean Rosovsky has underscored Harvard's role as an "elite private university" in the business of educating undergraduates. With this end in view Rosovsky has announced plans to form another Redbook-style committee to investigate new guidelines for undergraduate education which, hopefully, will "re-establish a consensus that would last another twenty years."

One issue the Redbook committee should address is the composition of the student body at the College and its implications for undergraduate education. In a friend-of-the-court brief written by the University for the DeFunis v. Odegaard case, which involved the constitutionality of a separate admissions process for minority students, Harvard emphasized the educational enrichment that can be achieved only through a diverse student body. The brief stated that a heterogeneous student body should become an educational goal in and of itself. The criteria for diversity mentioned were standard: academic interests, cultural orientation, geography, and personal philosophies. But even on the basis of these qualities, which by now are almost universally accepted, Harvard has slackened, and more and more Harvard undergraduates are likely to come from a similar and upper-middle class socio-economic background.

Even these criteria seem crazy in their effectiveness for achieving diversity among the student body. All other factors aside, how many undergraduates have passed their early adulthood? How many have done anything other than go to school for most of their lives? If the Redbook committee wants to break any new ground in enriching education through the composition of the student body, it should lend its weight to an extended concept of diversity, admitting people of all ages and of all walks of life to study at Harvard.

At present there are a number of mechanisms by which older people with unorthodox academic preparation can study here. Through the Special Students program, a limited number of people, most of whom already have a bachelor's degree, are admitted. Such students are accepted because of some extraordinary type of preparation, or of some circumstances in their personal life. For instance, a former Air Force pilot who was held prisoner in a North Vietnameses POW camp in Hanoi was granted permission to study sociology in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. But the Special Students program is small: it is run on an ad hoc basis, and because most of its students study as graduates, they come into little contact with undergraduates.


Expanded diversity could be achieved through a change in admissions policy. But there are other possible approaches as well and it is with these that the Rosovsky committee should concern itself. One such alternative is already in the planning stages, according to Robert J. Kiely, associate dean for undergraduate education. Together with the Alumni Office, Kiely is working to bring alumni and older people "back to Harvard," because, in his words, the University "would be more realistically representative if more older people were mixed in as students." Kiely would like to see people from a broad range of careers come here both as students, to promote diversity, and as instructors, to present views from people other than pure academicians.

Kiely's program, which is only in the blueprint stages, would attempt to attract lawyers, writers, politicians, and teachers to live for a certain term in the Houses, where they would become an integral part of House education. Indeed, the Houses provide a unique opportunity for exposing students to people who have received their education in the world outside. Some of the courses to be taught next year in the vitalized House seminar program are intended to make use of such an approach. For instance, a seminar on the "Legal and Ethical Problems in Medicine" will employ a staff of physicians and lawyers who will use the course as a "forum for the interaction of professional persons."

Harvard currently has several programs for bringing professionals to Cambridge. Through the Nieman Foundation journalists from across the nation spend a year's term here, both studying and, at times, giving informal instruction. The Institute of Politics attracts people involved in government who give extracurricular seminars in selected topics on current events. But the contact between these non-academicians and undergraduates takes place largely outside the channels of course work. If the University were to expand such programs and to permit people without a Corporation appointment to teach undergraduate courses, which it now prohibits, the instruction provided in a large range of fields--including law, government, education, sociology, psychology and the arts--would be enriched.

The next step would inevitably follow: students themselves would be enabled to clothe the skeleton of theoretical inquiry with the practical knowledge gained only from work in the field. The thunder in this area has already been stolen by such schools as Antioch, where students divide their time equally between classroom study and employment on the outside. But such a program leaves the student to integrate these two antipodal experiences on his own. It is in providing the framework for a synthesis of theoretical and practical education that Harvard can serve as a pioneer.

Harvard has given credit for fieldwork in the past, but only for either individual projects or for specialized courses in departments such as psychology. What the new Redbook committee might do is to establish the concept of fieldwork combined with academic work as a governing principle of education at Harvard, making it available to all on a wide range of subject matter. Next year, for the first time, General Education will offer a 100-level course in which fieldwork constitutes an important part of the instruction: "Education, Learning, and the Theories and Practice of Teaching" will combine readings and critical discussions in educational philosophies and learning theories with a minimum of three hours a week of teaching in the Cambridge public schools.

The House seminars have served to provide similar opportunities to students, although they are offered on a more limited basis than upper-level Gen Ed courses, they indicate strategies that the Redbook committee might consider. In next year's seminar on the "Problems of Bilingual People in an Urban Environment," the student's research will be based on his work as a volunteer in agencies such as schools and hospitals in a Boston bilingual community. The combination of fieldwork with rigorous academic inquiry offers a fruitful organizing principle for the Gen Ed program. It might infuse liberal education at Harvard with a spirit that has waned in the 30 years since the original Redbook attempted to form the Harvard student in the mold of the Renaissance man.

So far, the only specific topic slated for the Rosovsky committee agenda is education in the freshman year. The topic will be raised by Dean Kiely who steered the CUE through a year-long study of the freshman year in 1972-73. Kiely's choice of focus was in part a tactical one. Since freshman year is the only one in which departments have few vested interests, it represents an area where the would-be reformer is least likely to encounter Faculty resistance. The outcome of the CUE review, Kiely's "Notes Toward a Discussion of Freshman Year," outlines a proposal for an alternate program for the freshman year. His "Notes" will provide a basis for the new committee's study of the undergraduate curriculum.

Kiely's report attacks the Gen Ed program on several counts. One major complaint cited in the report is that Gen Ed has become a "collection of departmental splinters" with little reference to the "philosophical" questions and broad areas of learning that supposedly set general education apart from specialized study. More specifically, the report criticizes Gen Ed's failure to counterbalance the "lack of coherence," the laissez-faire or smorgasbord approach to education, that characterizes Harvard's freshman curriculum.

Kiely's proposed solution is not a return to a strict core curriculum: "We are less ready than our claim superiority for 'western civilization.' " Instead he suggests an experimental program of five to ten thematic or "nodal subject" seminars--such as "The Italian Renaissance," "The City," or "Technology,"--to be taught by teams of a half dozen junior and senior Faculty members and teaching fellows from different departments. These seminars would count for all but two of the freshmen's eight half-courses and would replace the whole baggage of Gen Ed, language and expos requirements, with the exception of Natural Science. They would each contain 20 to 40 students and, at the start, would be offered as an option to following the present distribution system.

The merits of Kiely's proposals are worth considering. First, it would offer freshmen the opportunity to grapple with events, issues and problems in a serious and coherent framework that cuts across academic departments. The objection that it is premature and arbitrary for freshman to concentrate on a single theme or historical period is naive, as every freshman discovers. Selecting a melange of half-courses from the catalogue inevitably involves a large dose of arbitrary choices. Besides, what is crucial is not whether one spends freshman year at Harvard studying Roman civilization or the modern city but whether one gains a grasp of what intellectual inquiry is about and how it can affect and inform all aspects of life.