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Between black and white: Rosovsky takes on education

By Margaret A. Shapiro

Dean Rosovsky is a confident man. Word has it that under his three-year tutelage, the Faculty is running extraordinarily smoothly, rationally and with what little dirty laundry there is carefully circumscribed and tagged 'for internal consumption only.' Rosovsky has, in a sense, accomplished what many considered a Herculean task: in the wake of the '60s tumult, during which the administration came to personify evil, he has, according to one dean, "restored the trust of the Faculty, reestablished the joint desire of the dean and the Faculty to get things done." His moderately conservative image and politics have been forgotten, or perhaps have become unimportant, along with most issues of the '60s; Rosovsky today is known throughout the Faculty as a straight-shooter.

Although many criticize his administrative appointments as lacking far-sightedness--often, the charge is, he picks people he likes--virtually all agree the goals he has set for himself and the Faculty--balancing the budget and reassessing Harvard's undergraduate education--are sound. When Rosovsky first entered his post three years ago he outlined these objectives--what he calls his "Five-Year Plan" for the five years he intends to serve as dean--and since that time he has confidently set out in hot pursuit with, in many cases, instantaneous success.

So it is no surprise that Rosovsky, a successful economist, exudes self-assurance and has become the Faculty's golden boy. But some say he is too confident, say that in his dogged pursuit of what he believes he tends to judge issues in black and white terms, quickly becoming impatient with the nuances of the gray.

It is not that Rosovsky wears blinders, he just seems uninterested in the type of palace intrigues and haggling--some would say extended debate--that has taken much of his predecessors' time. Nonetheless, on most issues the Faculty has been fairly impressed by the meticulous way he studies, and for the most part resolves, the issues confronting the Faculty. But until recently, none of these issues seemed too serious, or perhaps, too philosophical; they didn't require that Rosovsky stick his neck out far to deal with them. Budgets can be dealt with in definite terms--their solution is confined within certain limits and involves specific building blocks. And although Rosovsky says he is concerned that he not earn a reputation solely for being a financial dean--"I don't like to be thought of as just a walking dollar sign"--he will quickly add that he prefers the present "to the period of the late 1960s--I find it easier to deal with budgets than to be thrown out of buildings."

But Rosovsky has now raised an issue more complex than he had, perhaps, bargained for. The solution to "Whither the liberal arts education?" is neither black nor white; if it emerges it will do so from a much more nebulous territory where Rosovsky's iron hand packs little clout.

Re-evaluating and restructuring undergraduate education is no easy task. When the Faculty last tackled the issue around 1963, in the Doty Committee review, no conclusion was reached and the Faculty at that point began to relinquish its tight rein on the direction of undergraduate education. The staple of that education--General Education--first emerged at Harvard after World War II. It was, at the time, a revolutionary idea, and Harvard, always a leader in its field, took the Gen Ed gauntlet from Chicago and Columbia. Gen Ed was set up amidst post-war optimism with the idea that an educated person should know the wonders of the Western World. (Africa, South America and Asia were not yet seen as part of the "cultural or intellectual legacy" of a Harvard educated American. This philosophy, first articulated in the 1945 report, "General Education in a Free Society"--the so-called Redbood--was accepted by most members of Harvard's Faculty

But over the past 30 years General Education has lost its direction. The number of course offerings has proliferated without purpose, according to Rosovsky. The last three decades have left Gen Ed--what Rosovsky says should be "the common denominator of a Harvard-Radcliffe education"--the victim of undirected flux. As one University Hall administrator said recently, "The Gen Ed program today is interesting but it's a smorgasbord; there is no real philosophy behind it any more."

After 1945, there was an attitude among the Faculty, a member of the educational review's coordinating committee said last month, that "was based on the assumption that 'we know what's right for students.' But the Faculty has lost a lot of confidence and sureness of what's right or wrong for curriculum, and seems to share students' views that it's impossible to know what all students should learn." And in many ways the '60s have made faculty members more reluctant to require, even in the form of courses, anything from students that may provoke discontent. The last three decades since the institutionalization of Gen Ed have also seen a progressive disillusionment throughout American society that has affected Harvard. As Francis M. Pipkin, associate dean of the Faculty for the Colleges, says, "As opposed to 1945, this is a more pessimistic time, less expansive, lacking the 'upward and onward' mentality. When Gen Ed began, we had just won the World War and things looked rosy. Now it seems like there are problems everywhere, and who feels qualified to decide what an education should be about?"

But this is precisely what Dean Rosovsky is intent on doing. "When Henry first started out he wanted to improve education at Harvard, but as things progressed it became the issue of what the purpose is, and that touched education universally. He now wants a statement of what the whole thing means, a statement for medium-sized private universities like this about what should be done in the 1980s for undergraduate education," Pipkin says. This is certainly the aim, as Rosovsky admits, yet all statements of this sort are tempered by further disclaimers maintaining that "nothing radical will come of this" or "success is uncertain" or "the examination is worthwhile even if it fails." In a sense, Rosovsky realizes this is a giant undertaking that rests smack in the middle of the gray areas he's so uncomfortable with; he is, therefore, far from anxious to immediately put all his marbles in one bag.

It is not a fear of failure on Rosovsky's part; rather, a wariness about how future Samuel Eliot Morisons will treat his tenure as dean. Anyone in Rosovsky's position of power naturally will have these worries and vanities: he recently asked a Crimson reporter why The Crimson gave so much press to an affirmative action demonstration by 200 in the Yard but ran no story on The New York Times's editorial praise of his educational review. Rosovsky's concern is that history may not treat him so well--although he did balance the budget--both because the review, as far as it has progressed to date, seems headed towards empty grand statements and because Rosovsky seems intent on pushing through conservative reforms.

Though Rosovsky says he does not want to push the educational clock back, his personal views of what a "proper" education is runs decidedly against the grain of liberalized reforms of the past decade. He has said he believes liberal education has been weakened because of the "exaggerated permissiveness" of recent years. And because the task forces he has set up to review undergraduate curriculum and life take their cues from him--he denies this although everyone involved sees the entire review as his brainchild--their recommendations will undoubtedly reflect a desire to tighten up the educational system.

In his October 1975 Letter to the Faculty on Undergraduate Education--the so-called "yellow letter"--Rosovsky outlined his criticisms of the present undergraduate system, criticisms he obviously believes have resulted from the "new liberalizations." Although he maintains that "nothing we are proposing will be terribly restrictive," he nonetheless believes "the problem today is that people have too many choices." Unlike several members of his staff and of the Faculty, Rosovsky says he does not think "that students are in a position" to decide what their educational priorities should be: he calls this his "legendary conservatism in these matters."

"Somewhere between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of the students who come here are the perfect Harvard students--aggressive, they take advantage of facilities. But then there are 70 per cent who don't take advantage, they just drift and need to be given direction," he says. To a certain extent students are able to decide what educational courses they want to pursue, but, Rosovsky believes, as he recently told a gathering of alumni, that the Harvard curriculum is too varied for undergraduates to make intelligent, broadening decisions, "Our curriculum at the moment resembles too much a Chinese menu, a very good menu. But I think that a Chinese menu in the hands of a novice can often result in less than a perfect meal. I would like to supply a few waiters."

Because of the secrecy surrounding virtually all the task forces--and the fact that the work of most is behind schedule--it is difficult to understand, except in the most vague terms, exactly what those proposed waiters will be. On the general level they obviously will include a more structured educational environment, one which attempts to redefine the Faculty's priorities for what a student should be required to study. Rosovsky willingly admits that he believes "some subjects are more important than others. French, for instance, is more important than Albanian--in terms of the body of knowledge associated with it." The only points on which the task forces, or the Faculty, seem to agree are that an "educated person" should know something about a Western culture, a non-Western culture and should be exposed to technology. "But from here on," as one administrative Faculty-watcher recently said, "The Faculty will fly off in all different directions."

The issues that should prove to be most controversial in the Faculty center on undergraduate concentrations and the creation of a core curriculum--a revitalized General Education. While many of the task forces are behind schedule in their work, Paul C. Martin '52, chairman of the Physics Department and of the task force on concentrations, says that his panel is completing its final recommendations now. Aside from suggesting that communications between students and the various concentrations be improved, however, the task force continues to waffle. Martin says he is unsure what should be done with selective enrollment, or elite, majors like Social Studies, History and Literature and History of Science, although he acknowledges the need for the closer interaction between students and departmental faculty provided by the elite majors. "We have looked seriously to alternatives to the present system which would allow these concentrations to keep their limited enrollment but would have them admit students at a later point," Martin says. Under this proposal, sophomore tutorials in elite majors would be open to all, and selection by the limited concentrations would occur before junior year. The second alternative would open enrollment to all, using severe requirements to encourage a Darwinian type of natural selection. As Martin admits, there are valid arguments in favor of both proposals--and in favor of no changes--and the Faculty, which in this case must make the final decision, will undoubtedly gear itself up for a heated dispute.

This task force evidently also felt that many majors--particularly the large ones in the social sciences like Government or History--have no hierarchy or order to the learning they expect from concentrators. As Rosovsky said in his "yellow letter," there is no "self-evident pattern of sequence" in these areas.

This situation should be remedied, according to Martin, because the function of a major is to allow "students to reach to level of proficiency at which it is possible for them to put together and apply information in their department." Essentially, sources say, Martin's task force is concluding that things aren't in bad shape; there are trouble points, most of which, it would seem, the task force doesn't deal with too heavily, but the philosophy behind the idea of a Harvard concentration is valid.

It's unlikely the task force on core curriculum--undoubtedly the most controversial subject--will produce much more definitive results. It is in this area that Rosovsky's hand, exerted through the leadership of James Q. Wilson, Shattuck Professor of Government, will most likely be seen. Core curriculum--based, like the early Gen Ed, on the philosophy that there are certain basic courses everyone should take--inspires the most vehement Faculty reactions. Although Rosovsky now says he has not yet settled how he feels about a core curriculum, all the statements he has made to date about structuring curriculum indicate that "yellow letter II"--the report he will release next fall on the work of the task forces--will not outline a system of total electives, but will include some form of core.

Wilson speaks only in generalities about the work of his task force. "The one thing I find impossible to understand is how anyone could justify the status quo. At present we're in the vacuous middle between strict requirements and none at all. The most useful thing to come out of these discussions is a serious debate over requirements," Wilson says, partially echoing Rosovsky. Wilson also believes, along with Rosovsky, that "there are certain areas more deserving than others of study," and that students should be introduced to them. "All courses are important but certain skills, the ability to see things from different perspectives, are more important," he adds.

Wilson's task force favors requirements, sources say--not adding them to the already existing structure but making them tighter. He acknowledges that this issue will be the touchiest in the review, but he believes a strong case--based on the assumption that "people come here because college is taught by people who know what is intellectually important, not just intellectually different"--can be made supporting the task force's recommendations. "We simply want to make the expectations that the Faculty has of students more specific," he says.

In Wilson's mind, students can still make choices, but must remain within specific guidelines. Students, he feels, would seek a pre-professional education when they should be more expansive, more well-rounded. All this sounds, no doubt as it is supposed to, somewhat vague. But what this task force is heading towards is, according to Pipkin, "an elegant statement of some simple thing of where we all are going. But this is a difficult task in this day and age. Perhaps too difficult."

In fact the whole review may be too difficult an undertaking and may leave Harvard in the same quagmire that engulfed Yale and Princeton after their recent reviews of undergraduate education. Some changes no doubt will emerge, since the task force proposals will be put through in piecemeal Faculty legislation--the least likely route to success--along with administrative fiats and subtle persuasion. But then again, it all may end up being no more than a collection of elegant statements--like Dean Rosovsky's discussion of "re-establishing civilized discourse among educated men"--lost somewhere in the gray area between black and white.CrimsonSandy O. Steingard

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