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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

One Piano Tuner

BRASS TACKS

By Jim Cramer

NO MATTER how one feels about the concentration task force recommendation to open the limited enrollment concentrations, the document's clearcut stand and well-defined arguments must be admired. Similarly, regardless of the programs suggested, the core curriculum task force's report must be praised for its boldness and originality. Both documents, particularly the core curriculum statements, are models of concise and clear wording. Although both task forces were faced with the possibilities that their programs would not be enacted, neither hedged on difficult positions. The core curriculum group ran the risk of alienating many segments of the community with its radically different proposals for a more structured core of courses. The concentrations task force refused to compromise on the position of open concentrations even in the face of potentially vigorous opposition from the History and Literature Department.

In light of the merits of these two task force reports, the college life task force report, released this week, seems unimpressive and disappointing. The first reports gave indications that Dean Rosovsky's review of undergraduate education could result in at least a different, more rational College. This report seems to confirm that at least one part of the College--college life--will remain the same. A look at the report's recommendations reveals none of the boldness or the integrity of its predecessors. For the most part, there is almost nothing in this report that administrators, Faculty and students who must use this report to help fashion a plan for the future of undergraduate education, don't know already.

Its opening recommendations for improvements in the House system provide examples of all the shortcomings of the study. The report opens with a suggestion to reorganize the dean's office to create more coordination between that office and House masters. Task force chairman Stephen Williams, director of the Peabody Museum, notes that this recommendation is one of the task force's highest priorities. Yet, as the report explains in a footnote, most of these administrative changes were being made while the report was being written.

Following that recommendation are a series of suggestions for better House administration, none of which can be considered new. These include a job description for tutors, improvements for facilities, especially the Quad's and the replacement of the title "co-master" by "associate master," a post which would bring a small stipend. Serving as a testimonial to the weakness of the recommendations is this closing note about the dangers of House mis-management: "Even in so small a matter as the tuning and upkeep of pianos, the Houses have functioned as autonomous units, each Master hiring his own tuner. As of 1976-77, however, all pianos will be taken care of by one [italics theirs] tuner. This small innovation in procedures ought to serve as a model of coordination for maintenance in the Houses."

THESE STALE suggestions would not be so unfortunate if there were nothing really wrong with House administration. But unmasked House surveys from the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation show that there is some strong student dissatisfaction with the ways particular masters run their Houses. Also, the task force does not attempt to deal with the problem of the revolving--door Masters, when Houses experience one, two or even three masters within a single College generation. The way such deep-seated problems are attacked clearly draws a distinction between this report and a task force report such as the core curriculum group's. Whereas the core curriculum task force recognized that the general education system is failing, and was not afraid to offend the program's constituents, the college life task force preferred to duck the master problem altogether. Instead of addressing the fact that some masters are not performing their jobs adequately, the group simply asks that a new master's handbook be issued. Instead of trying to solve the problem of not being able to get or maintain top-flight masters, the report recommends that there be more coordination between the new and the old.

The report's most repetitive moments come when it discusses alternatives to the current House system. After discussing how students live in Cleverly and Canaday and other House offshoots, the report surmises, in what seems like a tongue-in-cheek statement: "Thus we maintain that we have a House system and yet hundreds of students do not really live within it." One must wonder where the task force members were last year when all the discussions about their revelation took place. One thing became very clear from that discussion: the so-called 1-1-2 plan, with freshmen living in the Quad, sophomores in the Yard, and juniors and seniors in the River Houses, had few supporters and had a monkey-wrench effect on the discussion. Most of the discussants spent so much of their time and energy trying to kill this plan that it diverted them from drawing up constructive recommendations. Now, totally blind to that history, the task force has sought to revive that option. The report labels the 1-1-2 plan the "most interesting alternative" and says that it "might again be seriously considered."

The task force does make one commendable recommendation in the housing field, the adoption of a pre-assignment plan for fresh-man housing. Although this version of the Yale plan is hardly a new idea-in fact it was debated fiercely without being adopted in the fall of 1975-it is a sound proposal. By assigning freshmen to Houses before they arrive, the plan would eliminate free choice. Although that is an attractive goal to lose, Harvard's present housing system does not allow this goal to be attained. With pre-assignment the meaningless anguish surrounding the current choice system would be avoided. Students assigned to a House with a second-class image would enjoy their House far more than they would after a freshman year of indoctrination. Such a plan coupled with the task force's recommendations to allow transfers in sophomore year and to make sure that some balance in Houses can be maintained, might succeed in rescuing the current system. But the plan must also entail improving Quad facilities and expanding shuttle but service, two suggestions that the task force makes but is unable to authorize funds for.

THE STUDY then offers some mundane advice for House courses, including continued support from the Faculty. Again, the recommendation is a good one, especially in light of suspected departmental opposition. But there are no bold initiatives suggested for House courses. Similarly, the task force supports more student-faculty contact through the Houses. But there are no concrete suggestions that would compel faculty members to join students in the dining hall.

The report does suggest that arts be strengthened, stating: "It was the consensus of the task force that curricular offerings should be expanded and that credit should be given routinely for adequately supervised work in the arts." But it is important to note that in the summary of the task force's major recommendations, the task force has chosen not to give this recommendation as strong a priority as its dean's office reorganization, no-choice, and House course recommendations. The task force is shying away from a fight on this issue. Task force chairman Williams further underscored this unwillingness to do battle with the proposal's entrenched enemies when he said in an interview that the task force included the recommendation only so that art and music people can say "here is one more committee that supports the arts." The tragedy of this reasoning is that the task force is not merely one more committee. As part of Rosovsky's major review the task force plays a much greater role in making policy than other Harvard committees. But this task force presumably did not want to play that role.

Uncharacteristically for Harvard committees, the task force is at its best when describing recommendations for the improvement of community relations. This section of the report contains the most original and well-conceived recommendations, including the establishment of a Voter Information Program for students and the suggestion that community affairs and issues be included in the academic structure. Also the report asks that the University contribute the part-time salary for an educational advisor who could provide advice and instruction to student volunteers at Phillips Brooks House, a suggestion with great merit. Perhaps only because of its novelty in a report filled with so much unoriginal thinking, the task force's suggestion that Memorial Hall be turned into a coffee house or a beer hall seems admirable. Such a move would create a meeting place for students and Faculty, something now noticeably lacking in the Square. But an entertaining suggestion should not detract us from concluding that the overall report is uncreative and vague.

Williams is aware that the report is filled with broad generalities--an introductory note uses the term "broad" three times in characterizing the report--and he defends the vagueness by noting that the subject, college life, is a broad topic. "This report is a bit like life itself," he says. "Some of it is mundane. Some of it is better than life itself. A better locker room for girls in athletics is a different thing than core curriculum."

Indeed, the subject matter is different. But the difference is no defense for ducking away from strong stands. It is no rationale for compromising to avoid fights. Instead of bringing fresh ideas to light in an imaginative manner, the task force has given us 160 pages of unoriginal suggestions. The result is a mass of squandered opportunities and a blow to those who hoped for an undergraduate review that will give us more than incremental change.

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