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Contemplative Complacency


By Gay Seidman

PERHAPS THE MOST STRIKING THING about President Bok's fifth annual report is his failure to offer answers to most of the questions he raises about the different Harvard faculties, their roles in society and their internal focus. The omission is not surprising: it stems from the breadth of the issues he brings up, and suggests that Bok, like the various faculties, is not quite sure that answers exist at all.

He does not, for example, grapple at length with the core curriculum proposal, a major issue in education at the College. In part this may be because he does not wish to openly alter the course of the current faculty debates on the subject, but it is somewhat surprising that he does no more than reiterate the general sentiment that general education needs some kind of boost. Nor does he offer any solutions to the problems the Ed and Divinity School are facing, with graduates that are an odd cross between professionals and academics, or the Med School's problems with developing a good primary care program. He only brings the questions up, looks at them briefly, and moves on to the next school.

This may, of course, be all anyone could to in such a format. An overview designed to acquaint members of the Corporation and other alumni with University issues probably cannot go into great detail; that is for other reports, aimed at more specific audiences. It may well be beyond anyone's capacity to delve deeply into questions about the nature of education in various fields in a 53-page summary of five years of experience.

Nevertheless, some of Bok's own biases emerge clearly. He is obviously preoccupied with the relation of the University to the rest of society--about the extent to which faculty members train their students to fill some useful role. This is an elitist view of Harvard, of course; he concludes with a brief statement of the role of the private university, describing such institutions as training grounds for the future leaders of America. "Society cannot develop the leadership it needs," he writes, "unless its ablest young people have an opportunity to come together and learn under the best possible conditions and from the most accomplished scholars"--and he obviously doesn't foresee a time when that place will be the state University of Wisconsin.

Given that bias--probably inherent in his position as Harvard's president--it is not surprising that Bok calls repeatedly for more federal aid to private school students. It is a little hard to take, in that he has always said before now that the government should stop interfering in private universities' activities, but he claimed in an interview recently that there is a big difference between federal aid to students and the same money donated in large grants to institutions. Aid to students would not give the government license to interfere with internal University policies, he says, while institutional grants would. Perhaps he is right. Of course, it would probably be cheaper for the government to give its money to state schools directly rather than to private school students. But if you argue, as he does, that private institutions make far greater contributions to society than do their public counterparts, well, that probably doesn't come into consideration.

Certainly the belief that Harvard should work to provide society with leaders colors Bok's discussion of the state of education here. In the professional schools, he argues, the faculties must beware that they do not become "so preoccupied with the immediate needs of their professions that they lose the perspective needed to appreciate the larger issues that society is pressing upon the profession." In the research-oriented professional schools--Divinity, Education, Design and Public Health--he emphasizes the need for more practical training alongside the research, to give graduates definite, marketable skills; and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, he says, must be ready to train its graduates to fill posts outside of the traditional academic sphere. But there is an emphasis on quality throughout, on a clear "sense of mission": Bok is almost asking Harvard to return, in a sense, to being a source of spiritual guidance for the rest of the country (as it was in its early days as a religious seminary)--since Bok stresses the need for a University response to a growing international community.

Very little that is contained in Bok's report is likely to prove controversial; as Dean Rosovsky pointed out when the report was published, if a dean disagreed with anything in the rough drafts, he (all of the deans at Harvard continue to be male and white) would certainly have ironed it out before the report was released to the general public. But apparently there wasn't even that much disagreement.

Bok opens his report with the statement that the University has "entered a period of precarious stability" after 25 years of growth and change, then student unrest, and at last financial stringency. If this stability--based as it seems to be on a general consensus that what's good for Harvard is good for the nation--is precarious, then it's hard to help asking what kind of stability is unshakeable.

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