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Finding an idea for the modern era

By David Beach

Samuel H. Beer, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government, told a Faculty meeting this spring that general education was an important educational development in the '40s because it flowed from the character of the era. The challenge facing the Faculty in its current review of undergraduate education, Beer said, was to be sensitive to new ideas that might be trying to emerge from the conditions of modern society.

The Faculty seems to have risen to meet the challenge, but the move has been a long time in coming. President Bok originally suggested a review of undergraduate education when he assumed office in 1971, but it wasn't until 1974 that Dean Rosovsky felt the political sturggles of the late '60s had faded enough for faculty and students to join in constructive discussion of long-neglected educational issues.

In his 1974 letter to the Faculty, Rosovsky outlined the major educational problems he believed had arisen during the preceding 25 years, ranging from a rapidly expanding body of knowledge to an increasingly diversified student body. In the spring of '75, he appointed seven student-faculty task forces to examine Harvard's-concentrations, college life, composition of the student body, advising and counseling, educational resources, and possible pedagogical improvements, with a special committee to examine the possibility of setting up a core of required courses.

All but two of the task forces have released their reports, and, predictably, the only one that has produced real controversy is that of the task force on core curriculum. Rosovsky's strategy for implementing that report has been to move slowly, involving as many faculty members as possible in drawing up the final proposal. So it isn't surprising that Charles P. Whitlock, associate dean of the Faculty and coordinator of the task forces, said recently it may take three or four years for the full program to be implemented.

Perhaps the major question that remains unanswered is whether the slow move toward the core will result in an innovative system of education, or whether it will simply consist of the old General Education program with new labels--whether it will be, as Beer put it, the idea of the modern era, or simply the idea of the '40s revisited.

Harvard's efforts to devise a new structure for undergraduate education have certainly received a great deal of publicity. Whitlock has received more than 400 letters from college and university administrators across the country asking whether Harvard has come up with anything in its educational review. Many of the letterwriters are thinking of Harvard's traditional image as a leader of curricular reform when they write, Whitlock said. "Half the country thinks we've already solved the problems of undergraduate education and that all we have to do now is send a report."

The other half of the country is a little more skeptical. Many of the letters, especially those from educations at more selective schools, are rather sarcastic, saying things like, "Good luck. We haven't been able to do it and we'll be surprised if you can do any better."

But many Harvard observers say the odds are that the reforms currently under consideration will not have the widespread impact of the original Gen Ed proposals. David Riesman '31, Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus, said last week he believes only a few schools--the highly selective one and those with small, cohesive student bodies--could even consider the idea of a core curriculum seriously. Other less well-endowed schools must worry about market forces: they could lose students if they institute too many requirements.

Paradoxically, it was market forces that persuaded the Faculty to take Rosovsky's educational review seriously. Time after time, Rosovsky warned that competition for students is likely to intensify over the next 15 years, as demographic patterns change and as students find that many public institutions offer an education comparable to that they could find at Harvard--with a much lower price tag. Rosovsky hopes the current effort will creat an undergraduate program with such distinctive requirements and well-articulated priorities that all doubts about the value of a Harvard education will be dispelled.

Harvard still seems to have room to procede fairly slowly with its educational review--a much higher rate of high school seniors accept places at Harvard than anywhere else. The College can ride the crest of its reputation for a while longer, it seems, because at the moment no one else is doing a better job of defining the meaning of education in our age. But one administrator admitted recently that it could be damaging to Harvard's current efforts if a charismatic educational leader emerged elsewhere--and that leader could emerge at any time.

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