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Assessing the Task Forces

Brass Tacks

By Jim Cramer

ALMOST TWO YEARS ago Dean Rosovsky presented a speech describing the bold recommendations that would come from his task forces reviewing undergraduate education. He said the committees would produce a broad statement of purpose much like the type Harvard produced more than 25 years ago in the famous Red Book which defined General Education. He said the task forces would make recommendations with a view of the world a decade from now in mind. He cited the possibilities of requiring students to study different social systems, such as those taught in China, Russia and Africa. Students would be taught a minimal understanding of math and technology. The review was to be Rosovsky's bid to insure that Harvard remained at the pinnacle of undergraduate education. The program sounded exciting, challenging and different.

Now with all but two of the task forces reporting, Rosovsky's words seem much more like hollow promises than a serious preview of things to come. Without exception, the task force reports released so far have either been disappointing or have been turned into disappointments by the Faculty committee process. A breakdown of the results of these task forces shows how disheartening the review has become.

It is easiest to dismiss the recommendations of the three most recently released reports. For example, the long-awaited task force report on the composition of the student body, released in late April, recommended that the Harvard-Radcliffe admissions office continue to do a fine job in admitting good candidates. The task force on pedagogical improvement recommended that if the College wanted good teachers it should hire good teachers--an interesting if mundane suggestion it took two years to mull over. The need to consider teaching qualities in tenuring faculty members is an important recommendation. But it is one that will most likely not be followed to any great extent by a Faculty and an administration that have always believed that teaching should not be considered nearly as important as scholarly ability in tenure decisions. The task force was negligent in not recommending any substantive proposals for improving Harvard's teaching. But the negligence was not coincidence; Harvard faculty members, perhaps out of pride, have always resisted attempts by anyone to tell them how to teach. No task force could change that truculence.

Perhaps the most comical recommendations came from the ill-fated task force on college life. That report, of all things, suggested that the housing crisis at Harvard be solved by exactly the means that Dean Fox rejected. As alternatives, the task force favored four-year Houses (ideally), then mentioned that the 1-1-2 plan seemed interesting, and finally favored putting all freshmen at the Quad. The Fox plan received only token mention. The task force members also wanted a no-choice system of House selection and more aid to the arts. But no one from the task force did anything to see that these suggestions were even discussed, let alone mandated. The task force also recommended that Memorial Hall be turned into a beer hall and that there be a coordinated plan to tune House pianos. However, those suggestions don't seem to fit the pattern of bold recommendations with a ten-year perspective that Rosovsky outlined.

Perhaps the biggest shame of the review is that the two task forces with the most bold recommendations, concentrations and core curriculum, have had their recommendations altered or rejected while moving through the Faculty committees filter. The task force on concentrations, in a brave and commendable report, recommended that the elite concentrations be opened if the resources could be found to handle the influx of students. The report said the elite stature of the concentrations was unfair and unnecessary. The task force had only one dissenter, Alan E. Heimert '49, chairman of the committee of instruction of History and Literature, who argued that the task force failed to consider the interdisciplinary nature of History and Literature and the special combination of skills of interests the field requires from students. Heimert said that the provision to allocate more resources does not consider the scarcity of graduate students trained to instruct in the interdisciplinary fields.

It did not matter to the Faculty Council, which considered the report, that this argument is rooted more in fiction than fact: most of the tutors in History and Literature are either history grad students or literature grad students. And it did not matter to the council that very few of the tutors have any interdisciplinary training at all. It accepted the position that the Faculty could not provide the selective concentrations with the resources and staff they would need to open up and voted by a slim margin not to endorse the task force's proposal. It is obvious that the council simply was scared that a department like History and Literature would be flooded with more candidates than available resources could cover, and it therefore felt that it was easier to do nothing rather than to risk the unknown.

But it is annoying that the council chose not to examine critically the dubious arguments of the representatives of History and Literature. The council did not seem to see through the interdisciplinary argument to the real reason History and Literature did not want the concentration opened: some members simply like the elite stature of the major. They wanted to preserve their little haven at all costs.

Even more painful was the Faculty Council's mangling of the core curriculum task force's original report, which recommended that there be required courses in mathematical reasoning, and its application, physical sciences, biological sciences, western culture, non-western culture, political and moral philosophy and modern social analysis. I should mention from the outset I have been personally opposed to the plan because of the required nature of the offerings, although I believe that a group of advisory introductory courses in these specific areas would be a welcome addition to the program. But the Faculty Council, in a resolution endorsed by the Faculty, has taken these eight distinct courses and produced a five-area plan that is in part unrecognizable from the core task force's proposal, and, more unfortunately, in other ways much like the current system.

For example, in place of the three distinct science offerings, now exists "Math and Science," which according to the Faculty resolution will cover "the critical understanding of science and its use in the systematic analysis of natural and human phenomena." This change, as well as all the other changes made by the Council, are temporary and will be debated next fall, before a final vote sometime in the future. But instead of the rigorous offerings in physics, math and biology, the revised area's heading is broad enough to include many of the current Nat Sci offerings and a host of Psych and Soc Rel courses. Contrary to Rosovsky's wishes, students will not necessarily receive a minimal level of math or technological understanding. But more important, the heading will probably end up like the natural science section of the current Gen Ed scheme.

Perhaps Wilson's core committee seemed seemed to give the Humanities short shrift in the original report, the Faculty Council has seemingly overcompensated. It has devoted two of the new areas to "Arts and Letters" and "Foreign Languages and Cultures." There is nothing wrong with such a catch-all area as "Arts and Letters" except for the fact that it moves far away from the distinct headings of the task force's report. But the addition of "Foreign Languages and Cultures" in place of "Non-Western Civilization" effectively eliminates Rosovsky's hopes for everyone learning about Third World or Socialist systems. The Faculty's resolution to try to tie the programs to language study further insures that students will probably opt for European offerings instead of non-western courses.

The Faculty Council created the heading "Social and Philosophical Analysis" because it found Wilson's category "Political and Social Philosophy" difficult to define and hard to isolate from another category, "Modern Social Analysis." But the task force report clearly indicates that "Political and Social Philosophy" was included to stress ethics, while "Modern Social Analysis" was added to teach students economic and sociological approaches to analyzing systems. The amalgamation has compromised both emphases.

The biggest farce, however, is the inclusion of History as a broad required area. Why should History, and not Economics, or Government, or Psych and Soc Rel, be considered the only concentration broad enough to be contained in a core curriculum? The inclusion simply shows that the new core course offerings have come far away from the principle of interdisciplinary modes of thought that the Wilson committee embraced.

IT IS UNCLEAR exactly what we can expect from the next two task forces. The advising and counseling report is apparently delayed because that group doesn't have anything really substantive to report yet. The educational resources task force apparently has had some problems breaking down the way the resources are currently being spent. Perhaps that report could have some major recommendations. But it is doubtful that one task force report could salvage the whole review. The chances of a broad Red Book type of document emerging from the reports seems fairly non-existent at this time.

It is difficult to find causes for the failure of the five task force reports to live up to Dean Rosovsky's original expectations. The fault may lie in the high goals of the review, the unwillingness of the Faculty to change its ways, or Harvard's general complacency. But one thing is certain: if Rosovsky was serious two years ago when he said that other universities are at Harvard's heels and that the review could keep Harvard from falling behind other universities in undergraduate education, then Harvard may not be leading the pack much longer.

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