A tutor in the History Department said last week that several Department members were "furious" after the Department handed down a decision giving five seniors failing grades on their general examinations.
The five students, who cannot graduate until they pass another set of generals to be given next year, comprise the largest group of students flunking History general examinations in the past five years.
The tutor, who asked to remain unidentified, said the Board of Examiners in History gave the large number of failing grades in part because the Board had "a more hard-line group of people this year than in the past--soft-liners who might have supported the students had left."
The tutor said members of the department agree that the students did very poorly on the examinations. He said the principal question revolves around whether "we should fail them when we allowed them to go so far" in the department.
Stephen A. Thernstrom, professor of History and a member of the Board of Examiners, yesterday denied allegations that the Board had a "hard-line" attitude.
He said the minimum standards for a passing grade "were inconceivably low" and had not changed from previous years.
The tutor said the most disturbing problem about the large number of failing grades "was that it had been so long since this has happened." "It came as a total surprise," he added.
The tutor and Thernstrom both said the small number of failing grades given in recent years led some seniors to believe they did not have to study seriously for the general examinations. (The topics covered by the questions in the general examinations are given out several months before the test.)
More than ten seniors failed the written portion of the non-honors general examination. These students were then required to take an oral examination. The Board of Examiners voted to fail five of the students.
Although the Board vote was upheld in a department meeting, the tutor said many members of the department at the meeting expressed discontent with the board's decision.
The tutor said there were some questions raised over whether several of the students would do better in general examinations to be given next year, and whether it was fair to fail students whom the department had been passing in courses for four years.
Thernstrom said "the question of failing people on general examinations gets down" to the question of whether the exams should be given at all.
Thernstrom said the present format of general examinations is a valid one for "testing competence in a small area of history." The department should therefore be able to exercise the option of failing students who do very poorly on the test, he said.
The names of the five students who failed the examination have not been released.
Edward L. Keenan '57, professor of History and chairman of the Board of Examiners, and Ernest R. May, chairman of the department, could not be reached for comment.