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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A Parting Shot

By Susan D. Chira president

HARVARD MAKES a promise, casts a spell, and breaks them both. It promises liberal education and conjures an aura of power. The power is conferred upon you by the diploma, which fools the outside world into believing that you are well-educated. When you are inside, of course, you know better. You know you can avoid confronting either a professor or a course. You know that Harvard teaches most people not liberal arts but how to get what you want, or go under. The promise of humanism remains unfulfilled for all but a lucky few, who latch onto the people here who have not lost sight of this University's purpose.

President Bok, in one of his letters to the community defining Harvard's political role, argued that education is this University's primary purpose. He wrote that dissatisfied students should judge Harvard not on its political actions, but on its educational ones. If one accepts for the moment his contention that politics and education are separable, how well then does Harvard educate its students? I have met few students satisfied with their Harvard education. Most long for a mentor, dream wistfully about intellectual excitement or exchange. Many cannot quite conquer the sense of guilt about receiving a good grade for a course they learned two days before the final exam. A history professor once described to me his frustration about the "missing" students here, the ones who get gentlemen's Cs and disappear from official view. These are students who never go to their courses, who have never talked to a professor, who only draw official notice when they fail a general exam or leave. Too many students here lead this intellectual half-life--not least the ones who get good grades.

Many students are frustrated because they sense that the men--and all too few women--who teach them do not really care very much about their intellectual development. Another world consumes the professors' time, the demanding world of scholarship. They must publish, research, direct the training of future scholars, serve on endless committees--no wonder the undergraduate is a burden. If they try to make time for teaching, Harvard smiles and turns them away. Besides, the undergraduate is often inarticulate, ill-prepared. Many Harvard professors showed their contempt for the undergraduate by fiercely resisting Glen Bowersock's attempt to reform tutorials. When Bowersock tried to force professors to teach tutorials--and thus to participate in the formative educational experience of the undergraduate--they balked. It would take too much time. And if they had to teach a tutorial, they would simply have to give up a lecture course.

The intellectual farce that all too often substitutes for education has not escaped official notice. The Core Curriculum is a well-intentioned response to the Harvard Faculty's suspicion that many students are receiving their diplomas without any significant intellectual growth. Well-intentioned, but insufficient. Henry Rosovsky has battled hard for the Core, and is justly proud of guiding it through a touchy Faculty, eager to protect its educational preserves. But he has spent a great deal of his political capital without addressing the root of the problem--he has brought the great Harvard minds before undergraduates, but failed to insure that they will teach any better. Of course, teaching cannot be legislated, and new courses can. It will take far more than a new curriculum to convince recalcitrant faculty members that undergraduates are worthy of their attention and concern.

IT WILL TAKE COMMUNICATION, and the majority of faculty, administrators, and students have demonstrated that they do not care about that. For if faculty shy away from students in the lecture hall, they shut them out of the committee room. Many, although by no means all, faculty and administrators extend their intellectual contempt for students to a political contempt. They dismiss the undergraduate's calls for change as naive or hypocritical. Students do not think of the institution but themselves, the argument runs, and it is the administrator's responsibility to look out for Harvard. These administrators blanch if you suggest that a student's perspective is essential because it is unique. Perhaps a student looks out for himself because he sees that no one else will. Certainly the administrator must protect his institution, but if he ignores students, he won't be able to do his job right. Administrators do not accept that students have a right to a voice in their intellectual development and in setting the rules governing their community.

REPORTING for The Crimson, I have spoken with many administrators who are normally inaccessible, and I do not believe they are morally callous. But they are blinded by their own contempt for students--an attitude they may not acknowledge but is nonetheless pervasive. I sense this contempt in their scorn for idealistic political positions, the anger with which moral questions about University conduct are greeted, the condescension with which they answer student concerns. One administrator once told me he could not respect student activists because they always ended up as lawyers or businessmen, joining the system they vowed to break. Of course, students must also accept responsibility for Harvard's flaws. Student apathy, callousness, selfishness, rudeness or rhetoric may frustrate any attempt at communication, may confirm this unconscious contempt. Students of the '70s have earned the label of apathetic and self-centered, but a better label might be despairing or resigned. They have learned that change will not happen as quickly as they want, and that meanwhile they must eat. But they have a responsibility to continue to believe that change is possible, to cling to idealism. If students do not question Harvard's actions, the leaders of this institution will conclude they are doing the right thing. If professors or administrators disagree with students, they should try to convince them they are wrong. And even if most graduates become doctors, lawyers and businessmen, their concern and their ideas are not invalid. The apostasy of the individual does not discredit the cause.

Harvard should help students see that change is possible, to point out flaws in the world as it is. But Harvard today teaches different lessons. Students who want to learn something here must become very aggressive, running down professors, battling with departmental bureaucracy, juggling schedules, cajoling, demanding. students who want change can either join a token committee--on which they must either behave acceptably or lose any influence--or chant and shout. Students who want to "succeed" here too often feel they must do so by beating out their friends, by academic toadying or by unrelenting competitiveness. Today at Harvard, the majority of students, faculty and administrators are alienated from each other, locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of contempt, resentment and hostility. Professors peer down at students from the podium and avoid them elsewhere. Students don't go to office hours, and if a professor sits down with them at lunch they stammer or leave. Administrators sneer at student activists, who retaliate with accusations of immorality or deliberate evil. Students cry to advisers, and advisers tell them Harvard is no place for the weak.

Harvard toughens its sons and daughters, and Harvard is proud of it. The counseling system is one of the more appalling examples. I know of many shining exceptions to the rule, but much counselling here is inept or cruel. I know one woman who verged on nervous breakdown throughout reading period, gathered the courage to see a senior tutor, walked into the tutor's office to be greeted with, "Now, who are you, anyway?"

Such stories abound, and yet when I repeated some of them to an administrator here, he leaned back in his chair and said that of course these incidents are regrettable, and freshman year is lonely, but he has received so many letters from Harvard alumni thanking the University for its training. Here at Harvard, they learned how to compete in the real world, where no one would hold their hand.

HARVARD DOES PREPARE ONE for the real world. But it does not prepare one to change that world--not educationally, politically, emotionally. Officials who think they can separate education from politics are at best deceiving themselves and at worst undermining the institution they claim to protect. A good education schools an individual to ask questions, to accept nothing as given, to challenge assumptions. An uncritical mind is an uneducated mind. In this sense education is political--an education that does not prepare students to think critically about the world they live in prepares them to accept it the way it is. An education that does not teach compassion, tolerance and sympathy encourages ruthlessness, unbridled competitiveness and insensitivity. An institution that rewards these qualities helps to perpetuate them in the world outside its walls.

I came to Harvard believing in Harvard's promise. I believed a good education would teach me to ask the right questions and decide what to do about the answers. Harvard has taught me these things, partly by inspiration and partly by a perverse example. I found an institution with many good and great people, people whose actions refute all the generalizations I offer here. But I also found a great deal to shock and anger me. I saw this University act callously toward the community it dominates. I saw it refuse to accept moral responsibility for its actions. I saw it deny some students intellectual excitement and emotional aid, and deny all of them a voice in shaping their experience here. Most people come here believing that Harvard's spell of greatness is genuine. The bitterness, alienation or resignation of many students measures their belief in that ideal. It is growing ever harder to believe that exposing flaws in this University or any other institution will prod people to consider changing them. And Harvard is doing its part to convince students that its "real world" is the only one. But I am stubborn, and grateful for it. I am not resigned, however hard Harvard has tried to teach me to be so.

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