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Whither Liberal Arts?


By Thomas M. Levenson

IF ANY ONE issue has occupied Harvard's soul searching in the last four years. it has been the perennial question of how the University should order its goals. President Bok raised it again in his annual report for 1978-79 released last Friday:

But salaries and scholarships, libraries and laboratories are only the means to greater ends, and we will care about these needs only insofar as we care about the larger goals that Harvard is seeking to achieve. It is our goals, therefore, that form the subject of this report.

As Bok defines his goals, however, he hammers home the conclusion that undergraduate, liberal arts education ranks among the lowest priorities of those running the Harvard complex. For all the debate and genuine concern undergraduate curricular reform has engendered, Bok and his administration continue to weaken the stance of liberal arts at Harvard with their choices of tasks for Harvard to accomplish under their guidance. Long before undergraduates can press their claim on Harvard's resources, other programs siphon off faculty and money from Arts and Sciences. Professional education benefits at the expense of liberal arts, the supposed foundation for the other schools.

The worst offender is one of Bok's pet projects, the Kennedy School of Government, which draws more than one third of its teaching staff from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The Kennedy School is just one example of Bok's continued encouragement of professional school growth and direction of Harvard's efforts far from the lipserved ideal of the liberal education.

The tone Bok has set for Harvard has the unstated effect of shaping the University as a resource for the outside worlds of business and government. Bok presides over the continued diversion of faculty away from undergraduates and the onus of teaching their liberal arts disciplines toward the lucrative chance to serve as the intellectual resource bank for institutions outside the Harvard community.

Of course, some faculty needed no prompting: Otto Eckstein long hid from economics students at his private consulting firm which he recently sold for $100 million dollars, and numerous other professors have devoted themselves to less spectacular consultations and moonlighting. Bok himself encourages this, building an image in his annual reports and elsewhere of Harvard as a source of education and information for "real world" centers. He uses special mid-career programs and conferences to try to make the Kennedy School a training ground for virtually every middle management bureaucrat in government. He wants to direct business school professors away from preparation of case studies for class discussions toward publication of research on business problems.

IN HIS MOST RECENT REPORT Bok presented the philosophical rationale for such allocation of Harvard's resources. In ordering the priorities of the University, first place goes to research. Second goes to the professional schools. Liberal arts training brings up the rear, and Bok presents it as the handmaiden of the professions, serving society insofar as it enables specialized technicians to obtain sufficient breadth of knowledge to do their job well.

Bok's argument in this report ultimately rebounds on itself. If liberal arts in fact forms the foundation of the humanistic appreciation alumni need to confront what Bok calls "a world amply stocked with anxiety and disillusion...," then it is the essential preface to professional education. It cannot be the last and least priority of Harvard's president. Yet Bok's ordering of goals--cast in the 1978-79 report as a pitch for the Capital Fund Drive to finance Harvard's new directions--leads Harvard faculty and money away from direct encouragement of the liberal arts. It is not that Bok does not care about undergraduate education, it is just that he cares about the rest of the University more.

Administration figures claim that educational reforms in general and the Core Curriculum in particular refute any charges of unconcern for undergraduates. However, the Core must be seen in perspective. It has emerged as only one in a long series of reforms stretching back at least to President Lowell's inclusion of curricular electives, and President Conant's Redbook which fostered General Education. As the reformers of every era drop out of sight, dramatic moves are necessary to remind those who remain of their responsibilities towards undergraduates. The content of reform matters less than the more fact that reform occurs. As the former chairman of one of the visiting committees put it, the new pressures are promulgated simply to "stir faculty members to pay attention to teaching undergraduates."

BUT WITHOUT CONTENT, the reform will fail to motivate the teachers who must turn faculty legislation into a coherent educational tool. The Core in fact relieves the faculty of much of the burden of shaping these tools. It shelters faculty behind the podium of a large lecture hall and several layers of graduate student teaching fellows. The Core also cuts the amount of educational imagination required of a teacher by limiting the range of courses the University intends to offer.

Missing his big chance to leave a mark on liberal arts education, Bok has used the Core only to provide an illusion of University interest in undergraduate education. With the Core serving as camouflage, Harvard is free to spend another 20 years ignoring the shaky state of the liberal arts at the college. Bok can continue to lead his university in its new role: that of an oversized research center serving the institutions of the outside world.

One can hardly object to trained experts offering advice on the problems of the day; academics have a valuable perspective to offer even if they have to fly to Washington once a week to offer it. The question remains, though, where should Harvard's primary loyalties lie? Bok the corporate lawyer, with a keen eye for efficient, cost-effective management techniques, symbolizes the technocratic turn Harvard has taken under his guidance. The future looks no more hopeful. The tight academic job market drives scholars out of liberal arts careers. Some of Harvard's greatest humanists--scholar/teachers like Glen W. Bowersock '57, associate deal for undergraduate education, and Michael Walzer, professor of Government--leave Harvard for other ivory towers where they will no longer teach. Professional school applications jump. And as the Core lumbers ineffectively into operation, faculty return to their consultancies and publishers, freed of the danger of confronting liberal arts for yet another generation.

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