State of the Arts

In June, 1973, President Bok's Committee on the Practice of the Arts dropped a bomb-shell on a long-standing Harvard tradition. In its "Statement of policy," the six-professor committee wrote:

[W]e believe that the function of arts instruction in a liberal arts curriculum a not simply to supplement and support the academic disciplines. It is to introduce students to forms of learning and communication which have their own power, validity, and application, and which offer alternatives to the symbolic modes of words and figures and to the ways of knowing and feeling that they can convey.

In other words, the arts should be taught along with traditional scholarly pursuits. Not an earth-shaking pronouncement on the national scene, but it bucked centuries of Harvard policy that shunted aside arts instruction.

Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III noted in his 1972 study of the arts at Harvard, the notion of a "university" is based on ancient Greek ideals, "in which reason and verbal discourse were far more important than manual skills and creative imagination."

Epps concluded, "[I]f the environment of a 'liberal arts' college such as Harvard is not openly hostile, it is not hard to see the many barriers that stand in the way of a committed artist who finds himself confined within our walls."


The respected former Dean of the Faculty Franklin Ford said in the Epps' report, "Unfortunately, to my way of thinking, the conflict between the opportunities for scholars and artists in the University is a function of the nature of art and the nature of the University..."

President Bok and his Committee on the Practice of the Arts took the opposite view. "Of course, there's been a very long debate over whether people should get credit for performance," Bok said last week.

"I came to the conclusion fairly early on that it seemed to me not very productive to continue those debates, but [instead] to try to seek some creative alternative to them," Bok continued.

"The alternative which always appealed to me was to see whether there are ways that people can combine formal learning and performance in a single course, in ways that would be mutually reinforcing."

In the 13 years since Bok took office, Harvard has nearly doubled its tenured artist-professors (from five to nine). The number of courses involving the practice of art--be it music or painting, creative writing or drama--has increased from 31 to 85. Enrollment in these classes has spiraled upwards from 660 (by Epps' count) to over 2000.

Bok can rightly boast, "If you total it all up, whether you measure it in terms of space or pianos or number of courses or number of students involved, or whatever, the opportunities have increased very substantially in the last decade."

But the artist-professors want more:

* Chairman of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies Louis J. Bakanowsky says he is pushing for a fellows program "as a euphemism for graduate students."

* Professor of English Robert Brustein, director of the Loeb Drama Center, says he is actively seeking funding for a "drama conservatory" for graduate-level students to study with his American Repertory Theater.

* Leon Kirchner, Rosen Professor of Music, says he still advocates the performer-in-residence program he proposed to President Bok in the 1960s. He claims the idea was watered down into the "Learning From Performers" series, which brings people to Harvard only for a day or two.