Back To Basics


WHEN APPLYING to Harvard, it is not unusual to face comments such as: "You'll probably never see any or the professors. They're a'l too interested in research to bother with the students."

In the ideal world, teaching and research should be interdependent. Undergraduates bring a new perspective and fresh insights into problems being examined by more experienced scholars, who tend to be set in their ways. On the other hand, research should allow professors to convey the latest discoveries to an audience that will soon be faced with the task of advancing the field themselves.

In recent years, however, research and teaching throughout academia, have come into conflict with each other, even to the point of paralyzing the academic community. The conflict is especially reflected in the differing definitions "research" has acquired over the past two decades. It seems as though professors, university administrators and lawmakers are referring to different activities when they speak of research.

For example, administrators often favor the most publicly visible research which has the greatest chance toe enhance the reputation of their school. Although Harvard is widely noted for its efforts to teach the basic fundamentals of science, it has also begun to emphasize advanced research at the expense of the basics. For example, the University recently constructed a greenhouse to attract a professor from another university whose work deals with visible issues such as the effects of "nuclear winter." This is not to say that Harvard should not have gone to great lengths to attract the scholar, who is undoubtedly one of the finest botanists in the world, but the point is that it seems to be going to great lengths to enhance studies mainly in areas which are highly visible. Moreover, the administration seems bent on increasing its research productivity, because visible research is now given greater weigh in many circles for rating universities.

Faculty members also place a strong emphasis on the facilities a university can offer. Considerations often include money for supplies and the number of graduate students in the program. Moreover, a "reduced teaching load" is also viewed as an advantage.

By emphasizing highly technical and advanced research over more basic teachings, because it is "more attractive" toe federal and corporate sponsors. Harvard and other universities across the nation could seriously be damaging the nation's prospects for scientific advancements. At Harvard, the introductory level science courses, such as Physics I and Chemistry to, are noted for their appallingly low CUE Guide ratings. The need for a stronger basic curriculum looms larger as a growing number of reports point out the failure of high schools to train students in those areas.

If the U.S. falls (even further) behind other nations such as Japan in the technological battle, it may not be because of a lack of high technology research, but ironically because of the lack of potential scientists with the proper fundamentals.

The committment to stressing the basic course be successful if universities across the nation follow the lead of those institutions which have maintained as a top priority the instruction of its undergraduates in basic scientific principles. The science-oriented faculties must pour greater time and effort into the less exciting, out more essential, courses University and federal administrators must lay aside their emphasis on highly visible research and instead see to it that all areas of research are equally stressed and rewarded.