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Preregistration is the Enemy of Liberal Education

By Harry R. Lewis, Contributing Opinion Writer

While thinking about the faculty vote, anticipated for this Spring, to shift Harvard College to a system of previous-term course registration, I remembered a faculty discussion about general education. Should requirements be distributed across fields of knowledge, or were some subjects more important than others? Or was it wrong to organize by content at all — would it perhaps be a better idea to teach scientists how humanists think, and vice versa?

One colleague offered a simple principle cutting through such abstractions: “We should teach them what we do.” Education, he argued, emerges from the offerings of faculty and academic departments. The mission and scope of the University is the aggregated expertise of the faculty, so we should get the students to follow us as we ply our scholarly trade.

Previous-term registration would be, at long last, the victory of this faculty-centric view of education.

Caricatures of the preregistration debate are available to suit the audience. One poses it as a battle between administrative convenience and student liberty. Another has it as institutional dedication to high-quality education faced off against student pettiness and unreliability. It’s hard to get past the rhetoric and hypocrisy on both sides without going back to first principles. What is college for? Without any apparent forethought, Harvard has for years been on a path to change its answer to that question. Previous-term registration is another step.

Harvard’s view used to be that undergraduate education was about discovery. Students are admitted to no department or major; they have the entire first year and more to learn about academic offerings and to settle on a concentration. It has been considered a mark of personal growth to choose a concentration different from the one on your Harvard application.

And under the Harvard model, a concentration was not the defining center of undergraduate education anyway. A liberal education — an education on becoming a free adult — was a voyage of self-discovery. Its success could not be judged by college honors; it could be evaluated only at the end of life. Education was, as President James B. Conant put it, what was left after everything that had been learned was forgotten.

Classroom learning was only a piece of this liberal education; for many Harvard students, however much they may have valued their academic experience, extracurriculars were more meaningful experiences. My own career began as a term-time job — I had never touched a computer until I fibbed my way into a programming job in William James Hall. I am far from unique in this scenario: Our understanding of life inside Russia today is heavily informed by a New York Times reporter who cut his teeth writing for The Crimson about general education.

Graduate education is sharply different. Given the need to earn a living in their chosen métier, graduate students must be trained according to professional standards; students of the professions need constraint, not freedom. This view of education as training has, by degrees, crept into the College. Social forces — questions about the value of higher education, anxiety about financial security, the national student debt crisis (its limited impact on Harvard graduates notwithstanding) — have further contributed to a careerist view of college.

Previous-term registration is the natural extension of this career-focused approach to undergraduate education. Especially for first-year students, preregistration makes educational sense only if you think students should arrive knowing what they want to study and college should help them study it.

The faculty-centric view of undergraduate education, that the purpose of university education is for faculty to teach students what we do, is also aligned with previous-term registration. It’s not only the scientists who can be charged with treating curious undergraduates as committed acolytes of their discipline. Professors in the social sciences or humanities who greet students searching for meaning in life with lessons on the esoteric vocabulary of their scholarly field are transferring the spirit of their graduate program into undergraduate education.

Some will find me the hypocrite here — isn’t the growth in the applied sciences the biggest factor in the professionalization of the college? It’s not so simple. The serendipity that brought many Computer Science students to the field will, regrettably, be rarer in the future, but SEAS will have no enrollment problems under previous-term registration. The consequences for the humanities will be far worse. For every prospective English concentrator who stays in the field because concentration preferences will be stickier under preregistration, two will not show up in English courses at all, they and their families having focused, at home over the summer before their first year, on the importance of courses they associate with material return. Search algorithms will guide them straight to the courses featuring the right words — no worries about distraction by academic curiosity. Other algorithms will efficiently ration the seats in capped courses among the petitioning students.

Previous-term registration will make matters cleaner and more orderly; no more messy experiences like the one that a few years ago horrified a student newly arrived from France. What I considered joyful first-week energy he thought appallingly disrespectful, with students lugging their bicycles through the classroom while I was lecturing. “Welcome to Harvard, and to America,” I told him. “You can do what you want here, and that is the way we like it.”

Harry R. Lewis ’68 is the Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science and former Dean of Harvard College.

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