Gen Ed at Harvard
“Gen Ed” at Harvard
To the Editor:
It is quite difficult to respond to Kenneth S. Lynn’s critique of Harvard’s newly adopted core-curriculum requirement [“Son of ‘Gen Ed,’” September]. His article is so filled with faulty history and self-contradictory criticism that one can scarcely tell what he thinks is a vice and what a virtue. The heart of his position seems to be that whatever comes from Harvard must—a priori—be deeply flawed.
Mr. Lynn claims that the core curriculum is so derivative from the earlier program that it should be called “Son of ‘Gen Ed’” and says that Harvard was unwilling to “try something new and different.” Yet he also argues that core courses in Contexts of Culture and Social and Philosophical Analysis would be so new and innovative that the faculty will be unable to teach them.
He castigates Harvard for having “once again rejected the idea of a prescribed curriculum.” Yet he describes the requirement that students demonstrate competence in basic mathematics (through course work or examination) as “an intolerable imposition.”
Mr. Lynn concludes, rather oddly, that the faculty “emptied its discussions of intellectual content,” and “would not accept the challenge of cooperatively designing a curriculum,” because it wished “to deal with the question of what an educated man or woman ought to know” before determining “details of course content and organization.”
It is also clear to Mr. Lynn that Harvard’s efforts were doomed at the start because deliberations were not confined to a group that was sufficiently “small” or “intimate”; better yet, “a whole new conception of collegiate education” should have been personally defined by the president or the dean, and imposed on the faculty who would have to teach it, in “the grand manner” of Robert Hutch-ins. This is a most curious position for Mr. Lynn to take. One of his models for the undergraduate curriculum is that of Columbia; yet Columbia’s General Education program evolved over the period from 1919 to 1954, and was shaped by broad faculty participation, rather than Olympian decrees. No substantial attempt was made to define an overall philosophy for the program until 1946 (after the publication of Harvard’s Redbook), and the plan outlined then was not fully implemented. Mr. Lynn’s hero is Robert Hutchins, who did indeed “propose a whole new conception of collegiate education”; yet this is a curious basis on which to criticize Harvard’s procedures, especially since Hutchins’s basic ideas were never successfully installed at Chicago (they were much more fully applied to the curriculum of tiny St. John’s, where they still thrive).
In these and countless other respects, Mr. Lynn’s arguments are so slipshod and circular as not to warrant extended discussion. But I am compelled to correct two particularly gross misrepresentations. Mr. Lynn quotes an open letter that I addressed to my colleagues at Harvard in 1974 tracing “the stupendous transformation of postwar Harvard.” But he fails to indicate the context of my argument, namely, that this transformation was largely the result of long-term intellectual, social, and institutional trends which affected all of higher education, not merely Harvard. The need to clarify goals in undergraduate education is scarcely unique to Harvard.
Mr. Lynn characterizes the Harvard faculty as a group that sees “no compelling reason not to let professors stage their own shows as usual.” But if this is indeed the case, then why would the Harvard faculty have voted for a new core curriculum that will require a substantial redirection of its energies into undergraduate education? Mr. Lynn himself admits that the reforms were not imposed from above. He may not find the new program congenial or credible, but that is quite beside the point; the question is, why should the Harvard faculty even undertake it?
Mr. Lynn’s explanation is that the core curriculum “is a triumph of an enormous nostalgia” for “the old dream of liberal-arts teaching.” He also asserts that for American faculties generally, “the do-your-own-thing anarchy of the 1960′s left us exhausted and a little frightened.” As to exhaustion and fright, Mr. Lynn must speak for himself. As to nostalgia, Mr. Lynn himself yearns most passionately for the General Education plan begun at Columbia in 1919, or the ideals enunciated by Hutchins in 1936. What he seemingly cannot understand is that the current inadequacies of General Education at Harvard and elsewhere reflect a broader and deeper range of historical changes than his simplistic criticisms suggest. Neither the core curriculum nor the dissatisfaction from which it springs is, as Mr. Lynn implies, a “backlash against permissiveness.” Ideals of the educated man, and the character of General Education, inevitably alter over time as the scope of knowledge and social values change. Historians may stand still, but history does not. What is happening in many American colleges and universities today is a stock-taking, a difficult, voluntary, and wholly commendable effort to clarify and reformulate the relationship between liberal education and the contemporary world.
Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
To the Editor:
As the former leader of a student effort to get the Harvard faculty to honor more fully its commitment to undergraduate education, I feel compelled to correct some misinformation on the subject conveyed by Kenneth S. Lynn in his otherwise highly commendable article, “Son of ‘Gen Ed.’” While Mr. Lynn’s analysis of the difficulties inherent in reforming Harvard’s General Education program is excellent, I regret that he paints far too rosy a picture of the response of the Harvard faculty—and, in particular, of its dean, Henry Rosovsky—to recent undergraduate demands that professors cease consigning so much of the “burden” of teaching them to graduate teaching assistants.
Mr. Lynn calls attention to the Harvard faculty’s neglect in recent years of its responsibility—mandated by 1961 faculty legislation—to do at least 70 per cent of the tutoring of undergraduates in their fields of concentration. Mr. Lynn is quite correct in pointing up the faculty’s neglect of its responsibility. He is incorrect, however, in ascribing the effort to rectify this situation to Mr. Rosovsky. In truth, it was undergraduate members of Harvard’s Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) and Educational Resources Group (ERG) who publicized the fact that, in at least two of the university’s largest fields of concentration (economics and government), more than 90 per cent of the tutoring was being done by graduate students. It was these undergraduates who unearthed the faculty’s dust-laden standards for professorial participation in the tutorial program and who moved to have those standards acknowledged and enforced. In point of fact, these student efforts were actively resisted by the Harvard administration, led by Mr. Rosovsky.
While Mr. Rosovsky personally denounced student moves to have the university enforce its own faculty-participation quotas as a “meat-ax approach,” the task force he organized to improve the performance of the fields of concentration recommended not only that the 1961 standards not be enforced but that the whole body of tutorial rules be scrapped altogether. It was only a vigorous lobbying campaign by students, aided by a small contingent of sympathetic faculty—a campaign featuring the laborious compilation and analysis of the actual teaching load of every faculty member in each of the university’s five largest departments—which forced Mr. Rosovsky and the Faculty Council to . . . order a “review” of tutorial practices.
Perhaps Mr. Lynn was simply misled by the spokesmen for the Harvard administration. I frankly suspect this is the case. My clue is Mr. Lynn’s crediting Mr. Rosovsky with a desire to raise Harvard undergraduate education to the level advertised in “the literature distributed to prospective Harvard undergraduates.” My experience with the dean was somewhat different. When I pointed out to him the disparity between the faculty contact promised in the Harvard brochure and the reality of junior and senior tutorials taught by graduate students, he suggested not that we work to change the reality, but that we instead rewrite the brochure.
Jonathan K. Baum
Kenneth S. Lynn writes:
Henry Rosovsky has indeed experienced difficulty in responding to my article. His silence on some of the most important arguments I made suggests acute embarrassment. His distortion of other arguments, deliberate resort to misquotation, and ascription to me of attitudes I patently do not hold are further indications that he cannot really face honest criticism.
Mr. Rosovsky begins his rejoinder by insinuating that I don’t like anything about Harvard. He should have known better from my article, if from nothing else. In the article I saluted Charles William Eliot as the “most impressive” university president of the 19th century. I referred to the “memorable” General Education courses of I.A. Richards, Perry Miller, and other Harvard “luminaries.” I declared that the “Gen Ed” courses of such “charismatic” lecturers as Samuel Beer provided Harvard undergraduates of the post-World War II decades with “the same sort of grand perspective that had once been supplied by the legendary History 1.” If my article was critical of Harvard, it also paid respect. Does Mr. Rosovsky treat me with a similar fair-mindedness?
The answer to that question becomes clearer in his second paragraph, in which he accuses me of inconsistency. On the one hand, says Mr. Rosovsky, I ask why the Harvard faculty doesn’t try something new and different, while on the other hand I say that core courses in Contexts of Culture and Social and Philosophical Analysis will be so innovative that the faculty will be unable to teach them. Let us look more closely at this matter. In my discussion of the faculty’s announced intention to offer interdisciplinary courses in Contexts of Culture, I pointed out that more than seventy years ago the interdisciplinary major called History and Literature was introduced at Harvard. During the 1930′s and 1940′s, that program may very well have been the best in the college, but in more recent years it has deteriorated badly. According to an eminent professor who is still connected with it, History and Literature is “a terrible mess.” His testimony and corroborating evidence from other sources led me to ask: “If humanities professors at Harvard are really interested in interdisciplinary teaching, why have they not shown it by maintaining the esprit of a program already in being?” In other words, I doubt that the humanities professors now teaching at Harvard can deliver the goods. It is much more likely that Contexts of Culture will turn out to be a familiar set of single-discipline courses with a fancy new name. The fusing of the study of history and literature does not represent an educational innovation at Harvard. It represents, rather, an exhausted tradition, to which the present faculty pays lip-service. With regard to the requirement in Social and Philosophical Analysis, which seems in part to have been inspired by post-Watergate morality, I welcome innovativeness but fear trendiness. Some of the gut courses offered in the “Gen Ed” program certainly illustrate the dangers of teaching fashionable subjects.
In the third paragraph of Mr. Rosovsky’s letter I am again charged with inconsistency. Allegedly, my article castigated Harvard for not adopting a prescribed curriculum, at the same time that it deplored the math competency regulation. In making this charge, Mr. Rosovsky has yoked together two utterly dissimilar concepts. A prescribed curriculum would introduce all freshmen to areas of knowledge previously unexplored by them and would provide them with a common intellectual experience. A math competency test will force those freshmen who do not pass it to take a remedial, high-school-level course in pre-calculus math. I deplored the requirement as a Band-Aid answer to the continuing decline of standards in the American high school. If even rigorously selected Harvard freshmen cannot pass a test in basic mathematics, then it is time for college deans and presidents to rethink the entire relationship between high school and college, as Robert Hut-chins once did. The fact that Mr. Rosovsky does not seem to understand this suggests that he is not really an educator, in the grand sense of the term.
As for Mr. Rosovsky’s allegation that my article castigated Harvard for having failed to adopt a prescribed curriculum, he has simply misread me. The point I was making was that the Harvard faculty’s unwillingness, first in 1949 and now again in 1978, to adopt such a curriculum is one of several significant signs of how fainthearted the faculty’s commitment to the ideal of General Education really is. In the absence of the sort of pedagogical dedication that made “Gen Ed” at Columbia and Chicago a success, the core curriculum will fail, just as “Gen Ed” did before it. To say this is not to castigate, but to state a fact.
Mr. Rosovsky’s worst moment comes in his fourth paragraph. He makes the quotations from my article refer to the faculty, whereas they in fact refer to the core-curriculum committee of the faculty. He also quotes me as saying something I never said. The words he falsely ascribes to me—“details of course content and organization”—were actually those of the committee. Not only are these words not mine, but they bear not the slightest relation to the reasons cited in my article for the committee’s refusal to accept Mr. Rosovsky’s invitation to design a new set of courses. What my article actually said is that the committee could not have designed a curriculum because it “was not bound together by a unity of interest and intention that would have permitted such an undertaking.” Having ruled intellectual content out of its discussions, the committee proceeded to “deal with the question of what an educated young man or woman ought to know in terms of abstract rules.” I have emphasized those last five words because Mr. Rosovsky slickly leaves them out in the course of quoting me. Just as he puts some words into my mouth, so does he take out others—and all for the purpose of creating a totally erroneous impression of what I said.
In the light of these cute tricks, I am wryly amused by his complaint in paragraph six about “gross misrepresentations.” In 1974, Mr. Rosovsky wrote a letter to his colleagues about the “inadequacies” of the undergraduate program at Harvard. Although Mr. Rosovsky is proud of this letter, he is dismayed that it has now been tied to a critique of the core curriculum. In an effort to minimize his embarrassment, he says that I did not summarize him accurately by failing to indicate that Harvard’s problems are not unique. While I understand his feelings, I reject his accusation. The prologue to Mr. Rosovsky’s letter to his colleagues states: “In the pages that follow, I have attempted to set down my understanding of the broad problems and specific issues peculiar—though not exclusive—to undergraduate education at Harvard.” In the ensuing eighteen pages of text, the focus is on Harvard’s problems, which is what one would expect in an in-house memorandum. The summary of Mr. Rosovsky’s letter presented in my article is faithful to his emphasis. I am, however, more than happy to join with him here in declaring that problems similar to Harvard’s are widespread in the academic world.
The second of the two “gross misrepresentations” of which I am supposedly guilty has to do with my characterization of the Harvard faculty as a group that sees “no compelling reason not to let professors stage their own shows as usual.” Alas, the quotation has been removed from its context. In 1949, the authors of General Education in a Free Society proposed to their Harvard colleagues that the university set up a prescribed undergraduate curriculum in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. The faculty voted down this proposal, thereby destroying the “Gen Ed” rationale of a shared intellectual experience for the students. Unlike the faculties at Columbia and Chicago, the Harvard faculty refused to join together in a common enterprise. It preferred to stage its own individual courses. I see nothing in my characterization to warrant Mr. Rosovsky’s charge of misrepresentation.
Mr. Rosovsky is curiously silent about two of my most severe criticisms of the core curriculum. The first is based on the fact that the foreign-language requirement in the core can be easily avoided. Consequently, I said, “Foreign Languages and Cultures is an inflated public-relations title that does not really mean what it implies.” The second criticism is that in recommending that a required course in expository English be established, the core committee lacked the courage to mention that the only expository writing courses which have succeeded in American colleges and universities since World War II have been absolutely dependent upon the intense involvement of full professors. Does Mr. Rosovsky’s failure to speak to these points imply secret acknowledgment of their cogency?
The questions about Mr. Rosovsky that are raised by his letter about my article are heightened by the comments of Jonathan K. Baum. As a result of reading Mr. Baum, I now realize that I may have been misled by Mr. Rosovsky into believing that he sincerely desired to raise undergraduate tutorial to the level advertised in official Harvard brochures. In fact, Mr. Rosovsky may have been much more of an enemy of the tutorial system than its friend.