Commentary Magazine


Son of “Gen Ed&rdquo

The recent decision of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences to replace its General Education courses with a more structured core curriculum is the first significant result of a remarkable letter on undergraduate education that the dean of the faculty, Henry Rosovsky, sent to his colleagues in October 1974. In that letter, a high official of the nation’s most prestigious university finally spoke with reasonably complete candor about the “inadequacies” of the undergraduate program at Harvard, and in a burst of feeling called upon the faculty not only to redefine its “collegiate purpose,” but to seek through that effort “to recapture the spirit of its common enterprise.”

Looking back across thirty years, Rosovsky traced the stupendous transformation of postwar Harvard. Between 1945 and 1974, the number of departments and degree-granting committees in arts and sciences had risen by almost a third. Since 1952, the size of the faculty had more than doubled; the graduate student population had jumped 45 per cent; and the combined Harvard-Radcliffe undergraduate body had grown 14 per cent. The most startling statistic of all, however, was that the proportion of courses in which undergraduates were enrolled had fallen 28 per cent. Membership in the faculty had soared from 300 (full-time equivalents) to 608 in twenty-two years, but the indication was that contact between undergraduates and professors had not increased proportionately.

For as the size of the faculty had risen, so had a faculty attitude that teaching undergraduates was not a worthwhile way to spend one’s academic time. In the go-go years of Harvard growth, many professors had come to regard themselves as primarily if not exclusively concerned with training graduate students, while others had walled themselves off from the life of the college in castles of culture, wherein they pursued their esoteric interests. As a former chairman of a large department and now as dean, wrote Rosovsky, he knew “only too well” about this situation. More difficult for him to accept was the persistent charge by critics of postwar Harvard that even those professors who proclaimed their devotion to undergraduate teaching were not in fact as committed to it as they or their predecessors had been twenty-five years earlier. Specifically, these critics questioned whether there had not been an absolute decline in the number of hours per week professors spent in the classroom; in the amount of work demanded of students; and in the frequency with which quizzes were administered and papers assigned. Yet instead of emphasizing the difficulty of obtaining hard answers to such hard questions, Rosovsky firmly grasped the nettle. “We are attempting to obtain quantitative data on these points,” he announced.

Prior to Rosovsky’s letter, celebrants of Harvard à go-go had been wont to argue that a bigger university was better for everyone, including students in the college. One of their favorite talking points was that a number of undergraduate programs, including tutorial instruction and General Education, had significantly expanded in the postwar period. Rosovsky bluntly pointed out, however, that

the instructional needs created by this development were largely met by teaching fellows. In 1952, the ratio of teaching fellow full-time equivalents to junior faculty was 59 per cent; by 1974 the ratio climbed to 96 per cent. In recent years, TF’s have taken over much introductory course instruction in areas such as mathematics and languages; they commonly staff the sections of General Education and middle-group courses; they play an overwhelming role in the tutorial program. . . . Over the years, teaching fellowships have come to be viewed in some departments primarily as a form of financial aid to graduate students; there are not always systematic efforts to train and develop students as teachers, nor is there reassuring evidence that teaching interest or ability weighs heavily in TF appointments. Undergraduates may understandably assert that the benefits of expanded programs are not worth the costs.

That the tutorial program now depended so heavily on teaching fellows was particularly disturbing to Rosovsky. In the literature distributed to prospective Harvard undergraduates, the dean reminded his faculty, tutorial was described as “the intellectual acme of the curriculum, as an important means of contact with professors, and as a link with departments that ‘allows students and faculty members to become acquainted as friends and fellow scholars.’” Moreover, students who came to Harvard often spent as much as 25 per cent of their time in tutorials after their freshman year. The faculty’s awareness of the latter fact had prompted it to vote in 1961 that “As a target, at least 30 per cent of the tutoring in each department shall be done by officers of faculty rank, and not more than 30 per cent . . . by teaching fellows.” In quoting this language back to the faculty, Rosovsky in effect told those departments which allowed their tutorial programs to be largely run by graduate students that they were not only cheating the undergraduates, but were violating the spirit of a professorial agreement.

In the months following the issuance of his letter, Rosovsky set up seven committees—which in a regrettable lapse into the language of Admiral Nimitz he called “task forces”—to study various aspects of the Harvard College program. The task force on the core curriculum, under the leadership of Professor James Q. Wilson, was asked to develop recommendations for a new set of “common denominator” courses to replace the General Education offerings in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities which were supposed to be supplying Harvard students with a basis for intellectual discourse with one another but which patently were not. The decision by Rosovsky and President Derek C. Bok to dismantle “Gen Ed,” if the faculty would let them, was long overdue, because their predecessors had not wanted to face the fact that the program had failed. Unfortuately, Rosovsky and Bok seem not to have explored the question of why “Gen Ed” has been so much more successful at Columbia and Chicago than at Harvard, for I believe that if they had, they either would have given the core committee far more ambitious instructions about a replacement, or commissioned it only as a demolition team.

_____________

 

General Education in the modern American university began in 1919 with the introduction of a course in Contemporary Civilization at Columbia College. This innovation was no mere curricular reform, but a fundamental act of institutional reassertion. It represented an effort on the part of a group of professors and deans who believed in the liberal-arts ideal to provide the college with a secure identity as an institution devoted to the educational needs of undergraduates. Unlike the sacrosanct undergraduate colleges at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the integrity of Columbia College had been threatened for years by extremely powerful administrators, ho in their enthusiasm for Germanic professional scholarship had endeavored to reduce the college to an appendage of graduate training. The political scientist John W. Burgess, architect of Columbia’s first graduate school and close adviser of the university’s president, Frederick Barnard, derided the college almost from the moment of his arrival on Morningside Heights in 1876. It was nothing but “a school for teaching Latin, Greek, and mathematics and a little metaphysics and a very little natural science.” What was needed was a Gymnasium-style curriculum that would provide students with the research skills they would need in graduate school. Nicholas Murray Butler, who became president of the university in 1902, made no secret of his belief that four years was far too long a time for students to remain in college. By 1905, he was able to announce the “Columbia plan,” which enabled students to go on to one of the university’s professional schools after only two years of undergraduate work. Having delivered this smashing blow, Butler looked forward to the withering away of Columbia College, as traditionally conceived.

Consequently, when Contemporary Civilization was introduced after World War I, the course carried with it the hopes of everyone at Columbia who wished to see the liberal-arts principle triumph in the teeth of Butler’s hostility. For a required freshman course dealing with the issues of citizenship in a democratic society obviously was intended to have a general rather than a narrowly pre-professional appeal. In deciding to introduce such a course, the professors in charge were swayed by three considerations, apart from their overriding desire to vindicate the collegiate ideal. They believed first of all that the involvement of the United States in World War I had produced a new self-consciousness about the meaning of American life which needed to be discussed in the classroom. They also were concerned about the fragmentation of knowledge and belief in the modern world; The Education of Henry Adams, posthumously published in 1918, was only the latest testament to the appalling complexity of 20th-century culture. In the midst of multiplicity, it made sense to give Columbia freshmen a common intellectual experience. Finally, the designers of Contemporary Civilization were motivated by a more parochial concern. The Columbia student body had traditionally been dominated by prep-school graduates, most of whom were the scions of “Old New York” families. But with the abolition of the Latin entrance requirement in 1916, students from the public high schools in the city, where Latin tended to be taught badly if at all, began to trek northward to Morningside Heights in rapidly growing numbers. By the end of the teens Columbia was culturally split to a greater degree than any other Ivy League school. The requirement that all freshmen take Contemporary Civilization was thus an attempt to bring unity to a divided campus.

In the judgment of Professor Justus Buchler, “the year 1919 can be justly regarded as marking the actual birth of the new Columbia College,” and the enormous success of Contemporary Civilization among Columbia’s polyglot students was the major academic event of that landmark year. The course met five—later four—times a week in groups of no more than twenty-five. There was no flak from jealous departments, and no problem about persuading distinguished professors to teach the sections; the entire faculty understood that “CC” not only stood for a course, but for a college.

“CC” was lengthened into a two-year sequence in 1929, with the first year devoted to intellectual and institutional developments in Western society and the second to social and economic problems of the 20th century. A required freshman course on great works of literature and philosophy was introduced in 1937, and a required sophomore course on music and the fine arts was attached to it a decade later. As Professor Daniel Bell has remarked, there has been a strong inbreeding of Columbia College graduates in the humanities faculty ever since the 1920′s; having been raised on “CC,” these men were determined to make the new offerings a worthy complement to the old, and they succeeded. A science requirement was also added in 1934. Yet even though the science program has attracted such notable teachers as the Nobel laureate Polykarp Kusch, it has been the humanities and “CC” sequences which have given General Education at Columbia its enduring mystique. Despite a decline in the quality of the program in recent years, Columbia students continue to be instructed in a common body of knowledge, to their incalculable benefit. When Lionel Trilling would say to a class of juniors and seniors, “You of course have read Montaigne,” he knew that they had, no matter whether they were physics majors or English majors. Moreoever, they had read Montaigne and discussed him in a small class that met four times a week.

_____________

 

Many factors, as I have tried to indicate, are responsible for this academic success story, but the most important is the combination of two that we find at its very beginning: extraordinary pressure from the president of the university, resulting in the faculty’s realization that the fate of the college was linked to the fate of General Education. What makes this statement doubly significant is that it also applies to the University of Chicago.

Whatever Robert Maynard Hutchins wanted, he was determined to get, and what he wanted most fervently was General Education. Of all the American university leaders of this century, Hutchins is the only one who ranks in intellectual boldness, strength of will, and guileful charm with the three greatest university builders of the late 19th century: Charles William Eliot of Harvard, Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins, and William Rainey Harper of Chicago. The most impressive of the builders was Eliot. Gilman and Harper brilliantly brought new universities into being, but Eliot faced the tougher task of reconstituting a renowned institution. Using the free-elective system—the very antithesis of General Education—as a Schumpeterian instrument of creative destruction, he modernized the curriculum, professionalized the faculty, and transformed Harvard College into Harvard University. Although the two men could not have been more opposed philosophically, Hutchins’s administrative record is nevertheless reminiscent of Eliot’s, in the sense that he, too, had to impose his vision on an entrenched faculty.

In his inaugural address in 1929, Hutchins said he was aware that influential members of the faculty had called for an end to undergraduate work at Chicago, or at least to the first two years of it, but that he himself had no interest in such notions. Only one out of five American college students went on to graduate study. For the other four, college was the final educational experience of their lives. The most imperative task facing Chicago, and indeed all institutions of higher learning in America, was how to improve that experience. The question was difficult, and it turned on the even more difficult question of the relation of the “first two years of college to the high school on the one hand, and to the senior college on the other.” In that sentence Hutchins gave his faculty its first glimpse of the radical nature of his thinking. The American high school was paralyzed with confusion, in his opinion, unable to make up its mind whether it was preparing students for life or for college. The college of liberal arts was equally befuddled. As Hutchins would write in his acerb little book, The Higher Learning in America (1936):

The college of liberal arts is partly high school, partly university, partly general, partly special. Frequently it looks like a teacher-training institution. Frequently it looks like nothing at all. The degree it offers seems to certify that the student has passed an uneventful period without violating any local, state, or federal law, and that he has a fair, if temporary, recollection of what his teachers have said to him.

The first step in bringing order out of chaos was to combine the last two years of high school and the first two years of college into a four-year B.A.-granting institution totally devoted to General Education.

It took Hutchins eight years to gain a partial victory over his opponents. A two-year sequence in General Education was established in the meantime, but not until 1937 did the university accept the basic principle of a four-year sequence. Five more years passed before the identity of the College of the University of Chicago finally became coextensive with General Education. Thereafter, the “ideal” student entered after his sophomore year in high school and embarked upon a uniform curriculum of fourteen year-long courses, spread over four years, in the three basic areas of learning. There were no electives and no majors. Increasingly the courses were taught by an autonomous college faculty, specially recruited for the purpose. For Hutchins scorned the idea that the existing cadre of Chicago professors possessed the desire, or in some cases the ability, to synthesize materials that ranged from Aristotle to Einstein, or to classify the controlling principles of entire disciplines. Hutchins had respect for research-minded professors, but he also shared Ortega y Gasset’s low opinion of the “peculiar brutality and aggressive stupidity with which a man comports himself when he knows a great deal about one thing and is totally ignorant of the rest.” Autonomy also had the political advantage of allowing the college to make appointments to its teaching staff, including permanent appointments, without having to reckon with the wishes of the university’s departments and divisions.

Hutchins’s risk-taking plan immediately sank into difficulty. After all, 1942 was a year of global conflict which respected no university’s plans. In time, other difficulties arose. Many universities refused to recognize the Chicago B.A., and required holders of it to do more undergraduate work before admitting them to their graduate schools. Following World War II, Chicago was deluged with veterans who had high-school diplomas and now wanted four years of college. The number of high-school sophomores interested in immediately going on to college remained disappointingly small. After Hutchins stepped down in 1950, the college announced that its four-year program was primarily intended for high-school graduates. Even this modification proved insufficient, however. No longer was only one out of five college students opting to go to graduate school; at Chicago in the 1950′s, nearly four out of five made that decision. The college therefore trimmed the length of its “Gen Ed” sequences to three years, in order to permit students to get started on the specializations they intended to pursue in graduate school. (“My successors,” Hutchins is reputed to have said, “do not have the courage of my convictions.”)

Yet in spite of all vicissitudes, the college that was launched in the darkness of 1942 illuminated the possibilities of General Education in a way that no other large university ever has. Both in its four-year and three-year incarnations, the Chicago program demonstrated that it was possible to offer broad learning in depth. Thanks, too, to Hutchins’s identification of the college with the teaching of General Education, the commitment of the faculty to the curriculum was unquestionable. Many courses met four times a week and were divided equally between lectures to large audiences and small discussion groups. Staff members in charge of a particular course took turns lecturing, but all were regular leaders of the small groups. As in the great days at Columbia, General Education was labor-intensive work for officers of the faculty. Daniel Bell, who taught at Chicago in the 1950′s, has said that the extraordinarily high-caliber lectures by staff members were “given more to impress each other in the barnyard competition”; nevertheless, these strutting professors were also willing to teach sections, because they knew that in doing so they defined the basic meaning of the institution they worked for.

In the 1960′s, the Chicago program fell on hard times, comparatively speaking. The brilliance of the college’s faculty declined, as its most gifted minds were attracted by offers from elsewhere that involved graduate teaching and research. And at the recommendation of Chancellor Levi, the number of required core courses was further reduced. It is hard to destroy a great tradition, however, and the General Education curriculum continues to be conscientiously taught at a college which once taught nothing else.

_____________

 

One of the authors of the Harvard report on General Education in a Free Society (1945), familiarly known as the Redbook, once described it in my presence as “a B-plus job.” He always was an easy grader. In characterizing contemporary America as “a centrifugal culture in extreme need of unifying forces,” the Redbook authors merely echoed the ideas and appropriated the imagery of Henry Adams’s Education. Their judgment that the American high school, insofar as it is preparatory, “prepares not for college, but for life,” was a variation on Hutchins’s Higher Learning without the wit. That our involvement in a major world war necessitated a new investigation by educators into the meaning of American democracy was the same belief that had inspired the creation of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia. The specific proposal that every Harvard and Radcliffe student take a social-science course in “Western Thought and Institutions,” a humanities course in “Great Texts in Literature,” and one of two courses in the physical and biological sciences was not only based upon the common-core concept of the Columbia and Chicago programs, but recommended specific courses that strikingly resembled listings in the Columbia and Chicago catalogues.

The postwar Harvard faculty shared the cultural concerns expressed in the Redbook. The proponents of General Education, however, did not benefit from anything like the sense of institutional crisis that had attended the debut of “CC” at Columbia and the establishment of the new College of General Education at Chicago. The Harvard faculty never came to feel that the Red-book proposals were of fundamental importance to the future of Harvard College. The watered-down legislation that was approved in 1949 reflected this fact.

By a decisive margin, the faculty voted down the Redbook recommendation of a prescribed curriculum and provided instead for a variety of courses in each of the three major areas of knowledge. While this decision utterly destroyed the rationale of a shared intellectual experience for the students, it made sense to a faculty that saw no compelling reason not to let professors stage their own shows as usual. The faculty also manifested very little enthusiasm for the idea that professors should teach “Gen Ed” in sections, even though a report out of Columbia, entitled A College Program in Action (1946), had recently affirmed that

the test of experience in teaching . . . [General Education] courses at Columbia College strengthens our belief that they are not the place for the display of personality in the form of lectures to student audiences large enough to fill a theater. For many years we have given in Columbia College no required courses of the pontifical type, in part because the students know the defects of the type, but principally because the man-to-man effectiveness of . . . [an instructor] with a small group—usually twenty or twenty-five—has had much to do with active undergraduate interest in the introductory work, and with the easy and steady improvement of the courses themselves.

The lack of Harvard interest in the information that professors at Columbia and Chicago had found it advisable to devote four hours a week to teaching “Gen Ed” courses, rather than the standard two or three, was even more profound. Finally, the faculty saw fit to endorse the Redbook proposal that “Gen Ed” offer a smorgasbord of independent “upper-level” courses, despite the fact that experience at Columbia, and especially at Chicago, had demonstrated that coordinated sequences of learning from year to year gave students a sense of coherent forward movement. “It is not the mere addition to our knowledge that is the illumination,” Cardinal Newman observed in The Idea of a University, “but the locomotion, the movement onwards, of that mental center, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our requirements gravitates.”

_____________

 

In sum, the faculty placed its faith not in a philosophically thought-out, pedagogically meticulous program, but in a congeries of courses to be taught for the most part in the usual manner. The distinction of “Gen Ed” at Harvard, the faculty kept telling itself, was that so many of its great men had consented to teach in it. That this faith in great men was actually a confession of how weak “Gen Ed” was could have been ascertained from a superbly sardonic passage in Hutchins’s Higher Learning, but as in all its deliberations on general education, the Harvard faculty was indifferent to the advice of outsiders, even when it came from the outstanding university president of the day. “The great-man theory of education,” Hutchins wrote,

is a variant of the nauseating anecdote about Mark Hopkins on one end of the log and the student on the other. Under any conditions that are likely to exist in this country the log is too long and there are too many people sitting on both ends of it to make the anecdote apposite. Of course we should try to get great men into education, and each president should try to get as many of them as he can for his own faculty. But he can never hope to get very many, even if he knows one when he sees one. If a president succeeds in finding a few great men, he cannot hope to make them useful in an organization that ties them hand and foot and in a course of study that is going off in all directions at the same time and particularly in those opposite to the ones in which the great men are going. The fact is that the great-man theory is an excuse, an alibi, a vacuous reply to the charge that we have no intelligent program for the higher learning. It amounts to saying that we do not need one; we could give you one if we wanted to. But if you will only accept the great-man theory you will spare us the trouble of thinking.

Perry Miller, I. A. Richards, and other great men taught for a time in “Gen Ed,” and the courses they offered were memorable. But in the long run these luminaries felt confined by a course of study that was not going in their direction, or indeed in any direction at all, and they dropped out. The appeal that “Gen Ed” retained after their departure was mainly supplied by a group of charismatic lecturers like Samuel H. Beer and John Finley, whose courses on “Western Thought and Institutions” and “The Epic” gave the undergraduates who took them the same sort of grand perspective that had once been supplied by the legendary History 1, in which Roger B. Merriman—and later Michael Karpovitch—had chronicled the history of Western Europe from the fall of Rome to the present. Yet as good as these courses were, they were no better than scores of others that were offered by departments. Why should undergraduates be forced to pick from the “Gen Ed” list, especially when the list was so uneven in quality? Departments thought this was a very good question and began to chip away at “Gen Ed’s” power, while students in their boredom became extraordinarily adept at thinking up reasons for noncompliance with its regulations.

But perhaps the most telling sign of the experiment’s failure to win the respect of the Harvard community was the adoption in the 1950′s of a rule exempting students who entered Harvard with sophomore standing from two of the three elementary “Gen Ed” courses. A faculty committee pointed out that inasmuch as no effective changes were made in the rules pertaining to the requirements these students faced in their majors, “this disparity would seem to suggest that General Education was something that, after a certain minimum achievement, could be dispensed with. . . .” By the time it was ten years old, “Gen Ed” was being attacked as hidebound, restrictive, and insufficiently serious.

What was insufficiently serious in the 1950′s and early 1960′s occasionally dipped into farce in the late 1960′s and afterward. Stung by the accusations of its critics, “Gen Ed” let all sorts of “innovative” courses bloom. “The Scandinavian Cinema.” “Classical Music of India, Pakistan, and Bangla Desh.” “The American City in the 70′s—Cambridge.” With few exceptions, such courses were academic boutiques, into which trendy shoppers were enticed to browse. If high grades for little work are an educational bargain, the goods on display were a marvelous buy.

_____________

 

With the issuance of Dean Rosovsky’s letter to the faculty in 1974, the Harvard administration at last took up the task of overhauling the undergraduate curriculum. Yet Bok and Rosovsky did not conceive of the job as requiring that they themselves propose a whole new conception of collegiate education, in the grand manner of President Eliot and Chancellor Hutchins. Rather, they thought in terms of patchwork reforms, of which the first would deal with the problem of a replacement for General Education.

That the faculty was going to be even less interested in establishing a genuine program of General Education than it was when it broke the hearts of the Redbook authors a generation ago became apparent as soon as Rosovsky convened his task force. In 1941, the Redbook spelled out a series of proposals for a prescribed “lower-level” curriculum. The proposals may have been derivative, but they were specific, and they made possible an intelligent if ultimately disappointing faculty debate. When Rosovsky, however, asked the core-curriculum committee to design or designate a new set of courses, the committee refused, on the grounds that “it would be inappropriate, and possibly counterproductive, for us to prescribe details of course content and organization.” (“Counterproductive.” Perhaps this is as good a place as any to note that the ten-page introductory section to the core-curriculum report is the dreariest piece of important Harvard prose I have ever read. Even though a number of able writers worked on the report—as is evident in the sections dealing with their own areas of expertise—they speak as a group in unvarnished bureaucratese. Unfortunately, such clichés as “counterproductive” and “to implement this directive” do not merely define a collective failure of style; they are the symbols as well of intellectual breakdown. The committee that would not accept the challenge of cooperatively designing a curriculum was not bound together by a unity of interest and intention that would have permitted such an undertaking. The planning group must be small, wrote Alexander Meiklejohn in The Experimental College, and the members should have “genuine and intimate intellectual acquaintance with one another.” The representatives of the largest and most disparate Harvard faculty in history fatally lacked that kind of rapport.)

Having emptied its discussion of intellectual content, the committee proceeded to deal with the question of what an educated young man or woman ought to know in terms of abstract rules. It established a new set of nonconcentration requirements, divided more or less equally among the major areas of intellectual interest in the faculty. At first, the committee thought in terms of eight areas, but when the faculty balked at the cumbersomeness of the scheme, the number was arbitrarily reduced to five. Continued opposition from turf-defending scientists subsequently necessitated two more modifications—a “by-pass” option permitting a substitution of certain departmental courses for core requirements, and a “floater” option allowing students to shift one requirement from one area of the core to another. The supervisory committee also has the power to suspend requirements in one or more core areas for up to four years, and will almost surely be forced to invoke it. Having been born as a piece of machinery, the core is apt to be in and out of the shop for adjustments and repairs for the duration of its mechanical life.

At the moment, the regulations are slated to become fully effective in 1982. Incoming freshmen will be formally required to take ten semester-long courses, three in Literature and the Arts, two in History, two in Social and Philosophical Analysis, two in Science and Mathematics, and one in Foreign Languages and Cultures. In practice, though, students will have to take only seven or eight courses, thanks to exemptions in the area of their major and the option of taking a course that qualifies both in the Foreign Languages and Cultures area and in one of the other four. The expectation is that students will be able to choose from a list of 80 to 100 offerings, many of which will be specially designed for the core by specialized subcommittees working in conjunction with individual professors. According to an optimistic associate dean who serves on the core committee: “We don’t want to create a program of departmental courses, only under a different name.” A number of existing departmental courses, however, will be designated as “appropriate” to the core, and in at least one category on the list the offerings will consist entirely of courses normally offered by a department.

_____________

 

Thus Harvard has once again rejected the idea of a prescribed curriculum. Yet the faculty has not been content, as it was in 1949, simply to club together a bunch of courses and call it a program. The core committee did not find it politically or intellectually possible to establish a single shelf of Great Books; nevertheless, the committee declares, there was a rationale for what it did. “The underlying conception of the core curriculum is a minimum acceptable standard of individual education focusing on how we gain knowledge and understanding of the universe, of society, and of ourselves.” Approaches to learning are the keys to the kingdom. The fivefold curriculum will be made one by the common question of what knowledge and understanding are and how they are acquired. And within each area of the core, coherence is apparently going to be achieved through common methods of study or the study of common sorts of problems.

The statement has much merit as a general summation of what one might learn from a General Education program. But when one reads the details of the report, the statement loses much of its credibility. In the area of Literature and the Arts, for example, students will be required to take a course in a category called “Contexts of Culture.” Courses in this category will be unified by an advanced methodology. Not only will they connect art with literature, they will “emphasize” the social and historical context of artistic expression. “Thus these courses will be interdisciplinary.”

That final adjective is one of the buzz words of our time, of course, but can Harvard deliver on it? In an effort to answer this question, I recently asked Scorpio, the computer terminal at the Library of Congress, to give me a rundown of all scholarly books published by all tenured professors in the literature and arts departments at Harvard in the last ten years, minus the work of those professors who will have reached retirement age by 1982. My reading list proved to be much less formidable than it may sound because of the startlingly large number of cases in which Scorpio had nothing to report. Of the volumes brought to my attention, I found only a handful, by a total of three authors, which could be described as interdisciplinary in any genuine sense of the term.

Another way of measuring Harvard’s pedagogical capacity to teach “Contexts of Culture” is to look at the current condition of the university’s oldest field of undergraduate concentration, History and Literature. This past winter a senior professor at Harvard privately described the interdisciplinary major as “a terrible mess.” It “lacks direction or leadership and may survive on paper but has lost its reason for being.” The declining number of applicants to the field indicates that the undergraduates agree with the professor’s assessment. This past year, fewer than a hundred students, out of a class of 1,600, asked to be admitted. 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 the light of all these depressing facts, I am disinclined to believe that “Contexts of Culture” will be methodologically united. The greater likelihood is that offerings in this area will simply replicate the various single-discipline approaches of departmental courses.

President Bok has called attention to a possibly analogous situation in Social and Philosophical Analysis. The core requirement will compel students to come to grips with particular questions of choice and value. “They are to learn that it is possible to think systematically about such issues as justice, obligation, personal responsibililty, citizenship, friendship.” Yet as Bok admits in his latest report to the Harvard Overseers, the problem “is to find enough professors who are trained to teach such courses and willing to make the attempt.” In his next breath he suggests that it will be possible, after all, to staff the core courses with properly trained professors, but the doubt he raises is not so easily dismissed. While ethical inquiry is an important topic, in post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America it is also a fashionable one. The danger is that some of the teachers who will express an interest in moving in on the subject will be of the same ilk as those who sent “Gen Ed” down the road toward Boutiqueville. At a debased level, the unifying experience of studying common sorts of problems is not worth having.

The most dubious recommendations of the core committee have to do with basic skills in languages and mathematics. The Foreign Languages and Cultures requirement suggests that students will not be able to get through the core without demonstrating proficiency in a foreign language by the successful completion of a semester course involving untranslated texts or lectures. But in fact even this modest requirement can be evaded. Passing a semester course “devoted to the study of other major cultures where, in view of the difficulty of the languages, texts would be read in translation” will also satisfiy the requirement. Foreign Languages and Cultures is an inflated public-relations title that does not really mean what it implies. The committee’s recommendation that a required course in expository English be established in specific relation to various core courses comes even closer to hokum. In the middle 1960′s, a distinguished faculty committee headed by Professor Paul Doty noted that an unfortunate side effect of offering several alternative courses in “Gen Ed” in lieu of a prescribed curriculum “has been to make it impractical for General Education Ahf, the course in composition that replaced English A, to keep any direct contact with the General Education program.” The impracticality has not lessened with the years, and the core committee is doing a disservice to the university to pretend otherwise. The members of the committee also neglected to point out to their professorial colleagues that the only expository writing courses which have succeeded in American colleges and universities since World War II—I think, for instance, of English 1-2 at Amherst in the 1950′s and 1960′s—have been absolutely dependent upon the intense involvement of full professors.

In the area of mathematics skills, the new regulations require incoming freshmen to take a placement examination; if a satisfactory score is not achieved, students must take a course. Inasmuch as 35 per cent of all Harvard freshmen in 1977 failed to achieve a score of 50 per cent on a placement test covering arithemetic, algebra, and basic precalculus mathematics, it looks as if a good many freshmen in future years will be taking a course. The requirement strikes me as an intolerable imposition. If a third of the highly selected freshmen at Harvard do not have a grasp of basic mathematics, then it is time for college deans and presidents—and the task forces that report to them—to rethink the entire relationship between high school and college, as Hutchins once did. Making eighteen-year-olds do the work of sixteen-year-olds is no way to solve the problem.

_____________

 

The Harvard faculty has now replaced an old set of distribution requirements with a new set so similar in curricular implication that the core might as well be called “Son of Gen Ed.” Harvard, it is clear twice over, does not wish to commit itself to a prescribed curriculum; at the same time, the university apparently cannot bear to forswear the General Education ideal altogether and try something new and different. One has to wonder why. A lack of fresh educational ideas is an obvious answer, but only a partial one, for it does not call attention to the strong current of emotion running through the proceedings. What we are witnessing at Harvard today, and at hundreds of other institutions across the country where talk of a core curriculum has suddenly become fashionable, is the triumph of an enormous nostalgia. The do-your-own-thing anarchy of the 1960′s left us exhausted and a little frightened; it has made us yearn for recognizable forms, meaningful connections, hierarchy. Within every intellectual discipline the business of research continues to become more and more specialized, but the old dream of liberal-arts teaching promises professors that they can break through atomistic limits into a larger world. Indeed, Dean Rosovsky believes that through planning and teaching the core curriculum the Harvard faculty might well recapture the lost spirit of its common enterprise. This is one of those cases, however, in which grace enables good works, not the other way around. A spirit of common enterprise among its teachers is the sine qua non of successful General Education, as the examples of Columbia and Chicago attest.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.