Harvard Takes Stock

by JACQUES BARZUN

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IN THE confusion of counsels heard throughout the land for redirecting higher education, there has sounded at last a strong, explicit, almost insistent utterance, which we may hope will help to settle doubts and abate discussion. I refer to the report of a Harvard committee which has been sitting for two years, and which a month ago published its findings under the title of General Education in a Free Society. A week before publication the chief points of the work were detailed on the front page of the New York Times, and some days later an editorial hazarded a guess that the document might be a landmark in the history of American education.

This is as it should be. Harvard’s “quiet influence,” as Dickens called it a century ago, continues very great, and the members of the current committee have consciously justified it by recognizing at every step the existence of the broad world that lies beyond the College walls. Though nominally addressing President Conant, they have really addressed the whole nation; and though dealing with a local problem in curriculum-making, they have kept in view its counterpart on many an American campus. The feeling of solidarity expressed by the Harvard writers with every other institution of learning, large or small, rich or poor, is unmistakably sincere; and they have given it the force of a political idea by stating, with reasons in support, that the day of the scholar and gentleman is gone: the age of the scholar and citizen has begun. We feel a mood of rededication to a national cause.

With fervor and prestige behind them, the conclusions of the report are thus bound to make a difference, not only to Harvard and its students, but also to hundreds of other institutions with their thousands — from preparatory and high schools to universities, taking in junior colleges, teachers’ colleges, and plain colleges on the way. This fact is of such importance, both in itself and for what I have to say later, that I may be pardoned for re-enforcing it with a personal anecdote.

Last spring, I was invited to tell the very conservative faculty of a first-rate small college my impressions of the curriculum reform going on all over the country. During the question period that followed my talk, I was asked, “Why change anything? Isn’t the remaking of college education mere wartime nervousness on the part of deans and faculties?” I replied, giving further reasons why change seemed imperative, and happened to mention the almost Congressional hearings then being held by the Harvard committee. Instantly the mood of my audience veered. Skepticism and, I’m afraid, smugness turned into a charmed expectancy — of what Harvard was going to do.

What does Harvard propose? In a word, it bids the nation supply more General Education. This phrase does not mean instruction of a looser, less exact sort, but instruction that will cultivate rather than train, form the mind rather than fill it. The term “General Education” may be unfortunate, as I think, if only because it conceals a tautology, but it is now standard American for the older “Liberal Education” whose genteel connotations it discards. Several Midwestern universities have set up “General Colleges” or “Divisions of General Studies,” and there is an Association for General Education which has met, argued, polled its members, and issued (last June) a lively symposium on what General Education stands for.

According to the Harvard report, General Education is “education for an informed responsible life in our society.” It deals with the acquisition of “common standards and common purposes,” and serves society no less than the individual by giving him the equipment he needs to understand the civilization he lives in. A man may also be master of a trade, an art, a business, or a science, but he is first of all and inescapably a citizen. As such, he is called upon to form judgments and take action about things other than those in his own “line,” than which — by definition — nothing is narrower.

In the modern world this competence beyond the chosen line requires more than the habit of tuning in on radio news. It requires, as the Harvard report recognizes, a thorough grounding in at least three great divisions of learning — science, social science, and the humanities. In these last — letters, philosophy, and the arts — the education is of the feelings as much as of the mind, and as the committee are aware, we need feelings thus humanized in order to keep the bare knowledge supplied by the other two groups of studies from turning against civilization itself. The atomic bomb is, so to speak, a product of the atomic brain, meaning by this the mind cut off from all concerns but one; an achievement, certainly, but one which, if it is not under the control of moral judgment, political skill, and religious convictions, is quite simply accursed.

This is why the Harvard writers properly introduce social and economic considerations to buttress every feature of their plan and are able to demonstrate that General Education is one of the prerequisites to a free society. They go even farther and bring out of our economic and social past the reasons why American education has neglected general studies for nearly a century, supplying instead an enormous amount of highly competent but undirected technical knowledge. The atomic brain was everywhere busy reproducing its kind with no heed to the consequences.

In high schools and colleges this blindness took the form of early specialization, the nibbling away of the “academic course,” the free election of “major” studies funneling the mind toward the nearest point of vocational fitness marked by a degree, and the prevalence of an attitude of scorn for what was “mere” education, “mere” liberal arts, “mere” general knowledge. A play on words was invariably used to defeat all but the most determined young minds seeking an education. Knowledge, they were told, is never general; it is always particular; you either know a thing or you don’t.

This was true, but it overlooked the equally plain fact that between the highest expertness and the completest ignorance there is a vast range of conditions, each of which is genuine knowledge. To recognize the words “Monroe Doctrine” or the term “Quichuan” is something — something above ignorance. Which you should know more about, or how much is enough on any one point, is another question — the question, precisely, curriculum-makers must decide, given the eight years shared between high school and college for turning a child into a citizen.

What the Harvard writers have decided in this regard commends itself as much by its simplicity as by its fitness for present-day conditions in the United States. They recognize and would encourage the great national demand for technical and vocational training. But they argue the equal need for endowing as many of our future citizens as possible with the elements of a general education. In the high schools the committee wish to see not only more time devoted to general studies, particularly in science and language, but also an altered spirit governing work in the reading and writing of English and the study of history, music, and the plastic arts.

But obviously the secondary schools cannot act alone. The college program must be geared to their offering and give point to their preparation. For the four-year college, Harvard proposes a common core of studies, required of all undergraduates, in addition to the individual choice of a specialty. At Harvard itself this common core will consist of three courses introducing the student to the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. In effect, each of these courses will cover two years, though with some choice among the sequels to the prescribed groundwork. The writing of English will be combined with the pursuit of these basic studies, and tutorial work will be reserved for honors students.

How each of the new courses should be organized, how it should be taught, how it should be gauged for effectiveness, are matters upon which the committee have much to say, though they make plain the desirability of fitting college programs to local needs, and preach educational diversity as alone consistent with the freedom that their own plan is to help maintain.

Many other matters occupy the writers of the report: the supply of teachers and the reform of teachers’ colleges; the uses of manual and physical training; the meaning of the “right” to a college education; the proper ways of language and mathematics teaching; the Great Books curriculum; as well as the myriad connections of learning with industry, science, politics, and world peace. A topical index, if there were one, would show how far these educators have ranged and how extensive Harvardian research can be. But it would not show an added merit of the written result, which is the felicitous statement of many abstract truths and the easy flow of discourse about matters that must always seem to the laity technical without picturesqueness — that is to say, a little dull.

Yet surely no report of this weight, issued by a committee of this size and eminence, ever achieved so light a touch. I quote at random: “People are apt to locate beauty in picture galleries and museums and to leave it there”; “Reason is not a faculty operating separately from interest and zest”; “When logic and apparent fact fall out with one another, the scientist takes the fact and leaves the logic for future repair”; “But intellectual orderliness can, when misplaced, be fatal to either order or justice in the changing society that is our heritage and our responsibility”; “Values are rooted in facts; and human ideals are somehow a part of nature”; “In a recent accession of global sentiment, the faculty expanded the requirement to include Latin, ancient Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic”; “Parroting apart, the language as used in a subject is in practice indistinguishable from the subject itself.”

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WITH SO many things so well said in the report, it should seem as if there were nothing for me to add. I have dealt with the Harvard report on its broadest front, shown its design for steering American education away from the special and toward the general, and expressed, for what it is worth, my own sense of the rightness of this attempt at the present time.

Unfortunately, a closer look at the report reveals errors and deficiencies which cannot be passed over in silence. They could be called harmless blemishes only if the report were an intramural affair and not, as is the fact, a national document. The very weightiness of the committee’s views, their presentation to the public in book form even before the concrete proposal has become law at Harvard, no less than the essential rightness of the central message, compel one to judge the text with the same standards as would apply to a singlehanded essay of equal scope.

The deficiencies I speak of fall roughly under four heads: incoherent judgments, philosophic misunderstanding, neglect of history, and practical omissions. In a short space I can only sample each kind, while repeating that these errors — as I see them - are important not because they undermine the committee’s main position, but rather in themselves, as weaknesses which alert opponents of General Education will seize upon, or as misleading doctrines which will confuse those eager to follow the call.

The incoherent judgments are not casual, but affect matters of moment now and hereafter. On an early page, for example, we are asked not to deplore the American faith in education as a cure-all. Later, however, we are admonished with a certain blandness that “the schools cannot do everything” and will very likely fail if they attempt more than their proper task. In one chapter the critics of teachers’ colleges are rebuked, and the training of teachers in “methods” rather than subjects is condoned. Elsewhere this amiable concession is withdrawn — though not the rebuke — and real concern is expressed over the inadequacies of current teacher training.

Even in describing the proposed curriculum, the report seems to be attending to too many things for a clear grasp of its own meaning: “It would be a mistake,” we are told, “to set off a certain period of the college course for general education.” This clearly takes a stand against an existing practice of making the first two years of college mainly preparatory to more specialized work in the last two. But a few paragraphs beyond, we apparently find the very “mistake” that we were warned against: “It is suggested that the required courses in the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences shall be taken during the first two years of college. . . . The broad scope of these courses would be particularly helpful to the student who is preparing to choose a field of concentration.” This last statement, which I have italicized, does not indeed flatly contradict the previous one, but it does assert the widely held view which the former remark seemed to deny. The fault no doubt is purely rhetorical, but is not on that account the more easily excused in a plea for General Education.

Instances of this sort could be readily multiplied, and on points as deserving of definiteness as the merits of Latin, the true character of modern-language study, or the worth of departmentalization in colleges. The more controversial the issue, the more regrettable it is to find it straddled; and the easy flow of discourse, praiseworthy in its way, becomes reprovable when it leads to repetitions that tend to make the main subject not so much fugue-like as fugitive.

The least exacting reader must feel baffled when, a hundred pages beyond the clear definition of General Education as dealing with common standards and common purposes, he finds: “It is clearly of much more importance that honest thinking, clearness of expression, and the habit of gathering and weighing evidence before forming a conclusion be encouraged than it is that students be required to take any particular group of introductory courses. We believe that there are altogether valid reasons for requiring students to have some things in common, but the reasons for a common body of learning and of ideas should not be confused with the quite different reasons for an approach to learning more conducive to the objectives of a general education than are courses designed primarily for specialists or wouldbe specialists.”

The second error is philosophical and has to do with what is perhaps the one most pressing subject of reform in our schools — the teaching of science. In making the humanities and social sciences serve General Education, much experience has already been acquired, as I shall point out later. But turning science, which is specialization par excellence, into a source of general culture is relatively new and unmistakably difficult. President Conant having said some admirable things on this question, one had a right to expect that the committee would build upon them to give the academic world a full and clear declaration of principles.

This was Harvard’s peculiar opportunity, for less authorized critics are usually dismissed as incompetent or as harboring evil designs against science — quite as if anyone could wish to make away with the ocean or could be blamed for calling it salt. It should by now be plain that to criticize the teaching of science implies a very lively interest in science itself. The wish for reform in fact comes from seeing that, because science and mathematics have branched out into complexities beyond the grasp of the child gathering pebbles on the shore, we must do something through General Education to reunite the scientific and the humanistic halves of our culture.

This effort need involve no violation of the canons of science, and I am ready to believe the revolution can be achieved without shooting any scientists. But it does involve the removal of prejudices on both sides of the possible barricades, and it is here that the Harvard report unhappily fails us. Its suggestions about suitable courses and readings in science are obvious and acceptable enough, but its general views are for the most part vague and mistaken. It keeps talking of science as the exclusive realm of precision, and that is to confuse precision with measurement. Or else it unravels the threadbare by telling us that science is organized common sense and that “the scientist . . . ensures himself, when he can, the proper circumstances for pursuing his inquiry by ordering the conditions of the natural event himself. This is the point of scientific experiment.” Or again we are informed that the social sciences have hitherto failed to develop techniques for certainty comparable to those of science.

All of this implies that science is the model for human thought in all fields, which in turn contradicts the committee’s sensible wish for a science teaching which shall describe “the nature of the scientific enterprise” and distinguish scientific from other modes of thought. I would add here: modes equally precise and using techniques equally serviceable. For until the equality in diversity of the three branches of learning is established, the cultural and educational confusion will not cease. To harp on the precision of science and the failure of other disciplines to imitate it is not only to forget that art, history, and science can each be precise and truth-giving where the others are crude and false; it is also to throw away the whole case for a threefold General Education.

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AFTER this it may seem a small matter that the Harvard writers steadily use the word “pragmatic” in a popular and wholly erroneous sense. Yet this is possibly a clue to their fumbling about science, at the same time that it argues some disregard for one of their visible inspirers, William James. And this brings me to my last and most serious criticism: their neglect of certain historical facts to the detriment of the report’s practical usefulness.

The facts I have in mind belong to the history of American higher education during the last thirty years, but I might remark in passing that the substantial quotations found in the Harvard text are chiefly from the ancient Greeks. Except for a few ornamental phrases, one has little sense of a world of modern thought since the Renaissance, though that is clearly the culture which General Education is to lead us into, in the same way, the educational philosophy and the devices here proposed seem to come mainly out of anonymous social and economic factors, and hardly at all out of the work of American educators since the turn of the century. It is true that at the outset the committee disclaim originality and pioneering, but this is not enough to dispel the ambiguity which attaches throughout 200 pages to the words “our views,” “our position.” Nor is the case bettered when the report casually mentions certain details of plans in force elsewhere as having afforded valuable hints; for this is bound to suggest that the cultural connection has been acknowledged in full.

One such reference is to the “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization” given since 1918 in Columbia College, Columbia University, a course which the Harvard report terms “very successful” and comparable to its own proposed work in the social sciences. I believe that this much having been said, the writers would have found it of practical importance to go on and say that every feature of the proposed Harvard plan, comprising the three two-year introduction courses, the balance between specialization and general education, the handling of English composition, the advisory and tutorial schemes, had been in operation at Columbia College for periods ranging from seven to twenty-seven years.

I am not raising the question of credit, for ideas are in the air and not subject to copyright. I raise the question of practical utility. To examine the Columbia College offering, even to criticize it in the light of the recent adoption or adaptation of some of its courses by such colleges as Yale and Princeton; to deal with what the University of Chicago has done on a similar threefold plan for nearly a decade; to digest what colleges like Swarthmore and Scripps have achieved in their Honors and Humanities programs, and what Wisconsin has done in the sciences — all this and more was relevant, for several reasons.

First, it would have put behind each feature of Harvard’s proposal to the nation the weight of actual experience gathered at many places. This would have disposed of the notion implicit in any manifesto that here is a new enterprise, untried and, to that extent, untrustworthy. To offset this idea, the committee merely nod to an “era of experimentation,” excusing their haste by the wish to stick to Harvard business. This is neither helpful nor in keeping with the broad title chosen for the report, and the brief listing of “five major approaches,” preceding their own, unhappily confirms the impression that an era of synthesis is about to begin. The fact is that we are well beyond experimenting, that synthesis has been achieved, and that stored-up truths are on hand to help others avoid mistakes.

Had these truths been sifted and incorporated in the report, they would have been made widely available in a way that no other document or agency could rival. This was indeed the point of publishing such a report at a time when nearly every other college and university is tackling the same problems and producing similar blueprints for its private use. Moreover, by discussing the context of various types of courses in General Education, the report would have achieved a concreteness it now lacks; and by distinguishing the essential from the incidental in any given aspect of the new curriculum, it would have served the interests of the diversity it preaches.

Having visited a good many places of learning during the past fifteen months, I think I know what deans and faculties want to find out. They are familiar with the background and the drawbacks of older practice; they want to hear about the background and the advantages of the new. They believe in the desirability of at least some General Education, but they foresee difficulties and want practical solutions. At times they underestimate the obstacles or consider certain things impossible, such as organizing the sciences into one introductory course or subjecting every American undergraduate to an encounter with music and the fine arts. It is on these points precisely that the Harvard report disclaims competence or is silent. It touches, very gingerly, on the problems of administration and budget arising out of its grand design, but these are only two out of the host of problems that General Education brings in its train. After much trial and error, many of them have been met; yet one would search in vain through the report for a sign that they and their solutions exist.

One is almost tempted to conclude that, having accumulated a staggering mass of evidence, the committee could only by-pass it to reach their goal. But in doing so they apparently lost sight of what their report truly signifies. It signifies the final break with the German tradition of higher learning imported into the United States in the eighties, and the tacit recognition after twenty-five years that a substantial sum of native ideas, pragmatically worked out, fit our conditions best.

What Harvard “proposes” is a truly American undergraduate curriculum, equidistant from Oxford and Heidelberg, and maintaining the perpendicular between them. Here again, had the reporters been more interested in educational history, they might have found in the writings of the late President Lowell the full doctrine and the first lineaments of such a college. Lowell began his theorizing as early as 1887 under the Eliot regime, which was committed to the older view. The present committee, in choosing General Education, continues what Lowell called being “at war with academic traditions in America” — a war in which he did not lack allies outside his own university. The country today can still profit from seeing the victorious gains enshrined in the Harvard report; but before that imperfect summary can be a landmark in our educational philosophy, it will have to be filled out with the recorded experience of the past, the elsewhere, and the future — by which I mean the Harvard adventure of the next ten years. We can confidently await the Report of 1955.