The Trouble with Harvard
Esquire, September 1981

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Unofficially, the United States now has a number of national universities. A good degree from anyone of them is a passport to grad school and a top-notch job anywhere in America. Stanford is surely one of these national schools. So is Cal Tech. So is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the oldest, the best known, the most watched and envied (as well as resented) is Harvard. With the help of a splendid admissions office and plenty of scholarship money, Harvard College has its pick of bright students from all over. It seems to have gone co-ed successfully. It has just launched a series of new courses and requirements known as The Core Curriculum, which, precisely because they were dreamed up by the Harvard faculty, have received considerable attention in the national press.

Naturally, now more than ever before, ambitious parents are willing to bleed from the pocketbook, and ambitious children are ready to die just to get into Harvard. Many of those who fail (about twelve thousand a year do) think their careers have been blasted before they have really begun. But what are they actually missing? How right is Harvard? To get a detailed impression, Esquire asked a devoted old grad to go back to Cambridge for a visit. Here is his report:


CRONIN'S, the legendary beer hall, is gone. Hazens, too, once a home for pinball machines and forlorn freshmen. Gone those plain purveyors of awful food, Albiani and the Hays Bick. Shorn of its famous dropped-egg-on-hash, Leavitt & Pierce still peeks out on Mass Avenue, an eatery no more but still notable for fancy pipe mixtures. Cambridge has long since been invaded by a grungy chic. There are ubiquitous sidewalk ads for ear piercing and palm reading. Magazine displays with cover articles like "The Vibrator That Talks Dirty." Designer toys. Small, cute restaurants with names like One Potato, Two Potato and the Patisserie Française.

In the Harvard University Information Office in Holyoke Center, the woman at the desk cannot make change for a twenty­dollar bill offered in payment for a three­dollar Harvard Course Evaluation Guide. "I don't keep that much money around," she explains with a sigh. "It's because we get robbed so often. " In the next few days the old grad will get used to that sigh. He is to hear it from students, professors, deans, advisers. It conveys a blend of resignation and complacency, and says: "That's life at Harvard, and nothing can be done about it. "

Just down the Holyoke arcade is the University Health Services. A notice on the ground floor says it is forbidden to bring bicycles up in the elevator. "The students do it anyway, " sighs a nurse with a nice smile. "They're afraid of being ripped off. " Three floors up, in the office of Warren Wacker, M. D., director of the UHS, there is good news. Wacker reports that his people are getting along better than they used to with the students who come in for help. "You have to constantly remind the receptionists, nurses, and docs," says Wacker, "that these are sick people. They're grumpy and they're not acting rationally, and they must be handled with extraordinary sensitivity." About a thousand kids a year get psychological counseling. But the amount of psychotic illness, Dr. Wacker hastens to note, is "normal for the age group. Less than five percent and probably below two percent. "

The unwanted pregnancy rate, the doctor goes on without being asked, is about twenty per thousand. "Just what you'd expect anywhere for people who use the diaphragm," Wacker explains, though emotional disturbance - after young lovers break up in Harvard's co-ed dorms and houses - is a prime cause of "exogenous depression" and the need for psychiatric help. Women, especially, cause trouble by wanting to transfer right away to another house, even if it's in midterm, to avoid the traumatic presence of the once-loved object. Each term about 450 students are granted medical excuses for putting off exams or final papers until the next term or over the summer. These are known as sick-outs.

Harvard students are "too smart" to tangle with angel dust or heroin, and the drug scene, too, is stable, it would appear. Cocaine is so expensive it's "not a major problem" here or on any American campus. Harder to tell about pot, Wacker acknowledges, but adds, "I don't smell it around as much as I used to. There has never been much trouble with Quaaludes."

Well, no college has been spared its share of domestic squalor. Sex is like mother's milk to the young these days. Being ripped off has become a national way of life. The old grad has had two batteries stolen from his very own Chevrolet in his very own garage on his very own suburban street. Still, Harvard is Harvard. A place that once marked him with a sense of promise and gave him a way of looking at the world.

Secretly he will admit to the childish glee that, even thirty years on, it sometimes gives him to see red Harvard jerseys swarm over a blue-shirted runner and savagely grind him into the hard November turf. In joyful memory, sunlight spills down over the bricks on Mount Auburn Street; the Lampoon building forever thrusts its bluff bows into the oncoming traffic. He will always be able to hear I. A. Richards, semanticist, University professor, madman, genius, describing Achilles' obsequies for the dead Patroclos as "something to be done when there's nothing to be done." Through sheer power of declamation Richards could turn A. E. Housman (A. E. Housman!) into a spine­tingling poet: "The troubles of our proud and angry dust / Are from eternity and shall not fail. / Bear them we can, and if we can we must. / Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale. "

In any case, this is an appropriate moment to look at the place. The legacies of the late Sixties, when University Hall was occupied and the Cambridge police smashed student skulls to take it back, have faded. Everybody is supposed to be studying harder, if not to get an education at least to get into the B-School. In admissions Harvard has its choice of fourteen thousand applicants for sixteen hundred places in the freshman class. It is conceded the best yield ratio anywhere (the percentage of kids who actually come after you've accepted them). It still gets a lion's share of the country's top 25 percent, who are now being fought for by a handful of leading colleges, though only Harvard has been silly enough to refer to them, at early now-you're-at-Harvard sessions, as "the best and the brightest." Some children take that seriously. A Radcliffe grad confides, "I had a roommate who used to spend hours up at the Union talking to this jock from Iowa. She kept saying to me, 'There must be something to him. After all, he's at Harvard.'''

The college-placement men in the country's strong high schools and prep schools think the world of Harvard's admissions office. Brown is "reaching" too hard for athletes, they will tell you. Penn is just beginning to get selective. Cornell is a factory, too big to understand or predict. Yale is wrangling with its alumni (they want more sons and daughters admitted). After nine years, Dartmouth is still deeply divided over going co-ed. But Harvard, which spends more than $11 million a year on scholarships and keeps a staff of thirty full-time and part-time admissions people in motion, is rolling serenely along, beating the bushes for confident doers and shakers from every sort of ethnic and economic background. Harvard, in fact, is so hell-bent on ethnicity that last year it hired a helicopter and sent an admissions officer thundering around Alaska looking for talented Eskimos.

Says Ted Wilcox, current director of The Core Curriculum: "Our range of students is far greater now. They have very different preparation and when they come, each year the top and the bottom get farther and farther apart academically. We hope they graduate much closer together. " History professor John Womack, a kindly, tough-minded, liberal former Rhodes scholar from Oklahoma, recognized as one of Harvard's most impressive lecturers, says, "We're training a ruling class." He pauses, then adds with some irony, "A responsible ruling class. " Parents will love that, the old grad thinks. In a society more preoccupied with the labels on the suitcase than with what's inside, Harvard is still the best label in town.

Most parents also think Harvard will give the kid a good liberal arts education, too. And why not? Most of them have heard about The Core Curriculum. The Core has been widely ( though incorrectly) billed as a reassurance to traditionalists, who had begun to grumble, demanding that Harvard once again assure each graduate of some kind of basic education, a basis for common cultural discourse, the kind of thing that many colleges have gone back to after a decade of permissiveness.

So there Harvard stands, the very model of pedagogical pluralism in triumphant action. But how triumphant is it? Persistently the old grad asked students and ex-students, would you send your son/daughter to Harvard? However sad or screwed up or cheated or inadequate they reported they felt in Cambridge, whatever levels of extraordinary pain or fragmented education they bore witness to, most replied that, well, they probably would. But with reservations.

Answering the question himself, the old grad comes to a slightly different conclusion. So great is Harvard's reputation still, so short the perspective of its recent children, that while they complain a lot, they blame themselves if Harvard is a disaster, if it is, in fact, anything less than a radiant intellectual experience. After all, how could Harvard be wrong? Says an ex­member of the Class of '79: "Now I see pretty, young people looking happy and carefree. I realize it was a stage of life I missed entirely. It sort of mystifies me that this should be the case. " The old grad tends to see Harvard as something else, a kind of educational withering heights, partially numbed by arrogance and inertia. Its greatest asset: The kids themselves, acquired by the best admissions office going, lured by a reputation that may no longer be justified. The greatest good Harvard now does them may be the simple act of selecting them. The old grad might decide to send a kid there, but only if he or she had the brass of a bandit, the confidence of Alexander the Great, and a burning desire to get ahead rather than get an education.

"What does Harvard really do for you?" the old grad asks one of his own classmates. Like a shot the answer comes back: "It leaves you alone." Then, a typically Harvardian qualifier: "It left me so alone I didn't get any education at all."

Harvard still leaves you alone. More than ever. But what was effective in a time of order and optimism, of shared values and a homogeneous student body trained more or less the same way, no longer works. In earlier, easier circumstances Harvard's celebrated indifference, benign neglect, or withdrawal from responsibility made sense. Education comes in various ways. Discipline must at some point become internalized. The only shared values today are sheer survival and self-gratification. Harvard people come from the four comers of the world, prepared or unprepared every which way. They are chosen for brains and confidence more than for marks. Confidence above all. They are turned loose in a system practically without discipline, or order, or viable requirements, or supervision, or even advice, unless they learn to lobby for it like longshoremen.

"The key is to keep asking, " advises the Crimson's Confidential Guide. "It entails a lot of selfish plugging and if you are shy, you may end up with the dregs. But that's life, a University authority is bound to say. Perhaps so, but at $10,600 a year, one expects a less true-to-life experience."

According to every student and every graduate of the last ten years that the old grad meets, Harvard is a prime shriveler of confidence. "Root, hog, or die" has its points, and clear competition is useful.  But Harvard seems to lack any sense of a formal framework in which a student can learn to compete. A good many thrive, but even these - so great is the expectation that just being at Harvard places on them - are often prey to dramatic ups and downs, known locally as the Icarus Complex. "You're told you're the best and the brightest, a student says. "That you're lucky. That you can do it, make this world a better place. And then you get blown away by some grad student and a bad paper."

The withering effect of great expectations can linger long after graduation. Jane O'Reilly in her splendid reminiscence, The Girl I Left Behind, killingly but correctly presents an anecdote in which two middle-aged Harvard men come to dinner. One is a celebrated magazine editor; the other a partner in one of the country's fanciest law firms. Ignoring their attractive hostess, they spend the entire evening lamenting the fact that they never lived up to their Haryard promise!

Many students drift through Harvard with a nagging sense of failure and anxiety. "There is so much freedom here," says Kiyo Morimoto, "that studies become extracurricular. And you can't get through if your studies are extracurricular." Morimoto, a clinical sociologist recognized as one of the college's notable assets, runs the Bureau of Study Counsel on Linden Street. Each year the bureau gives comfort and advice to the fifteen hundred students who are willing to face the possibility of failure and admit their need for help. The number is up 40 percent just in the last five years.

"In times of abundance," says Morimoto, "you had the luxury of thinking about values. Now, in times of scarcity, only a semblance of that search goes on. The big concern is 'making it.' When they fail a course now, it may be a loss, not just then, but in later life. It may really mean they cannot go on to some advanced training. And you have to sit down with them and grieve that loss while they, really, must try to remake their lives. " Morimoto is worried about Harvard's objections to using authority, all up and down the line: its not insisting that students get papers in on time, not insisting on formal meetings between students and advisers, students and tutors, even between students and faculty. "Harvard is deeply ambiguous about authority," he says, "about being firm and clear and unambiguous. Today all authority is seen as negative. The desire to be liked shows itself throughout the culture. By being so open and understanding, parents give children a lot of troubles." Harvard does too.

With more than a little help from the students. "If you're smart, you tend not to want advice, " says a former Radcliffe student. "Since Harvard never offers any, you never learn to use it. My freshman year," she recalls, "I took arcane grad courses. You know, English Lit from 1750 to 1751. Only in my last semester, as a senior, did I take the survey courses that I finally realized I needed - and wanted. I didn't turn in my thesis and I lost my major." Nevertheless, she got honors in general studies. "It all could have been avoided," she says, "if I'd been older, or Harvard a bit stricter. You didn't have to go to class because nobody took attendance. And you could get unlimited extensions on papers during the term. The result was a whole school of panicked students swimming around, always behind, near hysteria, knowing they could always call the section man [a graduate teaching assistant in a large lecture course, also called a section leader] and say, 'I can't get it done!' We used to call it the P and P syndrome - for Perfectionism and Procrastination. You know, 'If I take a little longer, I can get it perfect.' Potentially good students unable to enjoy anything without guilt because a paper was hanging over them. It may sound silly, but it led to a number of nervous breakdowns and dropouts. "

Her simple solution, now echoed by many students past and present, and some teachers: Be firm. Mark off for each day of lateness. Require section men to see the student face-to-face before giving extensions. But getting Harvard to do anything involves confrontation with an assortment of prides, delusions, and contradictory priorities. Students like to say that rules "infringe on their rights." The college likes to believe Harvard students are too intelligent for such baby props. Says an ex­Harvard '79: "They say, 'You're such bright little people, of course you can grapple with designing your own college program.' But nobody can, really, except maybe those computer whizzes and you never see them because they're always at the Science Center."

Harvard has, as it should have, a free faculty. But one result is that Morimoto can say with that sigh, "You can't make the Harvard faculty do anything." Case in point: There is a policy that senior professors should take part in tutorials - special, intimate study programs for honors I students. According to Alan Heimert, Harvard '49, master of Eliot House, and a celebrated teacher of American literature, the English department is the only department so far to fulfill it. The Harvard view is that one must not meddle with the students either. "If you tell somebody to turn down a stereo," says Heimert, "you can be threatened with manslaughter." Talking to Ted Wilcox, the old grad learned of some experiments in dropping section meetings - small groups made up of students taking large lecture courses. "They're often of marginal value," said Wilcox. "Besides, you can't make anybody come to section meetings."

Why can't you make students come to section meetings? For that matter, why can't you require attendance if you want to? The old grad put those questions to Professor Womack. "Of course you can get people to come," says Womack. "All you have to do is give spot quizzes ten minutes into the hour. But if you take attendance you have to keep records. You get into awful bookkeeping hassles, and messy questions of equity with the dorm lawyers. Every student here is kind of pre­law. even if they're not."

One is bemused by the spectacle of a great university unable or unwilling to get college students to go to class or to turn papers in on time for fear of violating their rights or incurring extra paperwork, or simply because they are in thrall to an abstract notion of laissez-faire.

At Harvard today, even die-hard advocates of total freedom think freshmen need more advice and supervision. "I don't know what it would cost," says Womack, "but it ought to be done. The whole proctoring system is horrible." (Proctors are graduate students who live in freshman houses in the Harvard Yard and serve as the closest thing that freshmen have to in loco parentis.) In a section called "Where to Go for Advice," the Harvard Crimson's brisk Confidential Guide gives the freshman advising system short shrift: "Harvard promises you an academic adviser and a freshman proctor. Nine times out of ten these two are the same person. Because most proctors are graduate students, whether or not they happen to know anything about your field of interest is purely a matter of chance. As for personal advice, some are superb, some are mediocre but harmless, and not a few sleep with their proctees." That last suggestion is a legacy from the late 1960s when Harvard, like nearly every college, got rid of parietal rules and joined the sexual revolution. A southern honors grad still remembers 1968 with a shock, not only for the University Hall bust but because he lived beside his proctor in the Harvard Yard and was stunned "by the smell of pot and the squeal of the girls from the room next door." It was the same student who noted grimly, "You could die in your bed and they wouldn't find you for two weeks."


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On the subject of sex, George Bernard Shaw once noted that it is not a life of sin, but marriage, that combines the maximum amount of opportunity with the maximum amount of temptation. Shaw hadn't seen a modem, coeducational college. "On any given night, a professor indulgently remarks, "the odds are against finding anyone in his or her own bed." Few people seem to disagree. By the standards of the age, there's nothing wrong in that, either. Except that it tends to produce large amounts of emotional exhaustion, domestic squalor, and sheer noise. A '76 graduate remembers living with a man in Winthrop House for more than two terms. Her life, she recalls, was full of "love traumas and was pretty miserable day to day. " She was sick a lot, had to get extensions on her exams, caught mononucleosis, and sometimes envied her mother, who at Stanford in the Forties "used to go dancing and out on real dates." When asked if some sort of parietal rules might not help, she replied quickly. "No .. I nearly died for lack of them, but I wouldn't have them back." A Crimson editor who has just graduated with honors was not so sure. "It would be really nice, " he said wistfully, "to put all those emotions off till weekends."

In short, as a classics major who has trouble finding a place to study noted, life in the houses can be "pure soap opera," with the players sometimes running up and down the halls having fits, or fun, or banging on closed doors and screaming "God! Let me in!" or "No! Please go away!" Another student would often return from the library to find her mattress out in the hall, sometimes with a note: SORRY TO KICK YOU OUT. "The library closes at midnight so i'd go to Tommy's Lunch till three A. M. , " she said. "Harvard says, 'Try to be as understanding as possible about your roommate's life-style.' But sometimes I wanted to shout at them, 'Can't you just do it once a month!'" I asked a student who was sympathetic to the need for more tranquility if it wouldn't help to designate a few houses as single-sex houses and have some parietal rules for them. "Oh, no," she said. "Everybody would just say they were lesbian houses. Nobody would move in."

Well, what about noise? This student, like many others, has great trouble with it.  All last year, she said, some people upstairs tended to play their electric piano at full blast until two A. M. "Sometimes, when things were very tense, we dared complain. And then they at least closed their doors." An acid-rock band often rehearsed in the house basement, too, so she was never able to read or write undisturbed in her room. Instead, she became an expert on Harvard's many libraries. Lamont, the main undergraduate library, was too badly lighted for study at night. Radcliffe's Hilles was better. In a number of libraries the noise level from people talking was so great that "I'd actually want to find somebody, I mean, like the authority in the library, to complain to. I didn't. And I never saw anybody quiet down a library. Everybody tends to sort of pussyfoot around the whole situation." She finally found a splendid retreat in the basement room of Cabot, the home of would-be medical students. "There are ten desks with reading lamps down there, " she explains with delight at such a trouvaille. "You have to get there early to beat the law and med students, but at least it's quiet."

"'Diversity is the hallmark of the Harvard experience,'" a student notes. "It says so right at the beginning of the handbook." And Harvard is tolerant. "There's a lot of not wanting to offend the people who make noise. Not just 'that's the black guys or the gay guys and we don't want to offend them,' but in general. " Perhaps this is what the faculty mean when they say that people are more civilized, kinder to one another, "since the women came." Perhaps. But it is not encouraging to have a young woman who has just been talking of tolerance add the following: "If you get stuck next to a bunch that screams and bangs around in the night, you feel defenseless, especially as a freshman. What can you do? You can't get help. And they'll just say, 'Don't bug us. We want to scream.'"

When it comes to being a beneficiary of tolerance at Harvard, as elsewhere these days, only the Yahoos need apply. To visit Harvard is to understand fully what Harvard's David Riesman and Gerald Grant meant, writing a few years ago, about American colleges: "Retreating before the charge of hypocrisy, adults refused to lay down any norms or standards ... thus leaving the young frequently in the hands of the least considerate among them."

If you ask anyone at Harvard what Harvard does for its students, what all of them take away in common after spending four years and forty thousand dollars, there is always a slight pause. Why? Well, there are almost no course requirements in common. No great books read by everyone. Not even the reading list, which used to be handed out to all freshmen, of books that they" ought to have read" on their own by graduation. A proud father, reporting that his son is getting a "magna" in history, specializing in the Renaissance, is a bit puzzled. "You know," he says, "outside of the Renaissance, he wouldn't know a Sumerian from the shelling of Fort Sumter." So the answer eventually, inevitably, comes back, "Well, every Harvard student shares an appreciation for the diversity of life and the pursuit of excellence. "

Even in a college that is less devoted to great books than to getting into the specialist grad school of one's choice, even at an institution that sometimes seems more involved in the socialization of students than in ideas and education, these two legacies of Harvard do not seem much of an achievement. Excellence, one feels, might be more easily pursued in some orderly framework, freer of noise. The diversity of the world, which may once have been hidden from the comfortable middle classes in America, proclaims itself daily through the mediums of travel, television, and the newspapers. It hardly seems to require heavy tutorial in America's greatest university.

When it comes to reducing noise and confusion, it is clearly the Harvard view that King Canute's experience applies. But something may be done about another troubling and persistent problem at Harvard, the quality of teaching. And here, again, Riesman has hit the nail on the head. "I believe," he writes, "that Harvard can make its greatest contribution to undergraduate teaching ... by more serious efforts to introduce graduate students to the problems of teaching as a regular part of their training."

Harvard students should have stood and shouted "Amen!" For years they have complained to deans and professors about teaching and the ineptitude of section men.  For years faculty and deans have explained that Harvard cannot hire or tenure great teachers - as opposed to research scholars - because the teachers would be brushed off by the scholars and would fall behind in their profession, especially if they foolishly burned themselves out imparting knowledge to their students, while losing their grip on what is known as the cutting edge of scholarship. Besides, the line went on, graduate students have to learn to teach somewhere, don't they? As Wilcox remarked, in this connection: "Today's lousy section man may be tomorrow's great teacher."

Maybe. But only by the grace of God.  While the published scholarship of young graduate students and professors is easily measured and rewarded, their teaching, at Harvard anyway, is measured mainly by hearsay and rarely rewarded seriously. Why? The law school and the business school, as Riesman points out, both care a lot about teaching and both have senior faculty visit and evaluate junior instructors' classes. This has not been true at Harvard College, Riesman says, because privacy of the classroom is regarded as an integral part of academic freedom.

Of the complaints of students at Harvard, Wilcox equably observes, "Harvard trains them to be critical. It would be strange if they were not, critical of us. "  Indeed, the Confidential Guide, and the much larger Course Evaluation Guide put out by the University, can both be cruel. The 1980-81 Confidential Guide dismisses historian Bradford Lee as "the worst lecturer at Harvard." Visiting philosopher Ronald Dworkin, it says, "adds new dimensions to the word pompous." It finds the English department full of "ancient tortoises." A sophomore who loves being at Harvard wistfully told me, "In two years I haven't heard a good lecturer. But I'm still hopeful. "

There is evidence that Harvard undergraduates are not so much a pack of whiners and carpers as they are starved for lively and passionate lecturing. The guides are practically gushy about Walter Jackson Bate's Dr. Johnson course. They have the highest praise for Womack in history and for astrophysicist David Layzer's innovative course, Chance, Necessity and Order. And they are certainly generous when they unexpectedly find good lecturing. Edward Mendelson, a Yale professor who is W. H. Auden's literary executor, was recently a visiting professor at Harvard. He gave his regular Yale lecture course on modem poetry; his Harvard class gave him a big burst of applause after every lecture. Says Mendelson: "I was really startled - and pleased. Nobody ever did that in New Haven."

These days not much good is said about the section leader. The Crimson, for instance, warns freshmen that section leaders rarely will bother to learn their names - "and if they do, and are of the opposite sex, watch out." Charges of ineptness, indifference, and preoccupation with their own work are steadily brought against them. So is the charge of arrogance. "A lot of teaching at Harvard is a big peacock dance," a California woman says. Another undergraduate recalls section meetings in the government department as being full of realpolitikery and shallow careerism. "When I'd say, 'But that isn't permitted by the Constitution,' the section leader would say, 'You don't believe in any of that stuff, do you, honey? Besides, that's history, this is government.' "

By far the most bitter and convincing complaints concern comments on papers - once they are finally handed in. "I'd get an A for a neat, crummy little paper on Bleak House, but only a line of comment. Nobody ever took the trouble to say 'Look. You did that all right. But you're taking shortcuts with your research.''' Whether the writing is good or bad, six lines of comment even on a forty-page paper seems common, to hear students tell it. "That's why I became a journalist," a woman confided. "I was so damned tired of working so hard and then having only one dumb guy read my papers - and then say nothing. "

These days section men in the humanities, anyway, face the prospect of no future job in teaching, however skillful they are. And few of them are likely to know enough about writing to be really helpful, even if the prose in question or the ideas involved merit it. Says one of Harvard's Expository Writing instructors: "They keep talking about getting senior faculty involved with student papers. But that would be like turning your naval operations over to the captain of the Titanic."

Any college attached to any great research university has advantages. Among them: Money, great libraries, famous professors, government grants. It has one great disadvantage: it is likely to be eaten alive by the grad schools. To be a good liberal arts college it must have generalists, brilliant teachers, a concern with values, with the need to convey certain truths about the terms on which life is, or should be, lived. Grad schools are trade-licensing academies with a need for research and for paper-producing specialists. But at the cutting edge of scholarship little will be produced to change what ought to be known and taught, for instance, about Aristotle, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Vico or Kepler or Charles Darwin for that matter. Such men and ideas are usually taught better at places like Swarthmore and Amherst, Williams and Carleton, and St. Johns.

Most colleges linked to a great university graduate-school system tend to keep the two faculties separate. But Harvard, being Harvard, has tried to keep them both together, to be simultaneously a liberal arts college and a university, with both sets of students taught by the same Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This undivided faculty has even been called "the Glory of the Harvard System." Nothing is more revealing about the kinds of pressures and problems such a system faces than the evolution of The Core Curriculum, which began as an attempt to improve on a previous system of required courses and ended, despite the name, pretty much by doing away with the whole idea.

Before the Core, Harvard had something called General Education, set up after World War II. When it began, every student was required to take at least two full Gen Ed courses outside his area of concentration. They were chosen from a bare handful offered in humanities, social science, and natural science. A science major, for instance, had to take something like The Inheritance of Western Civilization in social sciences. In the humanities he was obliged to take one of the following: Humanities 1: The sources of "our common ideas" as found in Homer, the Old Testament, Plato, Dante, Montaigne, and Shakespeare; Humanities 2: The Epic and The Novel, as exemplified by the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Voltaire, Dickens, Melville, and Tolstoy; Humanities 3: Individual and Social Values in Literature, derived from the works of Plutarch, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Mann, Dostoyevsky, John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche, and Malraux.

One did not emerge from any one of these courses without some idea of the continuity of values, the evolution of Western civilization. Everybody took them. Everybody talked about them. The professors who taught them, like I. A. Richards himself, classicist John Finley, the government department's Sam Beer, won a permanent place in the hearts of several generations of Harvard people. But by the mid-Sixties graduate school specialization, age, retirement, and a shift of professorial loyalty away from Harvard College as a whole and toward individual departments had taken their toll on General Education. "The old war-horses of the Fifties dropped away," explains Wilcox, "and there was no one to take their place. " At Harvard, teaching even such celebrated out-of-department courses did you little good in your profession. Harvard's faculty specialists were increasingly unwilling or unable to deal with such broad, showy, and demanding courses.

Some Harvard professors had also come to disapprove of many General Education courses. Scientists felt the science courses were too easy. But humanists said their students couldn't take anything more demanding. In the late Sixties and Seventies, while the question of refurbishing Gen Ed was under consideration, the whole idea of teaching Western civilization had come to seem simpleminded, provincial, even chauvinist to some, especially to liberals, considering the rise in interest in the Third World. They drowned out the voices that reminded that you can't learn everything until you've learned something well and that the obvious place to get your first real grip on history and the evolution of ideas is in your own culture. Requirement of anything was just then beginning to be regarded as elitist. Grades were being inflated to keep kids out of the Vietnam War. Better, perhaps, to have a very large collection of narrow courses to choose from. The faculty would find these easier to teach, and each department could present a number of offerings. There could be plenty of flexibility and plenty of innovation.

That, anyway, after years and years of study and faculty debate, is what happened. And that is Harvard's new Core Curriculum. It is not entirely in place. But there are already ninety-seven half courses to choose from in the catalog, and the number may go as high as 106. They are arranged in five broad categories: Literature and the Arts, twenty-eight courses; History, nineteen courses; Social Analysis and Moral Reasoning, sixteen courses; Science, eighteen courses; Foreign Cultures, sixteen courses. Some offerings are simply old wines with new labels. But many, if well taught, should be both brilliant and provocative. Among the most promising Core courses are Stephen ]. Gould's History of the Earth and of Life, and Gregory Nagy's _ already popular The Concept of the Hero in Hellenic Civilization. Students have noticed, though, that you can breeze through the Core by taking things like The Novel in East Asia, The Literature of the Voice, and The Civilization of South American Indians.

To graduate, students have to take only eight of the ninety-seven half courses in the Core, so that whatever they do Harvard students are unlikely to acquire any education in common, a cohesive conception of cultural evolution, knowledge of a significant number of great books or ideas or a sweeping sense of history. The "Core" is a misnomer. The principle of General Education seems dead at Harvard. In its place is a glorious delicatessen.

The bad news is not merely that Harvard is falling deeper into the clutches of faculty specialists and students whose sole aim is to take no chances about getting into med school. The bad news is also the effect the Core decision may have on schools and colleges around the U. S. Good high schools and prep schools watch Harvard with particular care. If Harvard, for example, announced that it was going back to a Latin entrance requirement, Latin would soon be taught harder, and to more kids, at leading schools all over the country. If Harvard decided that calculus is necessary to leaders in an age of computers and required it for admission, the college might lose some applicants, but instruction in calculus, instead of being taken by only one hundred thousand U.S. seniors, would spread notably. (Probably not to the level that now applies in the USSR, where five million students a year study advanced calculus.)

Harvard's delicatessen approach will not be lost on other colleges, either. The late William Bender, one of the college's great admissions men, once said, "Harvard is rich enough and strong enough to do what it feels is right, and weak little colleges are always thanking it for taking the stands it does." By offering what are being packaged as ninety-seven brand-new courses, Harvard is making life harder for colleges trying to maintain a real "core" requirement.

There is some good news, especially in nonscience departments. There are fewer graduate students - because there are fewer teaching jobs. In looking outside for teaching assistants, Harvard may hire some who are noted for their teaching. As regards the Core, two of its sections, the one on history and the one on moral reasoning, emphasize areas of study that are valuable and have lately been in decline everywhere in the U.S. Perhaps more important, along with its obvious publicity advantage in selling students on the dynamic, new flexibility of the ancient college, the Core represents a ferocious effort by the dean of the college, Henry Rosovsky, the man most responsible for the Core's existence, to force or finagle top professors into taking on a flock of new courses and teaching them as a kind of challenge.

Other evidence that Harvard is at last taking teaching seriously, and the teacher training of graduate students as well, is the work of the education department's Dean Whitla. Under Whitla's encouragement, and some prodding from Rosovsky, a number of Harvard departments have had their section leaders, and some young professors, submit their class techniques to the test of television. Afterward, the videotape is played back to them during a two-hour session in a darkened room. Teaching fellows have been known to put their heads in their hands after watching themselves savagely trying to put down students only a few years younger than they are. Says Whitla: "It's the brightest kid on the block taking on the brightest kid in the section." Harvard teachers are also seeing themselves turning their backs on the class and throwing away their best lines. It's quite a lesson.

One of the Harvard department heads who demands that everyone teaching for him endure trial by TV is writer Richard Marius. He is in charge of the fifty sections of Expository Writing, one of only two required courses at Harvard. A fairly recent, and thus far successful, transplant from the University of Tennessee, Marius has done some shocking things by Harvard standards, with the full backing of Dean Rosovsky. Last year, for example, he ran two special control groups of "Expos." In one, section leaders made it clear to students that papers must be in on time, pointing out that the student would lose a letter grade for each day of lateness. In the other section, the leniency often assumed at Harvard applied. No pressure was put on students beyond assigning due dates for papers. Students could call the instructor with easy excuses for extensions. In group number one almost no papers were late. Everyone was happy. Writing improved. In group number two papers were late. Everyone was miserable and guilty. Improvement was minimal. Of course Marius was infringing on, the students' freedom to flunk, and no doubt impinging on their maturing process as well. Happily he was undeterred. This coming year he is thinking of marking off for spelling mistakes. But imagine saying "You can use the dictionary as well as I can" to "the best and the brightest!"

As an outsider, Marius is pleased and perplexed by the place where he now works. "Harvard is amazing," he says with evident awe. "It's like some great ocean liner with everything anyone could possibly want aboard. Orchestras, libraries, rich meals, fancy state-rooms, many classes, a splendid passenger list. The only thing is, it doesn't have a rudder. It just plunges on. If you want to change direction, a dean has to dive off the stem, swim forward, and desperately try to dog­paddle the bow a few degrees to left or right." Today, nobody can be sure where the great liner will go - toward a rigorous liberal education or a narrow racetrack leading to hurdles labeled GRE, LSAT, GMAT, and MCAT.  Until that is clear, it may be better to make reservations on a smaller, more inner-directed vessel.

Comment, 2007:  

Harvard today still has many of the troubles mentioned in the 1981 piece. Witness the fate that befell Lawrence Summers, a former US Secretary of the Treasury, when in January, 2005, as a mere President of Harvard, he sparked an uproar at an academic conference when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers.