Saturday, November 16, 2013

But What Is the Educational Philosophy?

Harvard has announced the creation of a new "Campus Center" in what used to be known as Holyoke Center and will now be the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center.

The Smith family are true Harvard loyalists. They have been generous to Harvard in the past. My brilliant colleague Joanna Aizenberg is the Amy Smith Berylson Professor, for example. Richard Smith has served as Overseer and Fellow. The video that accompanies the announcement I find moving. The Smiths are proud of their association with Harvard, proud of passing the habit of philanthropy on to their children, and grateful for their long association with the university; and yet their choice of verb tenses and of phrases like "legacy gift" suggest an awareness of their mortality intersecting with Harvard's eternity.

What is not so clear is what this "Campus Center" will actually be. More important than the details of what it will contain (though one immediately wonders whether the misconceived SOCH will be relocated to it) is the prior question: What educational role will it play? If it is not being thought of as an educational entity, what social problem is it meant to solve? Philosophically, what will the creation of a Campus Center mean for what Harvard is?

Hints are hard to find in the announcement. We do know this:
The Smith Campus Center will be open to faculty, staff, and students across the University, and is intended to draw the community together and complement facilities already available in Harvard’s undergraduate residential Houses.…
The planning process for the center is just beginning. Faust’s intention is for a comprehensive outreach effort to engage the Harvard community in the pro­cess of planning and programming the center. University planners said the facility is expected to offer large, flexible indoor gathering space for students, faculty, and staff and include food service, lounge, and study areas, as well as space for exhibitions, events, and performances.  
So it is not to be a "student center," and certainly not an "undergraduate student center." But it surely can't be a faculty-student-staff center on an equal basis, nor a med-student-law-student-undergradatue center on an equal basis either. Who will feel they "own" it? Fellows from the Kennedy School, a couple of blocks away? The office workers in the upper floors of the building (the Campus Center will occupy only a few floors, apparently)? Freshmen, who mostly lack proper common rooms and are also only steps away? The custodial staff, taking a break from plowing the snow in Harvard Yard? HUPD? These questions can't be settled by any "outreach effort."

Though it is nowhere stated, I'm going to assume that this Center is meant to be an educational unit, not a purely social space. The statement that it is complementary to the Houses is consistent with that interpretation–the Houses surely are educational spaces. But what does it mean to say that the Center will "complement" the Houses? We are to imagine, I think, things happening in the Center that can't happen in the Houses. And to be sure the Houses are overcrowded and can't accommodate large College-wide activities. But do we want the Center to be the default location for small gatherings that now happen in the Houses? Isn't there a risk that the Center will enervate rather than complement the Houses?

It would have been nice to have a Master cheering the creation of a Campus Center, saying how this new unit would help House life, which is already challenged due to a variety of developments in society, developments Harvard can't control and has to live with. But no Master is quoted, and I am not sure the Masters know any more about the plans than is stated in the Gazette story.

It is all so ahistorical, so unrooted in Harvard educational philosophy. At one level it sounds like the Union, which was created in 1900 as a club for the boys who had no club, but was the solution to an identified problem: as the elective curriculum took hold under Eliot, starting in 1869, the College lost its coherence. When you sat next to the same fellow in class every hour of the day for four years, you didn't need a separate social space to get to know him. Under the elective system, your fellow students kept changing, and the Union was Henry Lee Higginson's way of recreating a sense that Harvard students had something in common.

Then the Houses came into existence under Lowell, and the Union fell away, eventually becoming the Freshman Union and then the Barker Center. (The freshmen have never fully recovered the loss of that common social space.) The Houses were backed by a very strong statement of educational philosophy:

.. [T]he increase in numbers of the larger American colleges brings with it disadvantages. The personal contact of teacher and student becomes more difficult. Large communities tend to cliques based upon similarity of origin and upon wealth.... Great masses of unorganized young men ... are prone to superficial currents of thought and interest, to the detriment of the personal intellectual progress that ought to dominate mature men seeking higher education. This drift ... is the cause of the exaggerated importance of the secondary interests as compared with the primary object of education; of what Woodrow Wilson, when President of Princeton, called the overshadowing of the main tent by the side-shows. (President's report, 1927-28)
The problem of the college is a moral one, deepening the desire to develop one's own mind, body and character; and this is much promoted by living in surroundings and an atmosphere congenial to that object. ... The Houses are a social device for a moral purpose. (President's report, 1928-29)
 Do we still believe this philosophy? How does the Campus Center "complement" it?

And how does the Campus Center relate to the development of Allston? If the Campus Center is going to be the new center of the campus, the place where Harvard is drawn together, doesn't that mean it will more difficult for Allston to be a coequal Harvard campus, effectively bridged to and unified with Cambridge?

What is the big picture of what Harvard will be? The Gazette story says that the Campus Center is being launched "after years of discussion," but by whom? Which faculty have been talking about it? Which deans? What did they say? What do they think? Can we get any bigger picture of the significance of this development than a Gazette story and a beautifully produced 3-minute video of the donors?

I am not sure which I would prefer to think: that no one has actually thought about the big picture, including the relation to the Houses, or that there really have been years of discussions behind closed doors and the crucial philosophical decisions have already been made, but will only come out during the "consultation" process.

Can we no longer write and speak thoughtfully about who and what we think we are?


On Tuesday there will be a discussion of Harvard's proposed honor code. I have read it, and have some thoughts about it, but I suppose I am not supposed to blog them because the draft code is confidential. The code was drafted by students; I wonder if students can see it. I hope faculty will turn out for the discussion, because there are again philosophical questions of institutional identity at stake.

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