Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Independence and self-sufficiency at Harvard: An essay from a world we have lost

In the course of mourning the death of the Bureau of Study Counsel, and with it the extirpation of any sense that the personal development of students was (except in its clinical manifestations) a matter in which Harvard might need some professional expertise, I was reminded of the report of the Dean of Harvard College from 1983–84, reproduced in full below. It has a good section on the Bureau, quoting from its founder Bill Perry, but more importantly, it puts the Bureau's work in the larger context of Harvard's role in educating students to take responsibility for their own lives, with all the tensions that educational process carries with it.

It's also just a lovely essay. It is hard not to smirk at the idea of "the College's withdrawal … from a regulatory role in students' social lives," given that the College now prescribes what kinds of private clubs students may honorably join. And it probably has a few other anachronisms. But the very idea that the dean would write such a thoughtful report to the President -- and thus to the entire University community -- seems sadly anachronistic in itself. Compare this to the announcement, via a Gazette story, of the shutdown of the Bureau.

Added evening of June 11: Read the comment by retired BSC counselor Ann Fleck-Henderson on the Harvard Magazine story, correcting Harvard's official explanation of the Bureau.


To the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences:

Sir --I have the honor to present a report on Harvard College for 1983-84.

I should like to consider in this report the topics of independence and self-sufficiency in the College.

The College has long been more concerned with the intellectual growth of its students, and the development of their capacity to think for themselves, than with inculcating information. Over the years, of course, there has been evolution both in the ways in which that broad objective has been understood and in the ways in which it has been expressed.

Yet in the past decade or so some observers have come to feel that the College has become too "neutral' in the advising of students, questioning whether our practices effectively serve our broad educational purposes. I believe this is an opportune moment to reflect on those concerns and to consider what guidance is appropriate and how it might be offered more effectively.

Before taking up those questions, I shall say a little about how the College's thinking has developed over time. Some of the agencies through which the College advises students exemplify our approach particularly well, and have provided us with a useful vocabulary through which to understand it. Finally we shall consider the new expectations of students and others, and how we might respond to them.

The value of independent thinking has long been honored at Harvard. Some of her chroniclers have even recognized it as a goal of the early, provincial College. In this 'century, President Pusey could write: "...never has Harvard tried to teach a single narrow orthodoxy in any field, nor does she now. From the time our first president, Henry Dunster, was dismissed for unorthodoxy, it has been her chief purpose to call men to think for themselves."

It was, however, only in the nineteenth century --when Harvard had become an independent, secular institution --that the curriculum began to require any significant exercise of choice. The introduction of the "elective system" during the presidency of Charles William Eliot (1869-1909) offered students some choice in their courses and more courses from which to choose. Increasingly, didactic methods of teaching were replaced by inductive methods, in the belief that an active process of learning could produce well-educated individuals in a very broad range of disciplines. This shift was one of great significance, and not merely because it expanded the number of fields whose study might be considered part of a liberal education. Students became more active participants in the design and process of their own educations, beginning with their choice of fields and courses to pursue.

In the decades since Eliot's tenure, the belief in the responsibility of individual students which seems so characteristic of the College today has informed many changes. Two major innovations of Eliot's successor, A. Lawrence Lowell (1909-1933), the tutorial system and the Houses, have served to stimulate the independence of students.

At the same time as such changes have extended the responsibility of students for themselves, the College has developed a number of institutions intended to assist students in the wise exercise of choice. The establishment in 1888 of a formal system for the advising of freshmen --the ancestor of the present Board of Freshman Advisers --and, in 1890, of the Administrative Board mark the beginning of our present advising system. Both of these agencies, like others to which we shall give particular attention, operated from the outset on the basis of certain assumptions which continue to characterize the College.

Among them is an idea which has the ring of nineteenth century Utilitarianism: that the individual student is the person best able to act on his own behalf. According to this thinking, the making of wise choices cannot be delegated to others: one must learn to seek and use help intelligently in order to take responsibility for one's own life.

The common goal of those agencies and individuals who, together, comprise a counseling "network" is neither to make decisions for students nor simply to impress them with the burden of personal responsibility, but to enable them to make choices well and to believe that they can do so. That last element --the confidence in one's capacity to think and choose for oneself --has sometimes been referred to as a sense of "personal efficacy." That phrase suggests how far we have come from regarding the development of independent thinking as an exclusively academic process. We have come to see it instead as a process of growth involving the whole self, without which intellectual growth is likely to be seriously hampered.

The work of the Bureau-of Study Counsel has been critical to our understanding of that process of growth. Established in its present form in 1947, the Bureau has developed both a rhetoric and a counseling approach which still typify its work. They find full expression in the writing of its first director,William Perry.

Two aspects of his thinking about the nature and purposes of advising have been particularly important to the College. One is the scheme he constructed to describe the personal and intellectual growth of students in the College. (The reader interested in this topic is urged to consult Perry's most complete work on the topic, Perry, W.G., Jr., Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,1970.) The other Perry theme of special importance to us centers around the question of the role the College should take in guiding its students. It may be helpful first to describe briefly Perry's developmental scheme, based on decades of observation of students and their conversations in the Bureau.

Perry discerns nine cognitive stages through which students may pass in their intellectual and ethical development. The nine stages may be grouped into broader, more abstract, categories of dualism, relativism and commitment within relativism. In the earliest stages, notions of right and wrong --as they pertain to ethical questions as well as to academic ones --are seen in simple "black and white" terms. In the middle stages, values and the validity of answers are seen to be "relative"; that is, they are objectively equally valid, and their validity is assigned to them by the individual. In the most advanced stages, the student comes to see values and answers in much more complex terms. The process through which values are reached can be viewed objectively as better or worse. Their validity derives especially from their consonance with other values and beliefs held by the individual. These last stages admit a good deal more freedom than is available to the student in stage one, and are characterized by a much more fully developed sense of responsibility for choices than the middle stages. At this point, the individual is aware of, and may constantly reassess, the context of values in which he or she has chosen to operate.

I have suggested above that in Perry's engaging descriptions of the advising system, he has developed a language which can help us comprehend the College's approach as it operates today. His emphasis on cognitive development (which finds its counterpart in Lowell's belief in the importance of fostering the development of the "whole man,") the recognition of students' differing "learning styles" and of the importance of learning "in one's own voice" --all these have powerfully informed the College's thinking in the past few decades.

The other aspect of Perry's work to which I have alluded has been equally significant for the College. The themes of personal efficacy and self-reliance run throughout Perry's writing on advising. He sees students in a "synergistic" relationship with the College, asserting that the wrongquestion to ask is "what does college do for a person?" In his view, education results from the individual's interaction with the environment.

Although the Bureau is a key part of the College's formal system of advising, Perry is never unaware of the coexistence of an "informal" advising system, through which students receive valuable counsel, perhaps of an even more essential nature. The Bureau and other agencies and individuals comprising the formal network recognize that students, like others, will seek out those whom they respect and find congenial, and that they may consult different people for different concerns. Perry appreciatively describes our elaborate and overlapping advising structure:

A corollary of diffusion and decentralization is diversity. The advising "system," like most systems at Harvard, developed as a loosely organic community of experiments which, at a minimum, never demonstrated such gross evidence of failure as to require them to be stopped. This office, the Financial Aid Office, the Office of Career Services and Off Campus Learning, the Psychiatric Service, the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation and so on may be thought of as professional and semi-professional resources binding the periphery, rather than forming the center, of the advising circle. At a particular time, a student may seek out someone from this circle, or someone else --such as a proctor, a teaching fellow, a coach or a clergyman --and that person may become for a while the "center" of the student's advising circle.

The other offices comprising the advising "system" of which Perry writes take much the same approach to students' concerns. The objective has been, and remains, to be of assistance when students ask for it, but to permit them to determine when and how they wish to do so.The Office of Career Services --like the Bureau of Study Counsel, the product of periodic re-combination of agencies --emphasizes its educational role. The present-day Office of Career Services and Off-CampusLearning offers the services of a large staff of professional counselors specializing in a full range of career and educational fields, and an incomparable resource library. Although the office maintains employment listings and helps to arrange interviews with recruiters, it is not a mere placement office. It strives, instead, to teach people how to make career choices in a broad context, and how to capitalize on, and even create, opportunities. The emphasis on teaching "self-help" comes from the recognition that many, perhaps most, people will make a series of career decisions as their interests and talents develop throughout their lives, and will need the skills to do so independently.

The advising system for freshmen finds its origins about a century ago. As with the Bureau of Study Counsel and the Office of Career Services, the development of self-reliance has been articulated as an objective of freshman advising. Writing in the Harvard Advocateof October 1928, Dean A. Chester Hanford describes three possible approaches to the challenge of acclimating freshmen to college life, using the metaphor of a river separating the secondary school from the college. Citing the increased unevenness of academic preparation in entering freshmen, Hanford rejects as impracticable the laissez-faireapproach of "sink or swim." Neither, he claims, would much be gained by carrying the student across. Accordingly, he says, Harvard has chosen to bridge the river so students might traverse it themselves.

The "bridge" offered today by the Freshmen Dean's Office features an especially dense advising system. Its purpose is to provide an intensive "course" for new students in the effective use of the College's resources, on one's own behalf.

I have emphasized the fact that the College makes a great effort to encourage students to learn how to seek and use advice effectively. For many, having achieved academic success for years before coming to Harvard, this is a hard lesson to learn. Most Harvard students believe in the importance of self-reliance, and some interpret the need for counsel as a failure of self-reliance. The subtle balance with which this essay has been concerned --between, on the one hand, the College's provision of advice in various forms and from various sources and, on the other, its commitment to the value of autonomy and even of making mistakes --is difficult to appreciate when one is under pressure to navigate this complicated environment.

It does, therefore, happen from time to time that students fail to thrive in the College. Some who seek suitable and timely help are unable to translate it into action appropriate to their circumstances. Some seek help too late to avoid a crisis, and others do not seek it at all. The College intervenes actively on behalf of students who have shown themselves unable to act effectively on their own behalf.

In cases of academic failure, this intervention rarely comes as a surprise to the student. His or her Allston Burr Senior Tutor (or Senior Adviser and Freshman Adviser if the student is a freshman) usually hears well before the end of the term from instructors who are worried about a student. Such communication gives the Senior Tutor and the student a chance to discuss the student's options, which might include withdrawing from the course, "bagging" the course in order to concentrate on remaining courses, or, simply, engaging a tutor or otherwise making an effort to recover the course. Such conversations with the Senior Tutor are, in a sense, a form of intervention, but their result depends on the student's own choice of a course of action. And a successful outcome --by which I mean the student's taking control of his circumstances, even if this means a voluntary withdrawal from College --is possible only if the conversation takes place before the student's overall situation is irretrievable.

When a student has been unable to function successfully in the College, as demonstrated, for example, by the achievement of successive unsatisfactory records or a single extremely poor record, active intervention, such as requirement to withdraw, will result. The assumption is that time away and paid employment will give the student new perspective and, even more important, will increase his confidence in his ability to manage his own life. Our experience in finding such apparently drastic interventions very successful strengthens our belief that personal initiative and responsibility are the essential ingredients for success in the College.

As we have seen, the College has tended more and more to emphasize the importance of individual responsibility. Yet we seem to be encountering a desire on the part of students for better help and, ultimately, for wiser choices. One might construe such wishes as a mandate for more "directive" advising. I think, however, that to adopt a much more directive approach would run counter to our fundamental educational objectives as I have tried to articulate them.

It seems to me appropriate here to reflect on an imbalance that dates back a decade or so. By the late1960s and early 1970s, the College had withdrawn from the last vestiges of the regulation of the personal lives of students, abolishing parietal and dress rules. Contemporary with this trend was a withdrawal by parents from an obviously directive role in their children's lives at the College, and a greater willingness to view students as independent adults. Yet it seems that we may not have compensated for this marked relaxation of external authority with enough of the kind of guidance necessary to help students conduct their own affairs.

Such guidance is, of course, not easy to provide. Rules and regulations are much simpler to formulate, and, if well conceived, they may protect against mistakes. -But the observation of an institution's rules does not, by itself, foster the kind of personal development we have hoped to encourage. In addition to freedom --the absence of constraints --that kind of growth requires the College and schools and families to work actively with students in developing a context in which they can make appropriate choices. This is, of course, the approach to which the College has long been committed in principle, but it is undeniably a relatively inefficient way to advise. Moreover, without some sense of shared purpose in schools and families, it is nearly hopeless, because one cannot start constructing personal goals and values from scratch at the age of eighteen.

Nevertheless, for whatever combination of reasons, we have found that advisers in the College are called on for more of the kind of counsel that many students a generation ago might have sought from home. More particularly, even in extremely serious circumstances in which a student might find himself --an overwhelming academic failure, for example, or an incapacitating personal crisis --parents may hesitate to intervene. This phenomenon has been paralleled, and perhaps fostered, by federal legislation (most notably the Privacy Act, known as the Buckley Amendment) limiting the amount of information that may ordinarily be shared with parents.

In most situations, neither the new legal regulations nor the willingness of parents to honor students' independence present difficulties for the College. Indeed, it should by now be apparent that they are in harmony with our own approach to encouraging self-sufficiency. But because today's parents may feel acutely their own distance, when they learn of problems their children may encounter, they may be quicker to insist that the College "take charge." Another factor which seems to have complicated our understanding of the proper degree of autonomy for students arose, too, in the world beyond the College. Beginning perhaps in the late 1960s, and becoming quite standard in the 1970s, a rhetoric developed in which" love" and "caring" were paramount values. Institutions came to be perceived as intrinsically "cold" and" impersonal": to many, it seemed necessary explicitly to reassure that advisers and faculty members were genuinely concerned for the well-being of students.

The challenge for Harvard --and other colleges for which the encouragement of self-reliance was a major objective --was to demonstrate that institutional concern is consistent with the non-directive approach which this essay has sought to articulate. The literature distributed to students by the College in the past fifteen years reveals little of the rhetoric of love and caring. But members of the College's staff can recollect a growing tendency in conversations, not only with students but among advisers and faculty members themselves, to use such terms and to treat them as actual goals in themselves. Certainly the College's publications of the past fifteen years do show an increased emphasis on the availability of "helping" agencies and individuals. I think the overall trend --outside the College and in informal discussion among students and those who counsel them --has contributed to increased expectations that the College should adopt a more "interventionist," even "protective," role vis a vis its students (though few would use those terms.)

For all these reasons, in both of the spheres of students' experience to which we have given attention-- academic education and more personal concerns --the College has been urged to take a more directive approach. I shall now try to suggest why I believe that, in both those areas, we should resist that temptation.

On the academic side, several factors have been at work. In certain fields there is the concern that course choices are both so complicated and so critical that advising must be expert. Departments have been called on to provide better counsel and, with the growth of a preference for "expertise," the burden of course selection has shifted perceptibly away from individual students. Part of the actual responsibility for choice --not simply for offering informed advice --seems to have been assumed by advisers. This development is more pronounced in fields with highly structured curricula and comparatively competitive academic environments, such as the natural sciences. But even in other concentrations, students who feel pressure, from whatever sources, to maximize the value of each course choice they make do expect foolproof academic advising. The pressure may result from anxiety about achieving the best possible record in anticipation of graduate school application, or simply from a wish to use one's time most effectively. Whatever the reason, it has begun to seem to many that our traditional belief in the value of learning from mistakes is an antiquated luxury, and that it is incumbent on the institution to be more vigilant in preventing wrong choices.

It is not hard to appreciate the appeal of the simplest, straightforward response --to prescribe the courses of study to be followed by students, thereby avoiding academic missteps. However, for those of us who believe that intellectual and psychological self reliance must continue to be among the College's fundamental goals, such a solution would be counter-productive. If we elect to reaffirm the principle that students themselves must be responsible for their choices, we shall be choosing the more difficult course. We should need to ensure that wise and informed advice is available to each student from a variety of sources and, just as important, that the environment encourages consultation. For this approach to work effectively, the roles of families and of secondary schools are critical, because it is under their guidance that our future students begin to develop their capacity for making coherent choices.

I think that advising in the College, even on the simpler academic topics, cannot be effective without a better consensus about the respective responsibilities of students and advisers. I have emphasized our belief that final responsibility for choices should lie with individual students. I believe, too, that few choices, once made, can be considered to be genuine mistakes, if only because the processes of making them and then evaluating them are often in themselves useful. Indeed I think certain shortcomings in our advising might be remedied in accord with those principles.

For example, some members of the community worry that we have grown too reluctant to urge students to explore new possibilities, and thereby to take risks, for fear that that advice --for which advisers feel responsible --will turn out to be mistaken. Others are concerned that in emphasizing the student's own responsibility we may shirk the important duty of expressing our own views, for fear, perhaps, that to do so will impinge on the student's freedom. According to these lines of thinking, our academic advising has become so neutral that it limits itself to what can be regarded as information: that is, that a particular choice will lead to some particular consequence. In addition to depriving the student of a subjective view, this "scientific" approach may actually reinforce the natural tendency of those embarking on adult life to believe that they should strive toward a predetermined goal, usually a career goal, as efficiently as possible. It may be that we should re-examine our deliberate neutrality and perhaps more aggressively encourage students to take full advantage of academic opportunities, and not to confine themselves to those steps that lead in a predetermined direction. And we may not have permitted ourselves --faculty members and administrators who talk with students --to share enough of our individual perspectives on the actual value of many academic "mistakes."

Other examples can be found in the sphere of social and interpersonal relations where, too, I think we are not in a state of perfect equilibrium. I have referred above to the College's withdrawal, over the past couple of decades, from a regulatory role in students' social lives. This trend seemed to meet the unqualified approval of students and has gained general acceptance in the community. Yet there has been pressure --as in academic matters --to return to a system of clear rules governing social behavior. Particularly in the past several years, the College has been called upon more and more often to extricate students from personal relationships which have developed over time into situations of real complexity.

The institution has never abandoned its interest in the behavior of students and has always regarded it as appropriate in serious circumstance to intervene. Whenever a student is said to have acted improperly, either in violation of a specific College rule or, more broadly, in a manner "unbecoming a Harvard student," the Administrative Board considers the case and may make a disciplinary response. Although the Board is prepared to hear allegations of any kind of wrong-doing at the College by students, it has not sought to mediate ordinary inter-personal difficulties, unless a College rule has been broken or a generally accepted standard of conduct breached. 

The dilemma arises because some students wish the College to take a closer look at the conduct of their peers than we have done recently. With growing frequency (though still by no means often) the Administrative Board has begun to hear complaints from students concerning intimate personal relationships. Because there is not a clear consensus on what conduct is appropriate in romantic and sexual relationships between students, for example, it is particularly difficult for the Board to feel confident that it can respond equitably in such situations. A failure to respond --at least to offer its opinion on which party was "right" and which "wrong" --may be interpreted as tacit approval of behavior of which Board members may not, in fact, approve. Many members, and others outside the Board as well, worry that its procedures may in such cases tend to polarize the views of the parties involved, and lead away from the process of reflection and mutual communication that would enable them to learn from the experience.

Even when students bring such concerns informally to advisers or other officers, they may expect the College to intervene on their behalf in ways that, fifteen years ago, might have been greatly resented by both parties. The most difficult situations are those in which a student has engaged in a relationship over a period of time and asks for help only at the point where a crisis seems to have occurred. Seeking advice earlier is almost always more effective --because the situation-will be more fluid --and more appropriate because that fluidity leaves more control in the student's own hands.

Although I believe there is still broad support for the principle that students should enjoy discretion in their relationships with peers and that they should bear responsibility for their own conduct, I think we must begin to examine the questions that have recently been raised. Probably it would be a mistake too readily to interpret students' requests for help and intervention as requests for more specific rules of conduct. It seems more likely that we are being asked for better guidance: in the creation of a broader consensus about the division of responsibility in relationships and, perhaps equally Important, in the formulation of a vocabulary with which to convey expectations of behavior. If there is any area of experience in which communication is critical for students, it is in relationships with peers, who arrive with a great diversity of assumptions and values. Both actions and words can have very different significance to another; students and those charged with advising them would surely find it useful to seek ways to overcome the resulting barriers to communication.

In both academic and the more personal spheres of experience, I have suggested that we --students, faculty members and other officers alike --should take the time to re-examine our assumptions and practices with which we engage in the process of advising. The preferences and perceptions of students would be important factors, because the advising process is, at its best, a dynamic one in which both the adviser and the advisee are participants. The ways in which one seeks help, evaluates and acts on it, are critical to the endeavor.

If we do consider these questions seriously, I think we shall face the choice to which I have already alluded: we can contrive more rigid academic requirements and regulations for the various aspects of student life; or we can seek to improve, at every level (including families and schools) the guidance and support we provide for our students. The latter course is by far the more difficult, but I think it offers more to our students, for whose competence and resourcefulness we have high hopes as they assume responsibilities beyond the College.

John B. Fox, Jr.

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