Thursday, April 21, 2022

Preregistration is the Enemy of Liberal Education, and Other Crimson Op-Eds

The Harvard Crimson yesterday published my op-ed on preregistration (AKA the end of "shopping period"), a matter expected to be voted by the Faculty on May 3. (On this matter, see also the excellent letters in Harvard Magazine by Howard Georgi and an impressive list of alumni, not that I expect such sentiments to have much traction with the faculty or the current administration.) I have long been puzzled that the humanities faculty seem favorably disposed toward preregistration, which will mark the end of any hope they have of attracting new students into their fields. As the College becomes more consumer-oriented and the socioeconomic profile of the student body shifts, however gradually, toward the inclusion of more disadvantaged students, it will become more, not less, important for the humanities to make their case to the incoming 18-year-olds about their fields, because, given the state of secondary education in America, those students will not arrive at Harvard thinking the humanities are anything but an exotic luxury for the well-to-do.

Here is the op-ed.

Preregistration is the Enemy of Liberal Education (April 20, 2022)

Now while I was at it, I thought I would pull together everything I have written for the Crimson over the years. I think this is the full list but I may be missing something; do let me know if you spot an omission. In some cases the Crimson itself doesn't have an active version, and I have resorted either to the Internet Archive or to my own records.

Athletes Can Change Their Minds, Too (Letter to the Editor, February 27, 2020)

Lewis Letter to Khurana (about single-gender social organizations; January 31, 2017)

No Values Tests (with Eric Nelson, Margo Seltzer, and Richard Thomas; September 13, 2016)

Mandela and Harvard (December 11, 2013)

Remembering Peter Gomes (May 26, 2011)

Copyright Harvard 2008 (June 4, 2008)

We Shouldn’t Be Afraid of the Truth (Letter to the Editor, September 30, 2008)

Stumbling Blocks (November 8, 2007)

What Happened? (June 7, 2007)

Talking About Elections, Identifiers Must be Qualified (Letter to the Editor, April 20, 2007)

College Sends Grads Off with Exhortation to “Serve Society” (Letter to the Editor, October 27, 2006)

Memorial Hall Transept Should Honor the Dead (Letter to the Editor, October 13, 2006)

Lessons for the Future (June 7, 2006)

Amateurism On and Off the Field (April 21, 2006)

Donors, Not Harvard, Should Give to Relief Efforts (Letter to the Editor, October 24, 2005)

In Memory of Archie Epps (September 12, 2003)

Shopping for an Education (June 5, 2003)

Harvard in a Beer-Ad World (November 4, 2002)

Harvard in America, a Year Later (September 11, 2002)

Things to Think About (September 14, 2001)

The Racial Theory of Grade Inflation (April 23, 2001)

Raise the Council Fee (November 29, 1999)

Romance and Love at Harvard (February 19, 1999)

Tales from the Chad Box (Fifteen Minutes; February 12, 1999)

College’s Actions Justified in Reporting Elster’s Arrest (Letter to the Editor; February 19, 1998)

Clarifying the College’s Policy on Alcohol (Letter to the Editor; October 24, 1997)

Letter to the Editor (alcohol policy; February 21, 1996)

Logical Process for PBHA (with Theda Skocpol; December 6, 1995)

Monday, March 7, 2022

Harvard College moves toward a planned educational economy

 A recent meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was devoted largely to undergraduate education. That is a rarity, and an uninformed reader, hearing that, might hope that the tragic crisis in Europe had resulted in some introspection on the larger purpose of higher education in a democracy, along the lines that motivated the educational classic, General Education in a Free Society (aka Harvard’s 1945 “Red Book”). After all, for better or worse, Harvard educates many leaders of state, much of the judiciary, and many titans of industry. Harvard has a role in determining whether future leaders can grapple with the conflicting values underpinning the survival of civilization.


Alas, none of that came up in the March 1 meeting. Instead, the educational items on the agenda included (I was not there and am relying on the writeup in Harvard Magazine):

1)    Should Harvard allow double concentrations?

2)    Should students be allowed to take more than a couple of professional school courses toward their undergraduate degrees?

3)    Should students be required to choose what courses they plan to take well in advance of the beginning of the term?

The affirmative answers to these questions seem to have been presented mainly as bureaucratic adjustments. References to educational objectives in the proposals seem to be outnumbered by references to orderliness and efficiency. Most telling is that neither the president, nor the dean of the Faculty, nor the dean of the College seems to have framed these issues at all or to have contributed to the discussion. Speaking on behalf of the proposals were members of the committees making them and a subdean four levels down from the top.  That follows a historical trend: The Red Book was the brainchild of President Conant, the Core Curriculum of FAS Dean Rosovsky, the Gen Ed II review was entrusted to the dean of the College, and so on. Undergraduate education gets pushed lower in the Harvard org chart every time it is considered.


I have blogged about preregistration before, and not much to counter my concerns seems to have come up in the meeting. I would pose but one question prompted by a passage from the Magazine’s reportage. (This is a rhetorical question because as a retired faculty member, I am no longer entitled to ask such a question in a Faculty meeting.)

If everything worked as the committee proposed, Nickel said, “All of us will benefit,” with undergraduates gaining confidence that they could actually take the courses they chose and course heads planning better so they can “make pedagogical choices that work.” 

Which does that mean?

(a) faculty will respond to unexpected enrollment surges, now known far in advance, by increasing their teaching staff, or

(b) course caps and lotteries will have been routinized and executed so far in advance that students will have time to “choose” alternatives in an orderly way, when they are denied entry to the courses they actually want to take?

I suspect the latter, because no one seems to have suggested the former.


When I chose the title of this post, I was trying to see what all these incremental changes have to do with each other. The common thread is that education should be a well-planned, purposive activity. Students should decide, among the wares offered by the faculty for reasons of their own, which ones they wish to acquire. If those are professional training courses, no problem. Faculty should know, well in advance, how much of their own teaching they wish to offer to students, and not be personally bothered by student demand exceeding their supply; let some algorithm sort it out before classes start. Students who want to fit the jig-saw pieces of Harvard’s course offerings together in a way that maximizes the number of decorations on their diplomas should be rewarded for doing so, even if it limits their opportunities for educational speculation and serendipity. What Harvard is offering is an expensive product, and our main objective should be to make sure students can take away the maximum value, within the limits of faculty willingness to accommodate excess demand.


I am amazed that the humanities faculty have not resisted this drift more vocally. Ironically, it seems to be the computer science faculty who spoke most loudly against pre-planning, which will hurt the humanities the most and probably only benefit the STEM fields.


In any case, we are surely a long way from the days when the Harvard faculty thought it was their job to preserve the idea of human freedom and to educate students who would not let civilization perish. For all of our institutional commitment to social justice, isn’t it time to remind ourselves of those even deeper and larger purposes, on which we can act with tools no other institution has to the same degree at its disposal, the full-time, four-year attention of much of the nation’s future leadership?

Monday, February 14, 2022

In memory of Fred Abernathy

My colleague and friend Fred Abernathy passed away a few days ago, at the age of 91. A fine obituary is here. Fred was my mentor and collaborator in several of my loving criticisms of Harvard; one of them I detailed on this blog; see also Harvard Magazine's account. And it was Fred who, in his innocent, shambling way, asked President Summers why Harvard was so vigorously defending its actions in the Harvard-in-Russia scandal. The Faculty room's collective gasp at the president's in artful response (to use Alan Dershowitz's characterization) was the beginning of the end of the Summers presidency. But there was more to Fred than all that; he invariably kind to students of every variety, and was Harvard's energy watchdog before that was fashionable.

Like many others, I will miss him. I spoke at his Zoom memorial service; my tribute is posted below. I tried to write something Fred would enjoy.

Uncle Fred.

I am not sure who first referred to Fred that way. It might have been Mike McElroy. Or it might have been me, or someone else. But as I tried to take stock of what we have lost with Fred’s passing, it’s the phrase that keeps pushing to the front of my mind.

Fred was, to be sure, an avuncular figure. Kind and funny, with a big laugh, never hiding behind a locked door, warm and genial. So comfortable in his own skin that his frustrations and disappointments, and he had some, always came out with humor rather than anger. He could go on the offensive, but the attacks were never launched as a fist against a chin. They were rather as a pinprick against a balloon. No one who was in the Faculty Room on February 7, 2006, will ever forget Fred’s dry observation about Harvard settling some litigation with the federal government, to the tune of $31 million dollars, over a faculty shell game. “It appears to me,” Fred said, “Harvard was defending the indefensible.” Poof!

But to me, and, I expect, to many others, Fred was close to being a real uncle and not just an admirably avuncular figure. What are uncles for? Uncles (and aunts too) are the people to whom you turn when you are in despair about your relation to your parents. Your uncle understands your parents, and can be honest with you about them because he isn’t compromised by your relation to them. 

And the parent, for these purposes, is Harvard, of course. And its sundry deans and transient presidents, who come and go while the faculty remain anchored in place. Fred knew Harvard and its weaknesses and foibles. Not to complicate the metaphor, but he was Harvard’s son too.

When I joined the faculty, DEAP, as it was then known, was a small place. And yet I felt isolated within it. There was little family feel among the skeletal group of computer scientists. Some were intensely rivalrous; some were just nuts; more than one were sleeping with their graduate students. It was the senior mechanical engineers who showed me how practitioners of a mature science behave. They let me tag along to their lunches at the old Legal Seafoods in Inman Square. It was Fred and Annamaria who made me and Marlyn welcome in their home. It was at Fred’s office, stacked to the ceiling with books and journals, where the door was always open for me to wander in, toy with stuff, and chat. It was Fred who made me feel, to use today’s lingo, included and belonging, and taught me how to transfer that feeling to others. Fred taught me not just how to be a professor, but how to be a good member of the Harvard family.

I was always amazed at how much Fred knew about the inside-baseball of Harvard, and how his prescience in the energy field made him an especially valuable loving critic of the institution. I remember Fred pointing out the absurdity that even as late as 2005, Harvard built a brand new building, 60 Oxford Street, which in midwinter was pumping into the frigid outside air the heat it had extracted at great cost from electronic equipment, at the same time as it was burning fossil fuels to heat the building’s offices, badly. A metaphor for Harvard’s centralized dysfunction, as though heating and cooling were different departments, each jealously defending its turf against interference by the other, lest both be put out of business.

Ah, Fred, we will miss you. You were so good to us and so good for Harvard.