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?