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The future of Harvard

Harvard can provide educational leadership

By Derek Bok
October 16, 2011

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TWO GREAT problems currently beset American higher education. First, while the percentage of high school seniors enrolling in college has increased over the last 30 years, the percentage who graduate has not, stunting the opportunities of many young people and depriving the economy of skills it needs in order to prosper. Second, most students graduate having made only modest progress in fundamental competencies, such as critical thinking, perhaps because they are spending 40 percent less time studying than their predecessors several decades ago.

Harvard can do little to increase graduation rates; 98 percent of our undergraduates already finish. But Harvard has a great opportunity to lead in reforming undergraduate education to engage students more fully and help them develop to the full extent of their abilities. Three improvements are needed:

■ Faculty members should lecture less and experiment with new, more active methods of instruction.

■ The faculty should participate in developing reliable methods of assessing student progress to determine which forms of instruction are most effective in helping students learn.

■ Departments need to help restructure graduate education to acquaint future faculty with what is becoming known about how students learn, what methods of instruction are most successful, and how technology can be used to engage student interest and help them progress.

Already, universities are starting to introduce such reforms. Lecturing is gradually giving way to more active methods of teaching. Computers are beginning to be used not just to facilitate communication between students and faculty but to improve learning. A few departments are experimenting with new ways to prepare graduate students better for their role as teachers.

But major universities have not played a prominent part in these efforts. They feel little pressure to do so, since they attract far more students than they can accommodate. Yet their participation is critical, since their example has such a powerful effect on hundreds of other colleges.

Herein lies Harvard’s great opportunity. Throughout its history, Harvard has had its finest moments when it has provided educational leadership - as it did when Charles W. Eliot ended the outmoded classical undergraduate curriculum, when Dean Langdell revolutionized legal education with the case method, and when Dean Tosteson pioneered in introducing a problem-oriented curriculum for the first two years of medical school. Now, the time is ripe for a similar reform in the way college faculties teach their students.

America will never again dominate the world in the percentage of its young people earning college degrees. If this country is to remain a land of exceptional opportunity, it will have to be through the quality, not just the quantity, of a college education. Harvard should lead the way in helping achieve that goal.

The author was president of Harvard University from 1971-1991, and from 2006-2007.