2005, October: Advising

The lesson is from the first chapter of the book of Proverbs.

The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, To discern the sayings of understanding, To receive instruction in wise behavior, Righteousness, justice and equity; To give prudence to the naive, To the youth knowledge and discretion.

Which of your teachers do you remember with the most personal appreciation?

We all remember a few professors we held in awe, as though they were movie stars. In my own case the most awe-inspiring was the philosopher Rogers Albritton, who worked out the complexities of Wittgenstein in front of an audience of hundreds. He would put a cigarette in his mouth – smoking in the lecture halls was OK in those days, if you were the teacher anyway – light a match and then say a few more words. Then suddenly he would decide that wasn’t quite right, and he would struggle to refine his new insight, oblivious to his audience, while we watch transfixed as the match burned down, down, down in his gesticulating hand. I remember Albritton’s lectures like I remember Humphrey Bogart’s movies – I never went away disappointed.

But that is not what I meant. I mean who was the professor who made the most difference to you? Perhaps someone who helped you figure out who you are, what you wanted to do with your life, or simply was kind when a friend was badly needed. I had a couple of those at Harvard. Doris Aaronson, who gave me a break when my personal life was in crisis by agreeing to pass me in her course, even though I had done no work in it, if I returned all the books she had lent me. Dan Forsyth, who just listened to me and reassured me that my problems were neither grand nor unsolvable. Neither won any Nobel prizes, but I am sure I am not the only one who is glad they were here.

The Faculty begins discussion this afternoon of one of its biggest problems: how to give students good advice. Nothing about undergraduate education is as dysfunctional as the advising system, and a committee has made optimistic proposals for improving it. But I’m afraid that Harvard has never done a good job with advising, so if we succeed this time around it will be a surprise.

Especially as we are not looking in the mirror enough to recognize where our problem lies.

When professors advise undergraduates, we academic specialists must give advice to people who have a world of talents and opportunities open to them. If students all came to college to follow their plans like computers executing computer programs, it would be easy to tell them how to do it. But that is not the way our students are, or the way we want them to be. We want them to be open to all the wonderful possibilities that Harvard offers for their lives.

Advising was relatively easy until 1870, because until then Harvard students had no choice of what to study. Once President Eliot established a system of electives, students had to pick their courses somehow. Eliot declared it to be one of the “minor details of the system which are still discussed … whether any general advice as to choice of studies could profitably be given by the Faculty.” The answer to Eliot’s question seems still to be unknown, thirteen decades later.

Some young alumni wrote in 1900 that the advising system Eliot introduced had “not produced all the good effects hoped from it.” "In the first place, older men cannot be expected to sympathize thoroughly with the undergraduate temper, or free themselves entirely from the prejudices of their specialties. In the second place, they cannot judge a Freshman’s mental tastes and abilities at sight, or even from entrance records. And finally, they cannot, in five minutes, work out for him an ideal course of study for four years, or even one, much less convince him that his own plan, if he has any, is not better." I wonder if any faculty committee today would dare recognize professors’ responsibility to free ourselves from the prejudices of our specialties when advising students?

A couple of years later the dean of the faculty felt the advising problem was all but irresolvable. It was hard to tell a freshman what to study, the dean wrote, because "his college adviser may well hesitate to discriminate among studies which the Faculty declares to be of equal value; or he may believe it his duty to recruit his own specialty; or he may believe it is his duty to keep clear of what anybody could construe as recruiting his own specialty."

The dean hit the nail on the head. If a student knows what she wants to be, she needs only a web site for directions. But whose job is it to help a multitalented freshman figure out that what she thought she wanted, she deep down does not want at all? Many of us used college as a way to figure out something about ourselves we did not understand in high school. Can faculty advisors help students find things within themselves that they may not even know are there?

I am not sure, for the reasons Derek Bok explained in 1987. “I doubt whether many students will find the help they seek” from faculty members, he wrote. They “have no special competence to help individual students define their values, their convictions, their personal commitments. Not all professors have resolved these questions to their own satisfaction, and fewer still can communicate their feelings in ways that will be helpful to others.”

I hope we come up with a better advising system than we have. And I pray we approach the task with humility, that we don’t act as though changing a bad system can only improve it, that we don’t flatter ourselves about how easily we can solve a problem we do not even understand. Looking into the hearts of young people, and helping them understand what is there, are among the most important jobs a great college can do for its students.