To The Editors:
The free speech problems at Berkeley may prove far easier to resolve than the tensions generated by dissatisfaction with the allegedly poor quality of undergraduate education…A stroke of the pen can remove all unnecessary restraints on advocacy but no resolutions by faculty or Regents can quickly or cheaply improve undergraduate education. Hence it is not surprising that much of the recent comment on Berkeley, including that of Messrs. Wolin and Schaar (March 11, 1965), has neglected this dimension of the Berkeley crisis.
Students complain that very large lecture classes, heavy dependence on graduate students as instructors, lack of personal contact with faculty more interested in research than teaching—in short, the absence of close supervision of the students’ intellectual development deprive them of the quality of education they seek and need.
The central question is whether it is possible to provide “quality” education in publicly supported institutions required to admit huge numbers of students. If more teaching faculty, smaller classes, fewer routine, prescribed courses and more seminars and tutorials are needed, how can they be provided? Even if existing faculty allocated more time to teaching, a vast increase in the instructional staff would be necessary in an institution with 28,000 students. I doubt that it would be possible now or in the future to supply even the leading colleges and universities with enough creative teaching personnel. But if money could buy or train them are students in the state universities willing to pay even a part of the cost? Do they and can they expect the general taxpayer to assume the entire increased burden of financing “quality” education? At the City University of New York for the past several years students have militantly fought the imposition of a modest tuition, utterly indifferent to the pressing financial needs of the municipal colleges, their intolerable overcrowding and inferior educational opportunities.
This indifference in New York, matched by equal indifference at Berkeley until recently, makes one suspect that most students in the large public universities don’t really care about the quality of education. Indeed without the free speech issues and the Berkeley administration’s incredible bungling, there would have been no widespread, organized unrest there. Even before they enter the quadrangle, most students conceive of college in terms of its social activities and vocational (including matrimonial) usefulness, rather than as a moral and intellectual experience. They crave the anonymity of large classes and of routine education with its cram books and machine-graded exams which relieve them of the responsibility to think seriously and grapple with themselves and their world and leave them free to contemplate the joys awaiting them in the suburban afterlife.
The real question critics of the educational factory should ponder is how young adults really learn. Isn’t most learning a process of self-education? Aren’t the best teachers one’s fellow students who are sounding boards for one’s ideas and who challenge one’s prejudices more intimately and persuasively than most classroom teachers? Doesn’t the learning process occur primarily outside the classroom, in the loneliness of the study and the library and in the constant clash of minds and personalities in the dormitories, the dining halls, the coffee shops and the bedrooms? One suspects that serious undergraduates at Berkeley know this or otherwise they would not flock there in such large numbers since the nature of undergraduate education there is well known….
Within the last decade humanists as well as the natural and social scientists in the universities have begun to explore imaginatively the process of education in the pre-college years, something once relegated to the schools and departments of education. The result has been extraordinary change and improvement in the primary and secondary schools. The Berkeley experience suggests the need for a comparable inquiry into the process of learning in the college, years and systematic reexamination of the structure of undergraduate education in a society committed to mass higher education financed by the state.
Department of History
May 6, 1965