July 16, 2010 By Ashley Thorne
Today's No Comment item is an excerpt from an article on National Review Online by Chester Finn (Harvard '65) and Mickey Muldoon (Harvard '07) about the end of final exams in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Starting in September, courses in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) will no longer routinely require final exams. For most of Harvard’s existence, any professor wishing to forgo the practice of final exams required formal approval by the entire faculty. At least since the 1940s, professors have been required to submit a form to opt out of giving a final exam. But in fall 2010, professors will need to file a specific request to opt in. The dean of undergraduate education, Jay M. Harris, is already predicting that Harvard will reduce the academic calendar by a day or two in response to the eased testing burden.
Moreover, general exams — requiring seniors to demonstrate mastery of the fundamental knowledge of their major — are given in fewer and fewer departments. Even Harvard’s new General Education courses will abjure finals. We are left wondering: Without exams to prove it, how can students be sure that they are “generally educated” when they graduate? How can the institution itself be sure? Or doesn’t it care?
Harvard is blessed with talented students — it can pick and choose among America’s finest — and that doubtless encourages it to pay scant attention to how much they actually learn during their undergraduate years in Cambridge. University leaders also understand that public accountability can be humbling. Arrogance and pandering are more convenient. They just don’t get us any closer to veritas.
Chester Finn serves on the NAS Board of Advisors.