Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Former Harvard Dean sees universities as "soulless"

The Confusion on Campus
A Harvard prof reflects on the hollowness of higher ed.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006 12:01 a.m.

Are American universities now in their golden age? Many rank as the leading research institutions in the world. A college education is within reach for more Americans than ever before. Applications continue to rise as colleges attract the best and the brightest from the U.S. and from overseas. And yet it is hard not to get the feeling that there is something amiss at American schools.

Recent headlines certainly suggest troubles at individual universities--Duke with its lacrosse scandal, Yale with its admission of a former Taliban member, Harvard with its routing of president Lawrence Summers. But Harry Lewis, a former dean at Harvard who still teaches computer science there, thinks the problem is deeper than a handful of alarming anecdotes might suggest. In "Excellence Without a Soul," Mr. Lewis decries the "hollowness of undergraduate education."

He takes Harvard as his case study, but many of his conclusions apply to the rest of American higher education. Mr. Lewis finds American universities "soulless" and argues that they rarely speak as "proponents of high ideals for future American leaders." He bluntly states that Harvard "has lost, indeed willingly surrendered, its moral authority to shape the souls of its students. . . . Harvard articulates no ideals of what it means to be a good person."

Arguing that American universities are soulless did not originate with Mr. Lewis, of course. In fact, it is one of the main themes of Allan Bloom's classic (and more entertaining) "The Closing of the American Mind," a book to which Mr. Lewis strangely never refers. Still, "Excellence Without a Soul" has some fresh arguments and a few pleasantly maverick views. Mr. Lewis defends the benefits of college athletics, for instance: Far from being an overcommercialized distraction, they are a "source of joy" and embody an "ethos of self-sacrifice, perseverance, drive [and] endurance." The much-lamented dangers of date rape, he suggests, result in part from a combustible campus mix of alcohol and sexual liberation. Mr. Lewis even includes a game, if unconvincing, defense of grade inflation: Students are better, he says; teaching is better; and more small courses push up grades deservedly "because students and faculty get to know each other better."

The core of this book, though, is a defense of the idea that universities should be about something. What makes an educated person? Unfortunately, too many professors and administrators, if they ever bother to think about it, would have difficulty answering the question beyond the pabulum found in most university brochures.

So how does Harvard define an educated person? A Harvard education, the university states, "must provide a broad introduction to the knowledge needed in an increasingly global and connected, yet simultaneously diverse and fragmented world." Mr. Lewis, rightfully dismissive, notes that the school never actually says what kind of knowledge is "needed." The words are meaningless blather, he says, proving that "Harvard no longer knows what a good education is."

Such institutional incoherence has consequences. In his sharpest criticism, Mr. Lewis charges that Harvard now ceases to think of itself as an American institution with any obligation to educate students about liberal democratic ideals. As the school increasingly focuses on "global competency," the U.S. is "rarely mentioned in anything written recently about Harvard's plans for undergraduate education." In the absence of agreement on common values or a core curriculum, anything goes. Echoing Allan Bloom's critique of relativism, Mr. Lewis writes that at Harvard "all knowledge is equally valued as long as a Harvard professor is teaching it."

Mr. Lewis skips past many campus matters that seem ripe for discussion (affirmative action, speech codes, the academic monoculture, the viability of the tenure system). He is less an angry prophet than a genteel provocateur. But the portrait he draws, however limited, is disturbing enough.

There is too little accountability at most schools, Mr. Lewis observes. Trustees often abdicate their responsibilities, while college presidents have become glorified fund-raisers. Most professors are "narrowly educated experts" with little experience outside academia. They are "poorly equipped to help college students sort out" their lives. Meanwhile, professors teach what they want to teach based on their own interests, not on the needs of their students. At too many schools, Mr. Lewis argues, students pursue an "à la carte" course schedule that lacks coherence and can leave large gaps in knowledge.

There is little incentive, he adds, for reform among the university's various "constituencies." Students want a high grade-point average and a college degree that is a passport to a well-paying job, but they also want freedom from authority. Tenured professors want to be left alone to conduct research without academic oversight. Administrators who prize stability and consensus are loath to rock the boat.

But one "constituency" should be concerned. Parents preparing to shell out a small fortune for their children's education will want to read Mr. Lewis's book as they ask themselves: What exactly are we paying for?


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