26 May 2006

Excellence Without a Soul

"Harvard articulates no ideals of what it means to be a good person". That's the teaser for the Wall Street Journal's recent review of Excellence Without a Soul, by Harry R. Lewis, former Dean of Arts and Sciences (May 24, 2006, page D12).

I studied computational theory with Lewis. His contribution to my goodness as a person took this form. He would walk into class, turn his back on us, and proceed to write out complicated proofs on the board for the next 50 minutes. He also co-authored the textbook we were using in the class.

I don't mean to be ungrateful. Lewis was very good at computational theory, and his was one of my favorite undergraduate courses. It's just to say, rather, that it is perhaps easy to write a book after the fact, when, it seems, neither as professor nor as Dean was Lewis particularly effective at doing anything differently.

Vincent J. Cannato's review raises some interesting questions. Does any student matriculate at Harvard expecting to be helped, by the institution, in becoming a good person? Do parents have this expectation? Even if Harvard proposed such an ideal, could it do much actually to promote it? (Can virtue be taught?) And are we sure, nonetheless, that there isn't implicit already, perhaps in what is not done, or in the very structure of an education, an ideal of a good person in a Harvard education? (And if we make that ideal explicit, we might be able to criticize or reject it.)

Some excerpts from the review:

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." What makes an educated person? Professors and college officials should know. Do they?

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."

The core of this book … 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."

I post about this because I regard ancient philosophers as guardians of a tradition, or of various worthy traditions, of a liberal education. We are familiar with conceptions of an education which are not 'lacking a soul'. And yet-- Aren't we entirely content with our standing? Don't we pat ourselves on the back because (say, as a result of the efforts of Gregory Vlastos or Gwil Owen, or whatever story we tell), "it's now taken for granted that philosophy departments will hire a specialist in ancient"?


david inkey said...


¿ an almost modern man...

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names will never harm me!

I have most advisedly been described, much to my amusement, amazement and advancement, beyond the most wild, winsome,wittiest and wisest bounds and bonds of my pleasure, and (curiously, comically, courageously,) stridently-strikingly to the inner core of my usually concealed consternation, as “a reformed Harvard anthropologist...” My greatest Transcendent mentor, Thoreau, inadequately but advertently asserts that most men (people) live lives of quiet desperation... I have greater problems with that simplistic summary of Life than I can explain today... Suffice it that I say, here, today, that many (most?) of us who profess, pretend and perform, professorially, live in such an academented world, that is not at all amazing, IT is just a trifle extra-ordinary, that this career pattern nomination, this prosaic proclamation, occurred in my 64th year on Earth, 32 years after I had earned, or otherwise had had conferred upon me, a doctorate in social? anthropology from the summitry of academic, imperial pridefulness. Forty years ago, only forty solar revolutions past, I was quite delited and daunted when I gained admission to the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a giddy group of us adopted a credo of self-explanation and public, degrading expiation, “What respect can we have for Harvard if we were admitted?” As TIME passed and most of us moved toward our ultimate academic degree goals, we changed our chant, “What respect can we have for Harvard if we get our doctorates?” Was it “graduation” or “commencement,” or both and something else besides, on that beautiful day in June when we grasped a paltry piece of parchment, a rich or poor exchange for tortured and triumphant years of pathetic and passionate patience and impatience... Our parting patois beyond the gaited gated commencement “theatre” was “What respect can we have for Harvard if it ever offers us a job...” Harvard high and mighty hoped to harness us as loyal alums, hinting “We now welcome you into the company of educated men.”

When I was but a teasing toddler of two, my Mother tautly taught me a Quixotic Question to fill the text of A LIFE MANUAL... OF, BY(E) AND FOR(E) DAVID INKEY...“What in the World do you want now?” I wanted to understand Life... I want to understand Life... Curiously and imaginatively, I believed or thot I believed that I could utilize the arts and artifices of anthropology to gain humane understanding, though my mentors and would-be mentors all spelled, somewhat dyslexically, “human” without any ease... eeeeeeeeeeee’s......

I was going to be an Africanist because there there seemed to me to be some promise that the second half of the 20th Century would be a great era for post-colonial achievement on that Dark Continent of the 19th Century.... Fortune played other cards for me and I became something more of a Latin Americanist, not to my regret but always to my unfulfilled longing of wonderment of how different I would be had I spent as much time in Africa as I labored, enjoyed and gave in Latin America... Harvard did not teach me to ask questions of PC! Harvard was perhaps so occupied with being Harvard, that one professor was more concerned with seeing ancient values in Chiapas than contemporary change, another was more fixated on “need for achievement” than need for comprehension, another was quantifying more than qualifying... I left Harvard to teach in a small, poverty-stricken, rich, vibrant country in Central America...and in just, only, scarcely six months of being in El Salvador, I was to “discover” that population concerns are one of the pre-dominant themes of the 20th Century... Instead of learning to explain custom and constraints in culture, I had the opportunity to learn such iconological issues as, “Why did you save my Life?” I learned to counter the conventions of aid from the colossus of the North, and during the First Development Decade, I learned to be response-able to “development for what...” I learned ecology eons before our first Earth Day Celebrations... An emeritus professor of epidemiology (from Harvard ) taught me that term, text and trust...

I have had a patchy “career,” and I am sometimes saddened to think that I never earned, archived, nor achieved many of the academic dreams I spent nights and days and daze with when I was chronologically in an even more tender age... Yet, yet, yet, I am profoundly pleased, to the furthest stretches of my Being, that I am still, yet, just, ever and always, an academic activist... It does not embarrass me that I never got on a tenure track, it does not please me that the Academy is at war with itself, trying and very trying...to configure in and figure out what should be done with tenure... I frequently wonder whether “tenure” is not some permutation of indentured servanthood. Occasionally, but rarely, I like to refer to myself as a or The United Nations Anthropologist....but the UN has never, to my knowing, been accepted in the canon of cultures, as a “legitimate” field of study. Culture and cultures is another “problem” which, I believe, anthropology has not yet solved, nor resolved... In good stead, I now wear the grand and grandiose title, THE UNITED NATIONS PHILOSOPHER!

Now, as I enter what is probably the last third of my terrestrial time, I speculate, inquire, imagine that the arts (and sciences) of anthropology would be well served by a transcendental, triumphant post-tribal testament of PC! PLANETARY CULTURE would be the greatest humane discovery of our feeble two million years of human “being....” We would trash such tacky twaddle as Political Correctness and find Planetary Consciousness, mixed with cosmic clowning and the totally engaging, ultimate PC, Personal Commitment...

I think that my Mother must have asked me the question, "What in the World do YOU want?" about as many times as I have ever been able to count... In my sixth summer when I was in bed for three days with the worst sunburn any redhead should ever suffer, I decided to count to ten thousand, by tens. (It took many years to learn to count by the power of ten.) My Mother--may she rest in Peace as fully as she worked for Peace--may have tried to keep count of how many times she repeated her best question, but I suspect that even she lost the tally about the time I was testing my account-ability of ten to the fourth , before I knew much about power and powers... I suppose that I have been asked this question with more different tones of voice than most people can even imagine. I used to have very simple answers and my unassuming, undemanding needs were easily met with pop corn, or an extra story--I loved to have my Mother read me stories beyond my own literary skills, or to take me to a movie, to give me an extra piece of fudge, homemade fudge, the only kind we new in those eras, and to treat me to ice cream and other sundries. Then, through the years, the question was expressed with certain exasperation and my replies were sometimes considered quite unreasonable. Finally, I discovered a global answer. That was when I discovered what a good friend Imagination has been during my entire life.

I did not choose to come to Planet Earth. The great French Jesuit anthropologist, Pierre, said so long ago that it seems only yesterday, “We are not human beings seeking a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings seeking a human experience.” I would prefer that Monsieur Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had been less wobbly in his spelling, that he could assert the “humane.” I came to Earth on a cold winter night, naked, hungry, speechless, homeless. In the Cosmos, I was before all and after all quite content so far and fully as I can remember, member and premember, to being something of a Cosmic Clown. Yet, I was painfully brought into this life in a condition of limited responses, in a state of infinite innocence, fully dependent, helpless, proverbially “wet behind the ears,” all wet and slimed, and perennially blinded by fellow humans’ inhumanity one to another. Through years of tutelage, I have been rigorously both dragged and driven from dependence to be independent, only, just, ultimately, to learn that interdependence is the favored state! On a pilgrim’s voyage to the Enchanted Isles, in mysteries beyond my-stories, puzzlingly in an hour-story of our stories, I have learned Lifeness, lifeness being the relation of all beings one to another. All histories have only been versions of his story. All of herstories have been rarely expressed, yea, often muted or not yet written. Ourstory is only, just, scarcely pre-dawning. Our birth and death certificates proclaim, as if they are diplomas:

... When philosophers become clowns ...
... And when clowns become philosophers ...
.. We shall indeed be humane beings ...

All my life I have wanted to be a child when I grow up. Would it help me (us) understand anthropology and me if I confessed to becoming an anthropologist at the advanced age of four years young, when my parents introduced me into the Nez Perce Nation. Perhaps , it is just make believe. When I use all of my Imagination, I can be the Clown Prince of Planetary Culture. Long, long ago, about as late as yesterday and as early as tomorrow, and far, far away, about as close and gentle as the waves of the heliopause and as distant and lost as my cradle, extremely early on the morning of the Sixteenth of December in The Year One Thousand Nine Hundred and Thirty One of Our Common Era, my monitors declared that I fully possessed all five of my senses... “They” were so unschooled in the sense and nonsense of censuses and censure that they little realized how many senses I need to create Planetary Culture. Why couldn’t they know that I would need both common and uncommon sense? What have they done with the senses of faith, fun and foolishness, despair, pain and hope, Love and lust, wit and witness and wit-less-ness, wisdom, humor, grief, joy, play, punnery, prudence, art and awkwardness, worship, service, childness, Lifeness and Awe.... I want it said of me, ¡HE LIVED! Yes, I am A REFORMED HARVARD ANTHROPOLOGIST... What in the World do I want, now? I have modest wishes, I want a world with three dimensions, of Peace... Inner, Communal, Universal...
david inkey’s ÷unlimited additions÷


Posted by david inkey

Anonymous said...

given the enormous supranational problems of planet earth, i have determined that it is essential for the UNITED NATIONS to have a poet laureate. to alleviate stresses on both the general assembly and the security council, i have usurped the title of UNITED NATIONS POET LAUREATE until such time as UN reform allocates time to create poesis....... love, david inkey ....

some poets may wish to goggle my POEMS OF A PERFECT POET.



Posted by david inkey