"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 theI 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"?
and from overseas. And yet it is hard not to get the feeling that there is something amiss at American schools. U.S.
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
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." U.S.