Politics & Policy

Without The Point

How a promising book hit but missed.

Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, by Harry Lewis (Public Affairs Press, 288 pp., $26)

If you want to learn about modern Czech fantasy novels, Harvard is an excellent place to be. The same goes if you want to study women writers from the Caribbean or elementary particle physics (where the particles, not the physics, are elementary). But where should you go if you want to become an educated person? What fun Socrates would have had at Harvard, the supposedly preeminent educational institution in the world.

In Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, former dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis argues that Harvard–or its college at least–is aimless and adrift, with a scant idea of what to do with its undergraduates. Even if his critique has less irony and edge than one from Socrates would, it nevertheless serves as an informative condemnation of Harvard’s approach to education.

Harvard began as a school for Puritan settlers in the New World, meant to ensure that ministers were literate and somewhat learned; it has since grown into a world-renowned research university. Its professors are scholarly specialists whose interests have little to do with those of most students. Not that its undergraduates are particularly concerned about getting an education. Many treat college as one more rung on the ladder, and they inevitably have time-consuming extracurricular pursuits. Some indeed are academics in the making, yet, as can be seen from their professors, this has little to do with being well educated. So Harvard College ends up being little more than a collection of specialized, expert professors who lecture to, but otherwise try not to interfere with, their ambitious, talented students–a generalization, to be sure, to which there are numerous exceptions, but it is true enough.

There is something the matter with this, which is a theme of Lewis’s. Yet he offers little by way of a solution, and even his criticism is distracted by an unnecessarily thorough analysis of Harvard’s numerous failures. Lewis deals with Harvard’s directionless curricular review, rampant grade inflation, controversial admissions policies, inept advising, ridiculous response to “date rape,” student dissatisfaction, maligned athletic programs, and so on. These topics were no doubt concerns of Lewis when he was a dean, but his attention to the wrongheaded policies and bureaucratic disputes of Harvard’s administration betray his inability to deal with the fundamental concern: Why does Harvard do almost nothing to ensure that its students are educated, and what must be done to change this?

Even Lewis’s detailed analysis leaves something to be desired. He devotes two chapters to grade inflation, revealing its long history, cataloging its causes, and considering the importance of grades. But his conclusion is maddeningly anticlimactic. Grade inflation, it turns out, is hardly a problem at all. “There is no reason to think that better grading practices would improve the quality of education we offer, so grading reform is less important than other educational reforms.”

Lewis fails to notice the obvious connection between loose grading and poor education. Grade inflation signifies apathy and cynicism on the part of both professors and students. Professors do not suppose that what they are teaching has anything to do with imparting to students an education. They do not see why students should have to aim for mastery of these often-narrow subjects, or why they would want to, and so they do not see the point of grading rigorously. This skepticism towards education encourages a pre-professional outlook among students, which they happily assume. High grades are sought mostly as credentials for whatever comes after graduation. Professors discern that most students are more interested in grades than in learning, and their cynicism increases.

So, as a matter of fact, Lewis’s conclusion about grading is superficially correct. There is no point in making students work hard to master material that is of little importance to becoming educated. Professors understand this, but their response is to give easy grades instead of teaching better courses. Tough grading will obviously not solve this dilemma. Nevertheless, such high grades are a revealing symptom of a serious problem, and Lewis flippantly passes over this.

Lewis was not the only one at Harvard aware of these problems. Lawrence Summers announced in his inaugural address in 2001 that one of his priorities was improving undergraduate education. He began a curricular review in 2002, yet, almost four years later, little progress has been made, apart from further loosening what little requirements there already were. Lewis’s criticisms of this visionless review are withering, particularly when it comes to Summers’s role in it. “Summers presented no imaginative program, envisioned no educational ideal, carried no flaming torch that students or Faculty wanted to follow.” (Lewis was forced out of his position in 2003, and it was never a secret that he had disagreements with Summers about education at Harvard College.)

This criticism of Summers is fair enough–he was an economist, after all, not a visionary scholar. He would speak about making academics more central to undergraduate life, but what little vision he did have was mostly a matter of internationalism and greater attention to science–neither of which is particularly important for undergraduate education, as Lewis rightly observes. Studying abroad is of negligible benefit for a student who doesn’t know the first thing about the foundations of his own country. And the subject matter of departmental science and math courses, as well as the way in which they are taught, is not particularly useful to someone looking to become educated but not a specialist.

This sad state of confusion is the state of academia, with Harvard at the forefront. Most discouraging is that these administrative types have no idea what to do about the problem. None of this is breaking news, but it matters. Liberal education preserves the foundations of a society and imparts a common understanding of what we are about. As things are, however, America’s great universities ensure only that our educated leaders are schooled in skepticism.

Maximilian Pakaluk is an associate editor at NRO, and graduated from Harvard in May of 2005.

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