Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education By Harry R. Lewis Public Affairs • 2006 • 305 pages • $26.00
People usually wait until they have retired to write books that air a good deal of dirty laundry. Maybe it’s a mark in favor of tenure that a professor who is still very much a part of a university faculty can write a book such as this. Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College and currently a professor of computer science, has given us a candid and disarmingly frank appraisal of the serious weaknesses he sees in his school. Although a few of his chapters are only tangentially related to his theme of educational malaise, Lewis succeeds admirably in making his point that undergraduate education at Harvard isn’t all it is cracked up to be.
Lewis begins with, and focuses much of his attention on, the curriculum. Harvard suffers from the same problem that besets many other colleges and universities – that students can now choose their courses from a vast smorgasbord of offerings, usually subject only to the vague guidelines imposed by the school’s “distribution requirements.” Writing about the curriculum review that Harvard began in 2002, which he found to be an exercise in futility, Lewis says, “The bottom line was that nothing in Harvard’s curriculum was held to be more important than anything else. Like a mother of quarreling children, Harvard looked at its thirty-two academic departments and their countless subspecialties and declared that they were all loved equally.” After three years of study, the review committee proposed a new curriculum “with no meaningful expectations at all.” In fact, Lewis contends, the new proposed curriculum is inferior to the 1910 curriculum, which required students to do more work in fields where analytical reasoning is critical.
Here Lewis has identified one of the great weaknesses in the modern university. Students no longer have to take the courses that used to be the pillars of a college education. Yes, students can still take courses like American history and literary classics if they want to (but they might find that what is taught covers only a narrow slice of the subject, corresponding to the professor’s particular interests), but they can just as well take many others, including fun and easy courses in popular culture.
The problem is that the curriculum is not designed with the intellectual needs of students in mind. Instead, it has oozed into a blob that generally keeps students and professors happy – the former because it’s not overly demanding and the latter because they get mostly to teach what they want to teach. It’s as if a restaurant had a menu consisting mainly of desserts and dishes that the chefs like to prepare.
Lewis also has sharp words regarding the indifferent teaching that Harvard undergrads often encounter. He observes that “great teaching can be viewed in academic circles as a kind of performance art, fine if you can do it but raising doubts about the teacher’s seriousness as a scholar.” Harvard, like other research universities, pays very little attention to a professor’s ability to conduct a good class and pays inordinate attention to his publication record. But poor teaching isn’t inevitable. “A quarter mile from Harvard Yard, the Harvard Business School puts pedagogy high on the list of institutional missions. Students who move from the College to the Business School are astonished by the improvement in teaching quality,” Lewis notes. It’s a question of priorities and most big universities get the wrong answer.
The education that Harvard has forgotten isn’t only the academic kind. It has also forgotten the moral education of its students, Lewis maintains. Although Harvard (and most other colleges and universities) go to ridiculous lengths to make sure that they have a “diverse” faculty (counting only certain characteristics as relevant and enhancing “diversity”), “Rarely do they even suggest that professors should be responsible for students as whole human beings during their crucially formative years, or that professors should be chosen, trained, or evaluated with that objective in mind,” he writes. Now there is a reactionary idea that must have a lot of Harvard faculty members rolling their eyes in disdain.
I also give Lewis a gold star for his willingness to criticize one of the current higher education fads, namely “global education.” He reports that Larry Summers (who receives a number of sharp jabs throughout the book) was worried that Harvard was too “Americanist” and needed to produce graduates with more “awareness” of other nations and cultures. Lewis pummels the notion that study abroad is necessarily a good use of Harvard students’ time. “Harvard, which justifies its high prices on the basis of the quality of its faculty, libraries, and research facilities, and has consistently opposed academic credit for experiential learning in areas such as community service” – good call by Harvard on the last point – “now proposes that the experience of living abroad be an almost essential expectation for an undergraduate degree….The question is not whether travel or study abroad can be instructive, but whether it is the best use of a scarce and precious resource: time at a college in a great research university.” Bravo! The devotees of multiculturalism always hug the warm and fuzzy idea that exposure to other cultures is somehow transformative, but Lewis doesn’t buy it.
Where I find the book unpersuasive is the lengthy discussion of grade inflation. Lewis is quite unconcerned about it. He can’t find any rationale for grading that, in his view, doesn’t have more against it than for it. For example, he pooh-poohs the “nose-to-the- grindstone” rationale, saying, “Reliance on grading to make students work hard is bad teaching. Students at colleges like Harvard do not need to be persuaded that learning is important and that studying is worthwhile.” Even at Harvard, though, you will find students who would sometimes choose to write a sloppy paper where they could have done a much better one if it weren’t for the competition for grades. And at many mid- and lower-tier institutions, if grades were abolished, the already low academic standards would sink out of sight. Harvard has more serious problems than grade inflation, but it isn’t a non-problem either.
Lewis’s chapter on college sports and half-chapter devoted to the problem of sexual assault on campus are enlightening, but seem irrelevant to the theme of the forgetting of education.
Finally, there is a big omission. Lewis says almost nothing about the great fad of contemporary American education, namely “diversity.” It’s hard to think of anything more at odds with a commitment to educational excellence than a policy of having considerations of race, class, and gender trump relevant factors when it comes to admissions and hiring, but Lewis steers clear of any criticism.
Still, the book is well worth reading if you are interested in finding out where Harvard – and most other colleges and universities in the U.S. – are letting their students down.