Poison Ivy

(Xxx - Xxx)
Reviewed by Christopher Shea
Sunday, July 2, 2006


How a Great University Forgot Education

By Harry R. Lewis

PublicAffairs. 305 pp. $26

Few universities face the negative publicity that Harvard does when recruiting students. Books and magazine articles abound with titles such as Harvard, Schmarvard and Who Needs Harvard? , urging students to resist being blinded by prestige and to find a college that better fits their own distinct social and intellectual profile.

It doesn't matter. Year after year, no other university touches Harvard's ability to lure the best students from every corner of the United States.

Similarly, Excellence Without a Soul , by Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College (the undergraduate division of Harvard), will discourage precisely zero valedictorians and strivers from making their predestined pilgrimage to Cambridge (at least for a tour of the campus). Yet the book levels significant charges: Harvard has abdicated its core responsibility to decide what undergraduates ought to learn and has abandoned any effort to shape students' moral character. "I have almost never heard discussions among professors," writes this 30-year veteran of the computer-science department, "about making students better people."

If that language strikes you as too pious, you might still agree with Lewis's contention that Harvard fails to encourage its students to examine their social, intellectual and career choices in anything like the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson (class of 1821). The book's relevance is hardly limited to Cambridge, given that few colleges could pass the tests Lewis sets up for his own.

Mercifully, the overexposed Harvard ex-president and gender theorist Larry Summers plays only a minor role in this narrative. No fan, Lewis writes that Summers "will be remembered for his failures," as a man who mistook bluster for leadership. Lewis, however, is hardly in the corner of the arts and sciences faculty, which helped bring Summers down.

His chief complaint is that Harvard professors refuse to devise a coherent undergraduate curriculum. Lewis is nostalgic for the curriculum Harvard concocted in the 1940s, which forced students to take several wide-ranging courses with titles such as "Western Thought and Institutions." In the 1970s, that system was replaced by a more complex one that requires students to take specifically designed courses, outside the usual department offerings, from numerous categories, such as "Social Sciences" and "Humanities." By the time Summers arrived in 2001, the system was widely viewed as a tired hodgepodge.

Summers called for a curricular review, and Lewis, like the president, hoped the faculty would decide what literary, historical, philosophical and scientific works all students should be exposed to. But the vaunted review went nowhere. Oh, it grinds on in an attenuated way, but professors are leaning toward a simple "distribution" model, in which students could fulfill a history requirement, for example, by taking any course the history department offers. In the U.S. history subfield, that might mean "Medicine and Society in America" or "Pursuits of Happiness: Ordinary Lives in Revolutionary America" -- fine courses, perhaps, but ones that are part of no larger picture.

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