September 11, 2006


As Goes Harvard. . . (Donald Kagan, Commentary)

Early in his tenure Summers called for “the most comprehensive review of Harvard’s curriculum in a century.” The dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, rising to the challenge, promised a fully satisfactory answer to the question: “What will it mean to be an educated woman or man in the first quarter of the 21st century?” But after three years of work by a faculty committee, the chief author of its report admitted that it lacked any special direction, while a student critic lambasted it as “60 pages of stunningly bland and half-baked recommendations that straddle the line between unspecific and impossible.”

The dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis, would seem to have agreed with this assessment. In a recently published book on the decline of Harvard, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education,1 he cites the excuse offered by one member of the faculty committee: “the committee thought the best thing was to put a row of empty bottles up and see how the faculty wanted to fill them.” Lewis responds, acidly:

The empty bottles could be filled with anything so long as the right department was offering it. . . . But there is absolutely nothing that Harvard can expect students will know after they take three science or three humanities courses freely chosen from across the entire course catalog. The proposed general-education requirement gives up entirely on the idea of shared knowledge, shared values, even shared aspirations. In the absence of any pronouncement that anything is more important than anything else for Harvard students to know, Harvard is declaring that one can be an educated person in the 21st century without knowing anything about genomes, chromosomes, or Shakespeare.

Does it matter that Harvard’s curriculum is a vacant vessel? It is no secret, after all, that to the Harvard faculty, undergraduate education is at best of secondary interest. What is laughingly called the Core Curriculum—precisely what Summers sought to repair—is distinguished by the absence of any core of studies generally required. In practice, moreover, a significant number of the courses in Harvard College are taught by graduate students, not as assistants to professors but in full control of the content. Although they are called “tutors,” evoking an image of learned Oxbridge dons passing on their wisdom one-on-one, what they are is a collection of inexperienced leaders of discussion or pseudo-discussion groups. The overwhelming majority of these young men and women, to whom is entrusted a good chunk of a typical undergraduate’s education, will never be considered good enough to belong to Harvard’s regular faculty.

But this does matter, and the reason is that how Harvard deals with its undergraduates is of great importance to other colleges. Harvard’s antiquity, the high quality of its faculty and student body, its wealth, and its prestige have made it a model to be watched and emulated. When Harvard adopted a program of “General Education” after World War II—the forerunner of today’s debased Core Curriculum—it changed the character of undergraduate education throughout the country.

So it is intriguing and instructive that Harvard’s former dean should be castigating the curriculum produced by the Harvard faculty—a curriculum that, he believes, exposes Harvard as “a university without a larger sense of educational purpose or a connection with its principal constituents.”

For you to make a judgement about what I need to know is intolerant.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2006 5:12 AM
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