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Classics, Education, Governance, Leadership, Workplace

How a Great University Forgot Education

The famous Harvard University canteen

Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education

Has Harvard Lost Its Way?


Harvard strives to be the best at many things, and it often succeeds. But Harvard has protected its reputation for excellence at the expense of its sense of a larger purpose. Harvard’s leaders have allowed the university’s mission to drift from education to customer satisfaction. For them, Harvard is no longer a city upon a hill but merely a brand name.

Today’s Harvard education offers as a common thread nothing like the Puritans’ fear that their children would be left without a learned ministry, or the 19th- and early-20th-century benefactor Henry Lee Higginson’s conviction that “the health and true welfare of our University and our country go hand in hand,” or the worry of the 1945 curricular reform, General Education in a Free Society, that civilization itself might lie in the balance if Harvard did not do its job.

The old ideal of a liberal education lives on in name only. No longer does Harvard teach the things that free the human mind and spirit. In 2005, after a three-year review of its curriculum, it headed toward the conclusion that its students are free agents and for the most part should study what they wish.

A liberal education in the sense Harvard now uses the term is simply an education not meant to make students employable. Undergraduate education should not be too advanced or too specialized, nor should it include courses that would be helpful in the world of business. Becoming too skilled at any one thing, so skilled that a graduate could make a living doing it, is distasteful. Students are better off being broadly educated generalists — though not much breadth can be demanded because students would resist any requirement.

Undergraduate education defined in that way allows professors to do as they wish as well. In an effort to persuade me that I should back the newly proposed, requirement-light curriculum, one professor offered that it meant we faculty members would no longer have to teach students who did not want to take our courses. But the courses from which students learn the most are often ones they would be disinclined to take without being pressed to do so.

The general-education courses I took on Western philosophy stretched and rewarded me, and the core course I teach on information technology and society plays that role for my students.

If professors can define their job as teaching what they wish to those who wish to be taught it, Harvard will not carry the centuries-old ideal of a liberal education forward into the next generation. It will instead indulge students’ inclinations to learn more of what they know already, while avoiding unpleasant but enlightening disagreements among professors about the relative importance of different studies. Liberal education will be reduced to an easy compromise among academics rather than a long-term commitment to the welfare of students and the society they will serve.

Even excellence assumes different meanings depending on the circumstances. No more than half the class should graduate with honors, Harvard opines, to preserve the value of the honors degree. The effect may be to make Harvard graduates, in aggregate, less well educated rather than more, but at least the news media will no longer deride us for grade inflation. The very concept of an honors program should be discarded, according to proposals afloat in late 2005. At the same time as Harvard plans to remove incentives to pursue advanced work in a field, it is proposing incentives to dilettantism, in the form of “secondary fields” in which students could earn recognition for a mere smattering of learning. In fact, stimulating Harvard’s remarkable students to do excellent work is beyond our ambitions. That lowering of expectations may reflect a reluctance of some faculty members to educate students.

Harvard teaches students but does not make them wise. They may achieve extraordinary excellence in both academic and extracurricular endeavors, but the whole educational experience does not cohere. Few could give a good answer, five or 10 years after graduation day, to the simple question: What was the most important thing Harvard taught you? Parents hope that their children will remember, in later life, lessons greater than how to parallel park or how to balance a checkbook.

Like good parents, a good university should help its students understand the complexities of the human condition — or at least what others, men and women of acknowledged wisdom, have thought about the difficulties of living an examined life. A good university challenges its students to ask questions that are both disturbing and deeply important. Part of becoming a responsible adult educated in the best tradition of human thought is to come to grips, personally, with the basic questions of life.

One might argue that the great, sprawling, modern research university must be different things to different people. Perhaps, given the other demands on its faculty, the best it can hope to do educationally is to present a menu from which its multitalented, multiethnic, multicultural, multinational students can pick and choose. That cafeteria theory of education avoids the problem of valuing some things more than others, of judging that the specialties of some professors are more important for educated citizens than the specialties of others. It suggests that character and morality are not the university’s business at all.

Some of the forces that have brought universities to incoherence are societal. Universities did not create the consumer culture, but they have been overtaken by it. Universities did not become expensive by themselves, but they are subject to the same economic forces as other institutions. What universities have not done is to resist societal forces where resistance would be right and proper. The greatest universities have fared the best — they are the highest ranked and the most sought after by the customers. Sadly, although their wealth and their desirability have put them in the best position to press back against the forces that have compromised the education they offer, they have instead drifted complacently along with those forces. Harvard, as the best of them all, can push back most easily.

But the forces controlling Harvard today want it to follow the crowd. If most other universities have something, be it a simple distribution requirement for graduation or a women’s center, the new Harvard thinks they must be right. It is easier to justify doing as others do than to defend the principles behind Harvard’s uniqueness. Harvard needs the will to push back where thoughtful consideration should lead it to other choices. That will must come from everyone who is part of the Harvard family.

First, the leadership of the university. Harvard requires strong leadership. Harvard is not a direct democracy, not even a representative democracy. Decisions at Harvard cannot follow the average or the majority sentiment. Harvard needs leaders whom others will follow, not unquestioningly but with confidence and respect. But Harvard is not an autocracy either. In fact, it is more like a volunteer agency. Students at Harvard are volunteers — they would all be welcomed at other good colleges if they wanted to leave. Even though they are subject to Harvard rules and regulations while enrolled, their power of passive resistance is far stronger than the university’s power of coercion. They will study hard and do good work only if they are inspired. Every faculty member is a volunteer, too. Leading professors is, admittedly, like herding cats. They could all get jobs elsewhere at the drop of a hat. There are few effective punishments for professors, especially those with tenure, so the president and the deans cannot order them to be obedient. Almost everything professors do, they do because they have come to believe in its importance and rightness, not because someone above their pay grade tells them they should do it.

Even the support staff are volunteers. Those pushing paper can be made to do their jobs in the way that clerks everywhere are kept in line. But when they come in contact with students, they are likely to put on their human faces and to be candid about the way things work. Their loyalty is invaluable. The truth about Harvard’s attitudes, motivations, and hypocrisies travels very efficiently by word of mouth in a university, whatever the communications office may say. There is no upstairs and downstairs in a healthy college. Students talk all the time to the police officers, the medical trainers, the financial-aid officers, not to mention those with official advising and counseling roles. The employees at the bottom of the organizational tree are the ones who see students the most. They, too, are educators. They absorb the spirit of the institution and convey its values to students every day.

Most important in articulating and communicating institutional values is Harvard’s civil service. Many long-serving educational administrators have inexplicably left Harvard in recent years. The buzzwords of the new approach to such appointments include “professionalizing” the staff, bringing in “fresh ideas,” and just “shaking things up.” Reorganization is a disruptive and unending process. New organizational trees accompany reorganizations, with hierarchical, sharply defined reporting structures and new jobs to be filled by newly hired staff members. Though touted as making Harvard better, such moves often succeed only in shifting attention away from the big picture. Each new dean or administrator or vice provost assumes responsibility for some immediate task, which thereby becomes no one else’s problem.

The reorganizations have also eliminated many of those who knew how Harvard used to be. Far more significant than any structural effect has been the incalculable loss of many administrators who recognized their work as education and saw in it a high calling. They thought rigorously about the goals of a college education and how their part of Harvard might work with others to fulfill those goals. They were reflective about causes and effects, smart about students, and reluctant to risk teaching the wrong larger lesson by a quick decision that might be expedient in the short run. They were self-effacing members of a collective effort, and they provided perspective on deep and enduring problems. They were, in other words, genuine educational professionals. They left Harvard, or were forced to leave, because they did not fit into the new, retail-store university, in which orders are taken, defects are papered over to get the merchandise out the door, and the customers are sent home happy by “student-service professionals.” …

The biggest tasks await the faculty. Every decision concerning undergraduates should be held to an educational standard. No matter what the choice, whether affecting academic programs or student life, the question should be asked: If we do this, then over the course of four years, what lessons will Harvard students learn, and will they become better educated? Only if the faculty is engaged, in small ways and large, in considering the purpose of changes can wise changes be made — changes that will make Harvard graduates both excellent and prepared to serve their roles in society.

The next Harvard president must help the faculty develop a shared sense of educational responsibility for its undergraduates. There is no better student body anywhere, and we professors are teaching them because they are the promise of the world. We must design a curriculum for those future citizens, professionals, and scholars that we ourselves respect.

We will never return to the days of General Education in a Free Society, when the faculty imagined that all students might take one course. But there is an enormous difference between that impossible unity and today’s total disunity. The faculty must find a way to set priorities for itself so that it can give some guidance to students about what educated people, civilized people, should know in the 21st century.

The faculty needs to change, too. There is a great deal of good will among professors for more attention to undergraduates, and a great many disincentives and cultural biases prevent that good will from being translated into practice. Some of the change can, with incentives from the university’s leaders, happen quickly. Departments that are famously indifferent to undergraduates can, tenure notwithstanding, undergo the same process of reorganization that is applied to other underperforming units. In the longer run, teaching should be a serious component of faculty-hiring criteria, not simply a peripheral item. Alumni, parents, students can all call for change, and governing boards can insist on it. Honest means of evaluating teaching will have to be developed, mechanisms that are as scrupulously unbiased as the rigorous system of external reviewers used to evaluate the scholarship of tenure candidates. More fundamentally, “teaching” needs to mean more than skill at lecturing and leading seminars. We must find a way to honor good character in our faculty members and to penalize acts that call a professor’s character into question. The evaluation of character is easier said than done, given the risks of bias and prejudice. But the present system so discourages any judgment of personal character that a better system would not be difficult to design.

Finally, the counseling and therapeutic services for undergraduates must share the stage with a less clinical treatment of students’ hearts and souls. There is no program for that change. Telling students to go to church is not the answer, though church is an answer for some students. Community service is also an answer for some, though it has become so professionalized and technical that many students draw more managerial than spiritual value from volunteering. The opportunity to study under exemplary visitors from the “real world” is a special privilege of Harvard students. The teaching of challenging texts, literary or philosophical, can raise in today’s students the same important and troubling questions they have raised in other readers for centuries — if they are not taught to elicit “correct” answers that will earn high grades.

None of these proposals are inimical to excellence. Excellence must remain a guiding value, but the pursuit of excellence should no longer be an excuse for ignoring everything else. Faculty members should be expected to offer some courses that span large domains of human thought. Professors, like graduates, should possess knowledge in many things as well as expertise in one.

The restoration of a true core to undergraduate education, an approach to education that will turn dependent adolescents into wise adults, circles back to the question of leadership. The university’s leaders must believe in the process of self-discovery, and they must articulate that belief. They must support and praise faculty members and coaches and deans and career counselors and therapists who recognize its importance. To that end, the leaders must themselves embody the values of self-understanding, maturity, strength of character, compassion and empathy for others, as well as scholarly excellence. Everyone in the university — parents, students, professors, and members of the governing boards — should have a say in judging whether that standard is met.

Harry R. Lewis, a professor of computer science at Harvard University, served as dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003. This essay is adapted from Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, to be published in May by PublicAffairs. Copyright © 2006 by Harry R. Lewis.

Original article here


About steveblizard

Steve Blizard commenced his financial planning career in 1988 from a background of life insurance broking, a field in which he still works. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the Responsible Investment Association. His experience ranges from administration of Superannuation to advice regarding insurance, retirement, remuneration and investment planning. Steve is an accredited Remuneration Consultant, specialising in salary packaging. He is a columnist for the Swan Magazine and the WA Business News


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