Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Harry R. Lewis's Excellence Without a Soul: How A Great University Forgot Education (Public Affairs Press, 2006).

Jul 31, 2006 12:32 am

Luther Spoehr: Review of Harry R. Lewis's Excellence Without a Soul: How A Great University Forgot Education (Public Affairs Press, 2006).

Luther Spoehr teaches courses on the history of American higher education at Brown University.

This just in: Harvard has a soul. Or had one, at least according to Harry Lewis, longtime professor of computer science and, between 1995 and 2003, dean of Harvard College.

Exactly when and where it was lost is hard to say. Lewis is angriest with departing President Larry Summers and the Corporation that hired him, for failing to overhaul the curriculum and reform other corrupted elements of undergraduate existence. But his own evidence suggests that Harvard and all of its pursuers, imitators and wannabes are in the grip of more powerful forces than can be reversed, channeled or tamed by any college president, and have been for a long time.

Lewis charges universities with forgetting that "the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds into twenty-one and twenty-two-year-olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings." Lofty ideals indeed. But when was that purpose last pursued, much less realized?

Looking at Harvard's own history, Lewis sees the curriculum losing its moorings during Charles William Eliot's presidency, which began in 1869. In 1903 Harvard's own William James decried "the Ph.D. octopus," the emerging obsession with credentials, and soon "scholars trumped teachers" (in Larry Cuban's phrase). Despite Lewis' affection for Harvard's famous "Red Book" of 1945 and high regard for recent presidents such as Derek Bok, his story is that Harvard's interest in undergraduate education has been fading for many decades.

It's easiest to blame the faculty. "A university," the poet John Ciardi said pithily, "is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students." Lewis sometimes yields to this temptation, but does go beyond it to detail how external forces, most notably competition and consumerism, drive today's university -- even, perhaps especially, one as rich as Harvard.

Perched upon its $25 billion endowment, Harvard eyes its rivals warily and tries to keep its customers (they used to be called "students") happy. In today's "market-model university," its leaders view educational and ethical issues from grade inflation to intercollegiate athletics to "date rape" primarily as public relations problems. What matters most to them is research, and the money and prestige it brings.

In some ways, Lewis' is merely the latest jeremiad along the lines of Page Smith's Killing the Spirit (1990) or Bill Readings's The University in Ruins (1996). What makes it interesting is its grounding in Harvard's history: over the years, the "world's greatest university" has become the prisoner of its own resources, its institutional momentum controlled by social and economic forces beyond the control of Larry Summers or anybody else. But, of course, that won't stop other institutions from trying to emulate it.

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