A Dean’s Exhortation: Stop Coddling, Harvard!

Former dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis loves to quote old documents about the purpose of liberal education and the meaning of intellectual experience. These are very boring phrases, but Mr. Lewis uses them often in Excellence Without a Soul.

The phrases mostly appear when Mr. Lewis is excerpting material he’s acquired from the Harvard Archives (and on eBay, as he revealed at a talk delivered at Harvard’s Memorial Church last month). They include presidential annual reports, speeches delivered by various Harvard leaders and working papers submitted to the faculty during one of the school’s periodic curricular reviews—documents that serve as the backbone to Mr. Lewis’ argument. Over the course of 268 dentist-office pages, he makes a plea for Harvard (and the rest of the higher-education community) to pull itself together and come up with a sentence or two to sum up its responsibility to students—and, generally speaking, its raison d’être.

We used to know, Mr. Lewis writes, but lately, our consumerist tendencies and our preoccupation with immediate success have made us forget. Harvard has given into students’ demands for total academic freedom—not by opening the curriculum in the manner of Brown University, where students can just take whatever they want, but by refusing to take a stand on what they expect from them. Instead of teaching, Harvard professors and administrators coddle, Mr. Lewis argues, pointing to the recent establishment of the “Fun Czar” position at University Hall and the ongoing construction of a student pub.

Many students, meanwhile, are graduating without learning anything Mr. Lewis considers important.

For the sake of keeping your attention, I’ll spare you examples of the kind of bureaucratic jargon Mr. Lewis favors. Suffice it to say that the task of translating such phrases as “the mere acquisition of information” into “learning,” and “the broad basis of understanding” into “competence,” is consistently left up to the reader.

It should be noted that Mr. Lewis turns out to be a master of free indirect discourse: His imitation of the tedious, empty language of the source material is uncanny. “The way to make the university experience more satisfying is to recognize and support its larger educational purpose.” Indeed.

As a rising Harvard senior, I’ve been receiving this kind of garbage in my e-mail inbox for the past three years, not least of all because of the stalled curricular review that started a year before I arrived.

Under Harvard’s current, soon-to-be-gutted curriculum, everyone is required to take a number of “Core” classes that are supposed to teach us how to think, respectively, like humanists, philosophers, mathematicians and scientists. Provided the Curricular Review resumes and sets out again on the same path—not a guarantee now that Harvard’s presidency is vacant—the Core, conceived in 1974, will soon be replaced. As Mr. Lewis points out in Excellence, course offerings have grown too esoteric, and students have started passing out of their history requirements by taking classes on the Japanese samurai and never learning a thing about European history.

We shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this, Mr. Lewis argues. He wants us to try harder and think deeper, but at the same time he realizes that “there is no better student body anywhere,” and that we’ll never be “inspired” to raise our game until Harvard presents us with a clear pedagogical agenda. The university can’t keep up this wishy-washy back-rubbing (“The next Harvard president must help the Faculty develop a shared sense of educational responsibility for its undergraduates”), because, as it stands, we the kids are just coasting, taking random classes until we pass “Go,” collect our $200 and buy apartments in Murray Hill.

“Will Harvard students of the future have any common knowledge, any shared educational experience, any particular point of view from which they will all have seen the products of civilization?” Mr. Lewis asks, referring to departing president Lawrence H. Summers’ 2001 inaugural address. Not unless parents and pedagogues buck up, stop giving in to the whims of children and take back the lectern. To this end, he advocates a brand of paternalism based on the old business of “self-reliance”: Adults are supposed to foster independence in children by telling them exactly what they should do, what books they should read, and what streets they should avoid at night so they don’t get raped. (See chapter seven, which bears the unfortunate title “Independence, Responsibility, Rape”). In one particularly troubling passage, Mr. Lewis suggests that Harvard’s tenure committee should make its decisions based on a candidate’s moral worth—quantified, in Mr. Lewis’s example, by the number of divorces he or she has under his belt—so as to infuse the faculty with more role models for the undergraduates to admire.

In short, Mr. Lewis wants to be Big Daddy to a campus full of children all hungrily pursuing various aspects of knowledge and absorbing diverse, rewarding experiences with a common foundation of excellence.

I doubt Mr. Lewis will ever find out whether his exhortations have had any effect. Listening to his winding abstractions—superficially and cloyingly attached to his actual observations as dean—one gets the sense that no Harvard student has ever been honest with him. (At one point he tells the story of a boy in his computer-science class who blamed his poor grades on a pregnancy.)

In his chapter on grade inflation, he claims that junior faculty members are compelled to give higher grades because tenure committees pay such close attention to the teaching evaluations that students hand in at the end of every semester. In fact, in my experience, most Harvard students don’t hate teachers who hand out tough grades—it’s the only thing many of us respect about some of them. Just about the only defensible cause championed by Harvey ( Manliness) Mansfield is his quest to end grade inflation.

Mr. Lewis, too, is right from time to time. For example: Some, maybe even many, Harvard students are not curious scholars. Some, maybe even many, professors would rather read than teach. And adolescents have been conditioned, by various socio-historical forces, to shirk responsibility at every opportunity.

Mr. Lewis’ global solution to these problems is ideology. He wants purpose and resolve—a charter full of 10-letter words and Big Ideas that would rally professors and inspire disillusioned students. In the book’s introduction, Mr. Lewis writes, “Presidents, professors, deans, and students have thought about these issues before and have had things to say—sometimes wiser words than those we hear today, if at other times even more absurd.”

That last clause probably refers to the homophobic, racist and bigoted policies enforced by Harvard presidents such as Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Actually, Excellence could have used more absurdity and less boring topic-sentence argumentation and hollow, impotent vocabulary. For a man so critical of others’ inability to think adventurously, Mr. Lewis has managed to produce a document that shows us precisely why most Harvard professors are so reluctant to get involved—or, as he might say, “engage” with curricular review.

To make the obvious joke, Excellence Without a Soul would be an excellent book if it hadn’t been written by a robot.

Leon Neyfakh (Harvard class of 2007) is majoring in history and literature.