Harvard's crisis of standards

Doubts about the security of the status of one of America’s leading universities, Harvard, have recently been aired in various publications. An article in The New Republic went so far as to suggest that the academic behemoth may soon become the General Motors of higher education.1 The occasion for these criticisms was the startling resignation earlier this year of Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers. His five year tenure was the shortest for a Harvard president since Cornelius Felton’s two year term from 1860-1862. Felton’s excuse was death. Summers’s is less straightforward, and in it many saw the signs of a crisis at Harvard.

The resignation was brought about by an open revolt among the professors of the faculty of arts and sciences. There was much speculation about the reasons for their toppling of Summers. Columns and editorials abounded with explanations and attendant criticisms: Summers had a tactless and condescending style of leadership; there is an atmosphere of stifling political correctness at Harvard; the professors are absurdly resistant to authority and much needed change. There’s not much point in sifting through these various explanations; there is an element of truth to each, but they are mostly irrelevant when it comes to Harvard’s standing. Besides, the underlying reason for Summers’s resignation was that he was simply not qualified to bring about the change that Harvard most needed — that is, the introduction of a least a modest sense of direction at its college.

An important thing to understand about Harvard is that it is first of all a research university, and the reputation of a research university depends, understandably, on the research of its professors. Harvard, as it happens, is the pre-eminent research university in the world. It is old (it was founded in 1636, before there was a United States of America), prestigious (its various faculties are all considered to be among the best in the world), and wealthy (it has a $26 billion dollar endowment). It is not necessary to catalogue here the university’s many achievements--the past and present Nobel Laureates on the faculty (43), the U.S. presidents who were alumni (7), the collection of books (the largest university library in the world), and so forth. A small business has been made of ranking universities according to various metrics, and Harvard has been ranked quite well. The university attracts excellent professors, who in turn do excellent research, which shores up Harvard’s reputation. Once a university is so well established as Harvard, it is not difficult for it to preserve its good reputation. Even so, Harvard has done exceptionally well at that too.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Harvard, and it seems unlikely that, in a century’s time, it will be anything other than a premier university. However, there is something fundamentally wrong with undergraduate education at Harvard: the university has little idea what to do with its undergraduates. There is a widespread but largely unarticulated belief that undergraduates are meant to be doing something other than preparing just for professional work or for post-graduate studies. This something has traditionally been called a liberal education; it is the idea that undergraduates should struggle toward an appreciation for the great accomplishments of the past and the great attempts made at making sense of human existence. In some respects, Harvard clings to this idea; it does not, for instance, offer majors in professional fields, say accounting or finance. Yet neither does it encourage its students to aim for an education.

I don’t intend to propose what such a course of study would consist of. It is supposedly what a college is meant to offer its students. Harvard does not. Professors are supposedly the ones able to guide students through the library of antiquity. Harvard’s do not. The university does not aim to give its undergraduates a liberal education. In fact, it does not aim to give them much of anything, except the opportunity to take more or less whichever courses they please (and professors happen to be offering). As things are, a student can graduate from Harvard not having read one single great book of Western civilisation and without having taken even a single course in mathematics. There is what Harvard calls its “core curriculum”, but the numerous courses in each of its various divisions are of such diversity, and often of such narrowness, as to make a mockery of the title — it is a core curriculum with neither a core to impart nor a course to follow.

John Harvard in the snowA main reason for this failing is the sort of professor Harvard aims to hire. Research universities look for professors who are experts in a particular area. Whether a brilliant physics professor, for instance, is able to teach physics well has little to do with whether he is hired. And whether he is a good teacher or not, it would be exceptional for this professor to look forward to teaching an introductory physics course — never mind a physics course aimed at students who do not plan on majoring in physics. These professors are perfect for ensuring that Harvard remains a top research university — they do impressive research and publish their impressive findings, and they are helpful to graduate students and undergraduates looking for advanced courses in a specific area. But they are in many ways antithetical to the liberal education of undergraduates. In the uncommon instance where a professor teaches a course that is conducive to such an end, it is accidental.

None of this is to say that an undergraduate could not piece together a course of study that would pass as a liberal education. With so many first rate students at Harvard, it would take more than inept administrators and narrow-minded professors to ensure that they graduate uneducated. Certainly some do get an excellent education, but many, even most, do not. And there is not that essential general assumption that students should be aiming at this goal. Thus it is a small minority that tries, and a smaller one that succeeds. The goal of receiving a liberal education is a difficult one to maintain if it is not widely held, never mind if it is in no way facilitated or encouraged.

The result of all this is that academic pursuits are often far from the primary concern of many Harvard students. Students need good grades, for getting a job or for getting into a professional school. Professors, in a reaction of sympathy and disdain — and just plain apathy — obligingly correspond. A good grade is no rare bird at Harvard. This frees up students to follow whatever intramural interests they might have — interests which they often see as more essential to their development than what they learn in classes. And we end up with what Summers referred to as Camp Harvard.

Widener Library, the world's largest university librarySummers saw that Harvard College needed reform. He named this one of his priorities in his inaugural address. His intention was to make the academic experience more central to undergraduate life, and in 2002 he began a curricular review. Unfortunately, he had little idea what this reform should be, and his little idea was not a good one. He was an economist — and a tactless one at that — asked to do the work of a visionary scholar with the subtle touch of a sensitive administrator. He lamented that students snicker at their peers who do not know their Shakespeare, but hardly blink an eye at those not quite sure what exactly is a gene. This is not the case, and would that it were so. Students do not suffer from a neglect of biology, but from a scepticism that there is much of anything that must be learned from thinkers of the past. Predictably, Summers’s review has faltered, and in his absence it will progress even less, if that be possible. His abrasive efforts at making the Harvard experience a more sobering affair earned him nothing but the ire of professors.

So what does Harvard do now? The safe bet is to do nothing. Leave professors alone, and students too. It is unlikely that parents and high school students will suddenly place any high premium on education — the benefits of a Harvard degree are so much more tangible. The few who do will find their preferences served elsewhere. And if this few were ever to become many, and if some prestigious university discovered a way to accommodate these desires, then Harvard could always offer the same, except better. When it comes to determining what counts as an education, the one thing it seems we should not look to Harvard for is leadership. How disconcerting, since this is what we expect from the university’s graduates.

Maximilian Pakaluk (Harvard ’05, magna cum laude in philosophy) is an associate editor at National Review Online.

(1) William J. Stuntz. "Future Shock". TNR Online. Feb 27, 2006.


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  • Maximilian Pakaluk