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BOOK REVIEW: Harvard Prof, Former Dean Indicts Higher Education – Focusing on His Own School – in ‘Excellence Without A Soul’

Posted by kinchendavid on September 5, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV  – Talk about biting the hand that feeds you: Harry R. Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College and the guy who taught Bill Gates about computers, not only bites it, he just about swallows it whole in “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education” (PublicAffairs, 305 pages, $26.00).

This is a scorched-earth look at Harvard – and by extension – most of the other so-called prestigious research universities in the nation that confirms my suspicions that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke are great for graduate students but not so hot for kids right out of high school. A better choice might be a career-oriented college that has a good placement record – Mountain State University in Beckley, WV jumps to mind – or a liberal arts college where the classes are taught by teachers rather than researchers of the publish-or-perish variety, not unlike the former teachers’ college that I attended in Illinois from 1957 to 1961.

Many high school graduates would probably be better off in a junior college or an out-and-out trade school: A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the answer to beyond-high school education.

Lewis is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, where a geeky kid from Seattle named Bill Gates took his course in applied mathematics. Gates solved a problem posed by the young Lewis, in only his second year of teaching: “I posed a simple problem neither I nor anyone else I knew how to solve, just to show the class how problems that look easy can be hard. Gates came to my office a few days later with a solution, which he later published in a math journal…. “ Of course, as just everyone knows, Gates dropped out of Harvard, which didn’t affect the income stream of the richest man in the world.

Noting that the cost of a year at just about any private college – not even of the reputation of Harvard or Yale or Princeton – costs about the median income of an American family – about $40,000, the disorganized nature of undergraduate teaching at many colleges and universities is a terrific waste of money and time – both of which are impossible to make up.

In 268 pages – not counting the notes and the index – Lewis covers an amazing amount of terrain, starting with the purpose of Harvard and other universities in the beginning. It was simple: to turn out Protestant ministers. There were no law schools; prospective lawyers “read” law as an apprentice; I read somewhere that our most distinguished Chief Justice of the U.S., John Marshall, had all of six weeks of legal training. Doctors learned on the job, too; that’s why it’s called a practice! Engineers went to West Point, etc.

Lewis deals with the stormy tenure of Larry Summers, Clinton’s last treasury secretary and a distinguished economist. Summers served as Harvard’s 27th president from 2001 to June 30, 2006, when he was succeeded by former president Derek Bok, an interim appointment. Summers, Lewis says, has an abrasive approach that was sure to get him in trouble – and it did – with a variety of people including women, blacks and environmentalists. Still, Harvard recognizes talent with it sees it and the 51-year-old Summers will return in a year or so as one of Harvard’s select University Professors.

Lewis covers so much ground in his book that it’s difficult to review. It’s definitely a 12-gauge shotgun approach, rather than a sniper rifle one.

Take grade inflation, please! In Chapter 5, he discusses the issue of grade inflation, where everybody seems to deserve an A or at least a B, the better to qualify for a graduate school slot. The head-note to the chapter quotes an 1894 Harvard faculty report on the subject: “Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily – Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity.”

A 2001 Boston Globe story reported that a whopping 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors in June 2001. I don’t know the percentage of honors grads at my state university in Illinois when I graduated (with honors) in June 1961, but it certainly wasn’t more than 20 percent, if that.

Lewis notes that teachers and students Yale, Cornell and other Ivies were derisive in their scorn of Harvard when the story came out. “Nothing I saw during my eight years as dean brought Harvard as much scorn as the grades and honors it awards,” he writes. But Lewis ends up defending grade inflation, arguing that the best students in the nation – the world, even – make their way to Cambridge, Mass., so it’s logical they would get A’s and B’s.

Part of the problem is that universities – even the Harvards and the Yales and Cornells and Stanfords – have to sell themselves to the best and brightest high school and prep school graduates. And they do, thanks to magazines like U.S. News & World Report which ranks universities every August, Lewis notes on Page 10 of his work.

Lewis seems to advocate a return to a core curriculum that existed 60 or more years ago in Harvard College – the undergraduate division of Harvard University. This amounts to putting the toothpaste back in the tube, some – the present writer included – would argue. In those days, Harvard didn’t admit women as full-scale students – they went to Radcliffe – and few minorities were present. There was even a quota on Jews, as Jerome Karabel described in “The Chosen,” a 2005 book from Houghton Mifflin that I reviewed on this site. Here’s a link to my Nov. 28, 2005 review of Karabel’s monumental book:

http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/051125-kinchen-chosen.html

In 2002, Summers called for a review of the college’s curriculum and the professors went to work, labored mightly and brought forth a mouse, Lewis believes. The review continues, but it’s inconclusive. It’s difficult to argue with success and places like Harvard are considered successful in the minds of just about every consumer of higher education.

I enjoyed the book, which is thankfully written in plain English, and think it will be of use to anyone looking at higher education in America. Still, I was left with the impression that even Lewis, a teacher of 30 years experience, isn’t all that certain about what needs to be done to improve universities. Maybe there’s no solution. But, as the publisher notes on the dust jacket: “The loss of purpose in America’s great colleges is not inconsequential. Harvard, Yale, Stanford – these drive American education, on which so much of our future depends.”

Publisher’s web site: http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com

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