Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

More higher ed stuff

Vincent J. Cannato reviews this book on Harvard, which probably ought to be read in conjunction with Ross Douthat’s Privilege, about which I blogged here.

The conclusion of the new book seems to be that Harvard is solipsistic, standing for nothing other than itself:

The core of this book, though, is a defense of the idea that universities should be about something. What makes an educated person? Unfortunately, too many professors and administrators, if they ever bother to think about it, would have difficulty answering the question beyond the pabulum found in most university brochures.


So how does Harvard define an educated person? A Harvard education, the university states, "must provide a broad introduction to the knowledge needed in an increasingly global and connected, yet simultaneously diverse and fragmented world." Mr. Lewis, rightfully dismissive, notes that the school never actually says what kind of knowledge is "needed." The words are meaningless blather, he says, proving that "Harvard no longer knows what a good education is."


Such institutional incoherence has consequences. In his sharpest criticism, Mr. Lewis charges that Harvard now ceases to think of itself as an American institution with any obligation to educate students about liberal democratic ideals. As the school increasingly focuses on "global competency," the U.S. is "rarely mentioned in anything written recently about Harvard’s plans for undergraduate education." In the absence of agreement on common values or a core curriculum, anything goes. Echoing Allan Bloom’s critique of relativism, Mr. Lewis writes that at Harvard "all knowledge is equally valued as long as a Harvard professor is teaching it."

I’ve written before about the vacuousness of Harvard’s educational "ideals," which, I fear, will, er, inspire imitators across the country.

I’ve also written about the thinness of moral community on our college campuses, which (I fear) reflects but also informs the society at large.

All of this leads me back to commencement addresses. I think that commencement speakers should be chosen carefully, because they are supposed to embody the characteristics the college or university honors. I think that the argument made by those who objected to Condoleezza Rice as a commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient should be taken seriously. The university should stand for something, and why not "the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions" and "humanistic values"? (I know, I know: let’s spell it out, rather than relying on shorthand; and let’s avoid overused and vacuous words like "values.") This ought to be the subject of a serious discussion, before the commencement speaker is chosen, not the subject of a subsequent protest (outside the bounds of university procedure, with no likelihood of actually influencing the decision and every likelihood of simply enabling political posturing).

While I disagree with those off campus who protested Secretary Rice’s presence, they’re just doing what Americans are entitled to do. On campus, however, the decision has been made, the arguments have been conducted. It’s time to be a graceful and respectful host, recognizing that this is not the time to flaunt one’s opinions.

Bottom line: let’s have serious discussions of the good life everywhere on college campuses. If we have them, we’ll likely make better decisions, not only about who to invite to speak at commencement (not that I object to the invitations extended by BC and New School University), but also about how we should conduct ourselves as citizens of these United States.

Discussions - 6 Comments

I thought my recent letter to Harvard might be relevant here. The presidential search committee sent a letter to all alumni asking for input on their search. Here is what I wrote:

To the Presidential Search Committee:

I fear you will only regard these remarks as a problem to be managed ratherthan something to think about. Nevertheless, here goes.

The persecution and hounding out of office of Larry Summers was an unmitigated catastrophe for Harvard. I’ve heard all the points about Summers’ isolated management style, flip remarks, etc. All irrelevant. Summers was done in because he challenged the most profound sorts of intellectual decay that are rotting out Harvard as well as many other universities — racial and gender pandering and discrimination, anti-Semitism pretending to be anti-Zionism, grade inflation, fear of intellectual diversity, and the star system of a preening intelligentsia masquerading as intellectuals.

Your challenge now is to clean up the battlefield, which is as ugly with bodies strewn about as the field outside Dunker Church, Antietam, the day after the big battle. You must begin by actively and openly seeking a rebel who will be hired specifically and clearly to move the Summers agenda along even faster than Summers did — and with no likelihood of any Jimmy Swaggert apologetics. Enough of decent men being paraded through the streets of Cambridge wearing dunce caps!

You will not have even a chance of winning me back to the alma mater I have loved until this MINIMAL program has been launched. As for suggestions for president, here are a few:

Ward Connerly
Harvey Mansfield
Tommy Franks
Condolezza Rice
Alan Dershowitz

Needless to say, I regard these recommendations as both serious and impossible — a good definition of the "tragic," wouldn’t you say?

Regards,

Jonathan Burack
Class of ’64
624 Patterson St.
Stoughton, WI 53589

To Jonathan Burack:

I, sir, would be honored to buy you a beer or two the next time I am in Stoughton, WI, (this July, if Stoughton is anywhere near Oshkosh) or you are in Albuquerque. Great letter, deserving of the widest dissemination!

Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that the people who objected to Rice as commencement speaker understand Catholic values to mean appeasement and endless spending on the poor. If a Catholic college chose only speakers who would seriously address Catholic values, fair enough. But I don’t think that’s what the anti-Rice objectors had in mind. They’re just political hacks who like wearing dog collars, literal or metaphorical. They don’t deserve to be dignified as genuine Catholic voices.

Interesting that the link provided here for the anti-Rice "argument" leads directly to Michael Moore’s website, where it is posted. I think this hate-spewing, anti-American bigot knows who his friends are.

Three huzzahs for Mr. Burack. Fine letter, which they will ignore.

Does Harvard offer a major in hyperbole?

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