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.Ive written before about the vacuousness of Harvards educational "ideals," which, I fear, will, er, inspire imitators across the country.
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 Harvards plans for undergraduate education." In the absence of agreement on common values or a core curriculum, anything goes. Echoing Allan Blooms critique of relativism, Mr. Lewis writes that at Harvard "all knowledge is equally valued as long as a Harvard professor is teaching it."
Ive 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: lets spell it out, rather than relying on shorthand; and lets 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 Rices presence, theyre just doing what Americans are entitled to do. On campus, however, the decision has been made, the arguments have been conducted. Its time to be a graceful and respectful host, recognizing that this is not the time to flaunt ones opinions.
Bottom line: lets have serious discussions of the good life everywhere on college campuses. If we have them, well 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.