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Examining the Crimson's civic slide

Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great UniversityForgot Education
By Harry R. Lewis
Public Affairs , 320 pp., $26

``Despite our confidence in our national greatness, the American tradition is both nebulous and surprisingly infertile," wrote Theodore Goff, a Yale junior, in January on his application to a seminar I teach there. Still waters run deep, thought I as I followed his soundings in civic-republican seas across the semester. I told Goff that his writing comes from depths he must plumb even if there's no market for the yield. A republic needs strong narratives as much as it needs laws. Finding them may be his calling.

But a college education can block their discovery, I realized , as Little, Brown canceled a $500,000, two-novel deal with Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore whose authorial voice, like her application to Harvard, had been packaged by pricey handlers. Today's Harvard is no more likely to help her find an inner moral compass than Tiffany & Co. is to improve its customers' morality. Students contemplate with self-recognition her fall from what one, in the Harvard Crimson, called ``the same rickety tower of meritocracy that so many of us built on our way to our Harvard admission."

Some even fret more about public perceptions of their Harvard investment than about what's right. It all recalls Ross Gregory Douthat's `` Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class," which opened with Christopher Lasch's apothegm, ``Meritocracy is a parody of democracy."

Now Harry Lewis, dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003, reminds us that before the old colleges morphed into international career factories and cultural gallerias for a global ruling class, they set civic standards for American democratic leaders such as Harvard's Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy, and Al Gore. To do that, they met pedagogical challenges that today's administrators and faculty don't even detect in one student's quiet civic passion or another's busy emptiness.

The Harvard Lewis shows us in ``Excellence Without a Soul" is tone-deaf to the American Republic, whose liberties it relies on yet whose virtues it no longer nurtures. It has forsaken such pedagogical heavy lifting for market come-ons and a falsely compensatory moralism about sexism, racism, and ``jock culture " -- ``proxies for misgivings about deeper values." The college no longer turns freshmen into adults who can recognize and take responsibilty for hard moral choices: ``T he Enlightenment ideal of human liberty and the philosophy embodied in American democracy barely exist in the current Harvard curriculum."

Harvard's assumption that ``students are free agents and . . . should study what they wish" drains its ``long-term commitment to the welfare of students and the society they actually serve," he writes. Even administrators with ``perspective on deep and enduring problems" have left or been forced out of ``the new retail-store university .' "

Lewis's chapters on controversies he faced as dean apply civic-republican standards to what he considers conservatives' misplaced moralism about grading and liberals' promulgation of campus definitions of rape -- which only make women seem more helpless -- and their snobbish over-regulation of athletics, in which, he insists, students at least learn to lose cleanly and to find themselves by dedicating themselves to team efforts.

You expect Lewis's villain to be Lawrence Summers, who forced him out after tussles over internationalization, grade inflation, and curricular balance. He does blame Summers for turning liberal education into a game of money, power, and public relations. But he adds that Summers only ``played the role cast for him by the large forces shaping research universities today, which are the very forces that led the [Harvard] Corporation to think he was the man for the job."

Lewis sometimes sounds tired and annoyed after standing up to the arrogant consumer sovereignty of success-obsessed Harvard parents, only to be undercut by a president promising them just what they think they're buying. The bitter irony, he says, is that while elite universities' ``wealth and their desirability have put them in the best position to press back against the forces that have compromised the education they offer, they have instead drifted complacently along."

You wonder why Ivies don't stop cooperating with US News & World Report rankings, which might liberate everyone from their empty thrall, in which, as one blogger at the Harvard Independent website lamented, `` `lucritas' might be more accurate as a motto than `veritas.' "

It would be better to impose serious core curricular requirements on students than to offer ``what they myopically claim to want," Lewis writes, admitting that more teaching takes time from scholarship, but the faculty needs to `` develop a shared sense of educational responsibility for its undergraduates."

Summers bullied professors as if they were employees, Lewis claims, prompting him to counter that they're shareholders; but more properly they're peers of a realm that governs itself free of market riptides. Fortunately former president Derek Bok, a dedicated educator whose book ``Universities in the Marketplace" warned of such riptides in 2003, returns next month to help the faculty rise to its true calling.

Ultimately, Lewis writes, only the Board of Overseers and Corporation can decide that Harvard, no less than my student at Yale, must reclaim a vast inner terrain from bad developers. The high cost of renewing its ancestors' worth might be a great national investment .

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, holds a doctorate in education from Harvard and was a Shorenstein Center fellow there in 1998.

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