What colleges can learn from the brouhaha at Harvard
For all their variety, there may be a common theme to these scattershot criticisms, one to which even a determined leader like Summers might profitably pay some heed. Summers's vision for Harvard only accentuates an old struggle between what might be called the soul of great universities--that is, their grounding in humanistic search and questioning--and the modern tendency to transform such institutions into centers of technique and applied learning, citadels of technocracy. That tension is described remarkably similarly in two otherwise quite different books about Harvard, one by liberal journalist Richard Bradley and the other by an atypically conservative recent grad named Ross Douthat.
Each author casts a skeptical eye on a report on curriculum reform instigated by Summers and released last year, finding its general suggestions a mixture of the vague, the trite, and the uninspiring. In Harvard Rules, Bradley writes disparagingly of the report's vague call for more "interdisciplinary" science courses and quotes with approval the words of a Crimson writer who suggested that the report was "largely driven by the narrow-minded agenda of a university president who . . . seems intent on turning Harvard into his alma mater, MIT."
Unfair? Possibly. But listen to Douthat in his book, Privilege. He refers to Summers's oft-repeated claim that most students need, above all, a more rigorous science and mathematics education so they will know the "difference between a gene and a chromosome." But that claim, says Douthat, ignores the fact that the "sciences, broadly defined, dominate today's Harvard, and it's the conquering, calculating spirit of science that has driven the humanities into the shadows of theory, of postmodernism, of irrelevance." Summers's misdiagnosis, Douthat argues, results from "the vision of an economist and a man of the technocratic '90s who shares the prejudices of that age: toward the rule of the market, the importance of the quantifiable and the profitable, the ascendancy of science and technology."
Larry Summers can hardly be blamed for the contemporary crisis in liberal arts education, particularly the disarray into which the humanities have largely fallen during the past 40 years. In fact, the fury that he provokes from many of his faculty whenever he even approaches the normative inquiries that lie at the heart of the humanities--those damnably difficult questions of should and ought --shows just how hard it would be to take on that disarray. But that is one of the greatest challenges facing university presidents today. And unless Summers is willing to engage in yet another controversial debate, slings and arrows notwithstanding, his critics might be proved right in saying that his bold agenda merely sidesteps one of the deeper problems facing any university that aspires to remain true to its founding mission.
With Vicky Hallett and Alex Kingsbury