The View From 1776
Monday, March 12, 2007
Mr. Ignatius, Meet Mr. Bok
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius thinks that American colleges are just swell. Former Harvard president Derek Bok disagrees.
David Ignatius’s opinion piece was published in today’s Wall Street Journal. Its opening paragraphs are the following:
By DAVID IGNATIUS
The Washington Post
March 12, 2007
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—When people think about American power in the world, they usually list the country’s forbidding arsenal of bombers, aircraft carriers and troops. Yet America’s greatest strategic asset these days might not be its guns, but its universities.
Higher education is arguably the last area in which the United States dominates the world. We’re discovering the limits of military power in Iraq, the pressures of economic competition from China and India, the vulnerability of our financial markets to sudden changes abroad. But in this globalized world, American universities remain the gold standard.
Mr. Ignatius’s home venue, The Washington Post, is not the most radically liberal of the major newspapers, but it’s up there in the rankings.
Yale University historian Donald Kagan in an article he wrote for Commentary Magazine quotes former president of Harvard University Derek Bok and dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis, along with the late Allan Bloom, to opposite effect.
Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning or acquired the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy. And those are only some of the problems.
In a recently published book on the decline of Harvard, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, [Lewis] cites the excuse offered by one member of the faculty committee: the committee thought the best thing was to put a row of empty bottles up and see how the faculty wanted to fill them. Lewis responds, acidly:
The empty bottles could be filled with anything so long as the right department was offering it. . . . But there is absolutely nothing that Harvard can expect students will know after they take three science or three humanities courses freely chosen from across the entire course catalog. The proposed general-education requirement gives up entirely on the idea of shared knowledge, shared values, even shared aspirations. In the absence of any pronouncement that anything is more important than anything else for Harvard students to know, Harvard is declaring that one can be an educated person in the 21st century without knowing anything about genomes, chromosomes, or Shakespeare.
Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) suggests the underlying malady:
As they see it, discourse on campus is seriously inhibited by the orthodoxies of political correctness. Affirmative action has undermined the integrity of faculty hiring. The great canonical masterpieces have been downgraded to make room for lesser works whose principal virtue seems to be that they were authored by women, African Americans, or third-world writers. The very ideals of truth and objectivity, along with conventional judgments of quality, are thought to be endangered by attacks from deconstructionists, feminists, Marxists, and other literary theorists who deny that such goals are even possible.