Carol Platt Liebau: The "Soulless" University

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The "Soulless" University

In today's Wall Street Journal, Professor Vincent J. Cannato observes that there is something wrong at America's university. He discusses former Harvard dean and current professor Henry Lewis' "Excellence Without a Soul," which argues that universities in general, and Harvard in particular, have "forgotten education." Lewis argues that Harvard

has lost, indeed willingly surrendered, its moral authority to shape the souls of its students. . . . Harvard articulates no ideals of what it means to be a good person.

And that's absolutely right. But there are two points worth noting:

(1) Given the morals and political proclivities of the Harvard faculty -- and of others at the nation's most elite secular universities, would you trust them to teach your child anything about what it means to be a "good person"?

(2) The adjective "secular" in the paragraph above is important. For the overwhelming majority of human beings, living as a "good person" is integrally connected with religious faith (and for the atheists, they are effectively "free riders" in a world still shaped by the religious beliefs of others, in practice if not in theory). And yet few places are as aggressively secular as the universities; religion is often seen as a superstition of the uneducated. It's virtually impossible to teach people how to be "good people," finally, at the core, without reference to religion.

When Harvard and other schools junked not only their religious heritage -- but, in large part, their respect for religion -- well, that's when they threw out their "moral authority."


Blogger wile e coyote said...

Harvard has not forgotten teaching, it simply does not care (I speak from personal experience.)

Harvard is first and foremost a research institution. Out of the thousands of very bright people it draws in, a handful are so gifted that they would achieve great things if all you did was open the library. All it takes are a dozen or so such people a year to maintain Harvard's brand.

I don't believe there was a glorious, devote yesterday in the life of these school. What has been lost is a collective commitment to (or belief in) the reasoned search for truth. Vanitas has replaced Veritas, to paraphrase the article from McCain's aide that appeared regarding McCain's reception by the New School.

9:28 AM  
Blogger wrabkin said...

The morals of the Harvard faculty? Compared to what, the morals of the leadership of the Republican party? Like serial adulterer Newt Gingrich? Compulsive gambler Bill Bennett? Dope fiend Rush Limbaugh? Or the strong moral fiber of the Catholic Church, which has spent the last 30 years covering up for priests who molest little boys?

But that's admittedly a trivial point -- the fact that those claiming moral superiority are actually sunk deep in sludge is nothing new in human nature.

What is truly sad is Carol claiming that it's virtually impossible to teach people how to be good people without reference to religion. Carol went to law school; I can't believe she never read philosophy. Maybe she just skipped over the entire 19th century and its debates over how to shape the world, choosing to stay in the 13th. But I would refer her to -- among many others -- Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and William Morris for long and serious debates about how to improve humanity and the human condition without relying on the Big Guy In The Sky.

Let me say, I'll refer her BACK to them. Because I do not believe she hasn't read, or read about, these philosophers.

Maybe Carol can consider them "free riders," since there was religion in the world at the time. But this lie that only the pious are good is as tiresome as it is demonstrably false. It works only for stupid people who choose ignorance.

Since that does not describe Carol, I wonder what kind of contempt she has for her readers. Does she just assume they're all morons who have never picked up a book that wasn't written by Ann Coulter?

9:55 AM  
Blogger Alan Kellogg said...

You are the third blogger (including me) to mention the problem with education today. And the third blogger (including me) to mention the spoiled brats in the Congress of the United States.

I must ask, do you think there's any chance Gerard over at American Digest will catch on to the fact we're reading his mind?

9:56 AM  

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