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Harvard has been on my mind as I write, mainly because of two provocative new books that arrived by mail almost together. The first, by Harry R. Lewis, is Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education. Lewis holds a prestigious chair at Harvard, and was dean of Harvard College between 1995 and 2003.
Perhaps he became so deeply involved with undergraduate education at first because his specialty—computer science—is of so much interest to undergraduates. He taught Bill Gates, but it doesn’t seem that he needed to teach him very much.
Professor Lewis is so devastatingly frank that I wonder what his former colleagues are saying about his book. The problem with Harvard, he writes, is not with the range of courses offered, or even their quality. A Harvard student can take any number of courses from distinguished scholars, some of whom are even dedicated to teaching undergraduates as well as possible.
The problem is that Harvard has no vision of what an undergraduate education is for, beyond preparation for admission to graduate school. When the faculty last tried to reform the curriculum, they settled for an aimless plan that they hoped would pacify students while avoiding turf wars among themselves.
The college provides psychological counseling for the troubled, and does its best to protect its students from assault or rape, “but security and therapy are the limits of its ambitions. Harvard articulates no ideals about what it means to be a good person, as opposed to a well person.”
Here Lewis identifies an element that is missing in more places than Harvard College. What does it mean to be a good person, and why should anyone even want to be a good person, as opposed to a successful person? I wonder if Bill Gates ever thinks that Harvard might have failed him, or if he ever wishes that he had attended a college with more soul, if less prestige.
I doubt that anyone has been appointed to any major university professorship in my lifetime for writing a book on What It Means to Be a Good Person, and Why You Should Want to Be One. Harvard did have at least one world-famous philosopher in the 1970s, John Rawls, but he produced A Theory of Justice, not a theory of goodness. That book was a fine text for dissection in law schools, but of no use for teaching the young how they might learn to be good.
I once telephoned Rawls at his office to ask him where the ghostly characters in his famous “original position”—who are charged with -selecting the principles of justice on which a civil society could be established—might look for a principle of goodness. The great philosopher took my call and spoke to me very courteously, but to my main question could only reply that he hadn’t thought about it much and didn’t know the answer, except that it wasn’t religion.
Kelly Monroe Kullberg’s Finding God Beyond Harvard: The Quest for Veritas provides an equally critical but more hopeful description of the spiritual desert at Harvard. The charming Mrs. Kullberg never came close to being a Harvard professor or dean, but she seems to have had a powerful effect on the place by planting spiritual flowers, first at Harvard, and then in other academic deserts throughout the nation.
Her odyssey began at the Harvard Divinity School, of which it can be said, “If you can find God there, you can find him anywhere.” It is thrilling to read about how the Veritas movement began with virtually no institutional encouragement, and how it grew from a novel lecture series to a way of life, by way of some resourceful students who bravely insisted on putting their convictions to the test of university-wide scrutiny. I wish Harry Lewis had included a chapter about the Veritas movement, which seems to have done more to add a measure of soul to Harvard’s excellence than anything he does mention.
I can conclude that a student at Harvard or other large secular university does not need to experience college as a spiritually barren environment. The college authorities might not be able to provide spiritual nurture or any guide to goodness, but the vacuum can be filled to some extent by student societies, aided by dedicated Christian parachurch advisors who raise their own support.
Volunteer societies can’t change the overall situation much, however. It has always been the case that the Harvard student who is determined to grow up in the right direction, and who recognizes his need for mature guidance, can find a way to graduate not only with a good mind but also with a good character. On the other hand, protection from temptation is not provided, and it is easier to find bad companions than good ones.
For this reason, I urge readers of this magazine, especially those of college age, to consider a different educational model altogether. The sort of thing I am thinking of is exemplified by the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University. Located just south of Los Angeles, this school provides something new and exciting in Christian higher education.
The curriculum is a “great books” reading program with individual and small group tutorials, augmented by summer study trips to exotic haunts like Oxford and Berkeley. It is possible for students to combine the liberal arts program with a major in science or some other “practical” program, and Torrey students are compiling an enviable record of gaining admission to top graduate programs to pursue doctorates. The student atmosphere there is the most joyous and yet serious I have ever seen.
A similar school in the Catholic mold is Thomas Aquinas College, also located in southern California. Like Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, Aquinas College has a fine great books program and places an emphasis on character.
There are many other such schools dotted around the country, whose vision of education includes both goodness and excellence. They provide a great way for students to get the right start into adult life, and many bright high-schoolers and their parents may find it a smart move to turn down Harvard to go to one of them.