Excellence without a Soul

I highly recommend Excellence without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, by Harry Lewis. Though nominally about Harvard, it’s really about a much larger domain, including not only elite universities but also elite public high schools such as Weston High School. A well-known computer science professor who recently resigned his position as Dean of Harvard College to return to full-time teaching, Lewis offers a searing indictment of how our leading academic institutions treat their “customers.”

You might expect a lot about Larry Summers in this book, especially since the commonly accepted rumor is that the reason Lewis went back to teaching was that Summers pushed him out as dean. Maybe so, maybe not. There certainly is some interesting material on Summers here, especially the analysis that discounts the common wisdom that attributes the former president’s unpopularity to his style and his lack of social skills (Lewis claims that it was actually due to incompetence). But on the whole there is no significant emphasis on Larry Summers. And you might expect a lot of criticism of grade inflation, but actually Lewis shows through convincing statistics that grade inflation at Harvard is no more severe than it ever was, and that it was definitely not caused by affirmative action and sympathy for draftees in the 1970s. (In fact, that turns out to be the one decade when grade inflation was actually flat!) So neither of these topics dominates the book, which actually emphasizes cultural and academic issues, such as treating students and their parents as customers.

I’ll write in much greater detail later on, but for now all I can say is that this book should be read by the entire Weston faculty and by anyone else who cares about high standards at our top high schools and colleges.

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning, Weston