Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Harry Lewis's book, Excellence Without a Soul

Since my colleague Harry Lewis is kind enough to stop by and post comments from time to time, I would be remiss not to encourage everyone with an interest in the education of college students -- in the broad sense of whether universities are and how universities should be teaching students to become adults -- to pick up his book Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (also now available in paperback as well). I highly recommend the book, and plan to give it to my daughters to read when they're teenagers so they're better prepared for the college experience.

The book takes a stark look at the directions of modern college education, painting a picture of increasing directionlessness at the leading research universities, using Harvard and Harry's experience as Dean of Harvard college as a backdrop. Whether you agree with it or not -- and I have to admit I found a strong resonance with most of the issues in the book -- it is definite food for thought, well-reasoned and well-argued through and through.

There are two very small points of criticism I can make with the book. The first is that while the book sheds light on a number of challenging problems, it frustratingly offers little advice in the way of solutions. However, I think this was quite intentional. Indeed, one of the points in the book is that for many of these problems, what is needed isn't a "solution", but leadership, discussion, and the building of a consensus within the university.

The second nitpick is that one issue raised repeatedly in the book is the invasion of the consumer culture in education. Students pay a great deal for an education, particularly at private institutions, and they expect to get what they pay for; Harry argues forcefully that this trend is not good for the education of students. It would seem to me that this should be another compelling reason why Harvard shouldn't charge for tuition, as it might lessen the "I paid for this" attitude of many students (and parents), but perhaps Harry believes that even if there was no tuition, the consumer attitude would remain.


Anonymous said...

I read the chapter available on Amazon. Very disappointing (not to mention taking credit for the Gates-Papadimitriou paper).

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Oh, please, if you didn't like the part of the book that you saw, that's one thing -- to each his/her own. But in no way did Harry Lewis take credit for the Gates-Papadimitriou paper. He took credit for mentioning a form of the problem to the class; not at all what you imply or possibly even infer.