SPEAKER 1: Great. Thank you. We have the word from our engineers that we have gone line. We expect to have a very robust internet audience today. But I must say I am very grateful and quite impressed at the showing, given the snows of Cornell that are falling out there today and expect to keep falling.
So thank you so much for making the effort to come out and be here in person to meet our guest, Harry Lewis, who is the Gordon McKay Professor at Harvard College. He was dean of Harvard College, professor of computer science. And all of those accolades are critical and important. This afternoon he will be speaking over in B 17 at 4:15 more to issues of privacy and technology. And I'm very grateful to see many people, including chairman of computer science with us today.
This morning we are going to have a conversation about undergraduate education, in the broadest sense, reflecting the work of Professor Lewis in his book Excellent Without a Soul. And before I say anything more about it, I will introduce him and let him say all of those things.
I do want to invite our internet audience to please send in questions as you can on the interface that we are using for our streaming today. And Matt Klein from Cornell Information Technologies will be feeding those questions to Professor Lewis, and certainly people here who have made the effort through our snows to attend. I welcome you warmly to have this be a conversation. And that's why we're sitting here, somewhat informally before you, rather than podium and PowerPoint and so forth. We would love to really talk and engage on this question of the meaning of our undergraduate education. Professor Lewis, welcome.
HARRY LEWIS: Thank you. And thanks everybody for being here. I mean, if this was a Harvard audience I would thank them for making it here at 9:30 in the morning as opposed to through the snow.
It's like, nobody shows up at anything-- faculty, students, anything-- at 9:30 in the morning. So thank you for being here.
SPEAKER 1: Well, thank you for making the effort also. Why don't we just begin with a general question. What do you mean excellence of the soul-- or, without a soul?
HARRY LEWIS: Yeah. Without a soul. So, yes. This was a risky title for various reasons while I was writing. The book, of which this is the title, is really a series of issues about various things that I confronted during the eight years I spent as dean of the College of Harvard.
So I was a computer science professor for most of my career, and during eight of them I moved into the administration building and took responsibility for some aspects of undergraduate education. Not the curriculum actually, but student life and student affairs and residential life and all that and, obviously, in the mix on cooperation-- cooperating with people on curricular issues.
So I came out of it with a series of particular issues that I talk about in the book. I talk about grading. I talk about intercollegiate athletics and various other things. But the big thing that I wanted to say, which is really what got me to the title, was that we seem to be an institution that was optimized-- the university is a system, and the system had evolved in such a way-- not entirely by design, although you can find some design decisions along the way that got us there-- to really produce extraordinary excellence.
And I don't mean that Harvard is any different from any of the other top universities in this regard, because we are all competing with each other on the same standards of excellence actually, nationally. And we were doing a extraordinarily good job as research institutions, and that trickled down into our graduate and undergraduate programs, and were graduating undergraduate students-- which was really my main focus of attention more than the graduate program-- we were graduating undergraduate students who came in extremely gifted and ambitious and went out extremely expert and continuing to win prizes, and got socialized nicely in various ways and were actually generally pretty happy with their undergraduate experience. But to some degree all seemed to be operating in parallel universes without anything in common with which they could define what the significance of their education was. There was no kind sense that the university had set a direction for them that was of any significance to how they were going to lead their lives later on. Except for by giving them the skills and the expertise.
So these were people who were graduating people who had a great deal of excellence, but there was no common soul. So this what I sort of ascribe to the university, the possibility of having a soul.
And I contrasted it with some acknowledged nostalgia for a particular moment in Harvard history where I actually thought, you know, the faculty kind of got it together across disciplines and had a vision of something that was important to civilization and to the future, that they all kind of agreed on-- at least for a few decades. So there's a lot in my thinking in my book about what goes around comes around. And universities have been-- the same old problems keep coming up over and over again, and people keep tripping over them as though they've never seen them before.
I was telling Tracy this morning I found a wonderful reference from one of Harvard's presidents in the turn of the 20th century being subject to orders from the governance board to "increase educational efficiency" and to "have the faculty start doing the work that the assistants were used to doing," and so on. And so I said, well, there's only a century for that wheel to turn around again.
But anyway, the moment that I was thinking-- where I actually thought my institution had a soul was a moment when I became engaged with the responsibility of universities to educate people who would not allow civilization to perish. Which, after the Second World War, I think, my university and a number of others I know actually thought that the near catastrophe that had happened-- you know, they might have some control over whether such a thing could ever happen again.
And I kind of felt this-- when I went into the voting booth in Massachusetts to vote for governor a couple of years ago I looked on the ballot, and I had this sudden recognition. There was a Green Party candidate, and a Libertarian candidate, and a Republican candidate and a Democratic candidate. And three out of the four had actually been through Harvard College during the years I had been teaching there. And I said, you know, if I don't like the choices here or if the electorate votes in somebody, who really do we have to blame for the fact that our political leaders are clueless about the way a representative democracy should work?
So I think that the-- so we actually, at that time, in the late '40s, early '50s-- and that had persisted into the '70s-- had a kind of common curriculum. Not a set of required courses, but a curriculum of which there was a thread that said, you know, we live in a free society. We can't take it for granted. People have to understand where the tensions and values are in being privileged to be in a democracy like that. And this is important. And whether you're going to be a math professor or you're going to be an electrical engineer or whether you're going to be a poet or whatever it is, there ought to be a little some part of your undergraduate education where you spend recognizing that and talking about it.
And that's gone. And it's gone, and we've had a couple of new general education programs and others. But it's gone not only from the curriculum, but it's gone from the discourse. You know? And it's not the only possible soul that you could have around which some sense of overall educational direction to an undergraduate education could be centered. It happens to be one, I think, is particularly important, as I witness the dysfunction of the American democracy. Which, I think, we're probably pretty broad consensus isn't working very well. And we all complain about our political leaders. And they all come from places like the Ivy League schools and so on. Right?
So who do we have to blame if we think the American democracy isn't working? So I particularly am attracted to this one. But it's not only possible soul of an undergraduate education. And we've lost it-- I will just say a few words more and then I'll let you ask another question or something. We've lost it for a number of reasons.
And the usual right-wing cranks will say it's because we're all communists, or it's because we're all selfish and self-centered and narcissistic in the way-- or you'll get the usual anti-intellectual stuff that gets thrown where people in universities are subject to jealousy and bitterness and so on. So it's just one more grievance that you have against universities.
I fundamentally have no grievances against universities. They're my entire life. They're my wife's life. They're my-- I think they're tremendously important to the future of America and the world, and they're doing a wonderful job at a particular thing.
But then my sense is that we have so optimized the system by which faculty are trained and hired, and then measures of expertise by which departments rise and fall and so on towards objectives of scholarly excellence and research productivity and-- which, again, I want to stress could not be more important to the future of the country and the world. We are the engines of prosperity, ultimately. But the system has been so optimized along those dimensions that it's very hard to get even a conversation going or hard to get leadership to stand up and say in any way that anyone will take seriously, in any way that provides an incentive or a reward for the faculty to think about these larger issues, about the future of society as part of the responsibility to undergraduate education.
So I think we lost our capacity to orate, talk, discuss and come to a consensus around these things because it's just been squeezed out in this process of optimizing the system in other dimensions.
SPEAKER 1: Yes, sir?
AUDIENCE: One of the issues that--
HARRY LEWIS: You're a veteran of that curriculum that I discussed, right?
AUDIENCE: Yes, I am.
SPEAKER 1: Former dean of faculty, Charlie Walcott. I think this will work if I carry it, is that correct? Show me a sign in the booth there.
AUDIENCE: OK. I'll hang on to it. My question is, we are going through a middle-stage accreditation review at the moment. That is, preparing all the paperwork. And one of the major issues that we've been asked to contemplate is that assessment. How do we assess, fundamentally, the value that the university has provided to students? What's your view of that? And how do you measure what is really important as opposed to the easy things to measure?
It's easy to measure whether they can spell and write a simple sentence. It's easy to measure whether they know the kings of England, as it were. But what's hard, it seems to me, is all the things that are important, that you were just discussing.
HARRY LEWIS: Yes. It's very hard. And I'm afraid if we tried to assess them we wouldn't like what we would learn. We-- so let me begin with my lighthearted answer, which I was going to get before you got [? grave ?] there. [? It's ?] that we know that our students are learning more and more every year because more and more of them get A's every year than the year before.
AUDIENCE: Yes, well, that's another issue.
HARRY LEWIS: What finer form of assessment do you need than that? There are these tests of kind of civic literacy that try to figure out whether people know which is the first and which is the Fourth Amendment, or not what their numbers are, but [? have ?] [? any ?] concept of what they say.
And places like yours and ours-- I'm assuming yous. I know about ours-- don't do very well. There are these metrics where you can actually establish that students know that four years of university education at an Ivy League school actually has a negative impact on people's understanding of these things. They either forgot what they learned or they unlearn them. That's a survey by some group which I can't remember, and which may have a political agenda. That's why you always have to be careful with these metrics. It looked reasonably fair to me, but since I can't remember the name or the statistics I won't say any more.
One of the scarier-- and this is actual scholarship-- reports that I learned was that undergraduates in universities-- this is not a Harvard study. This is some broader group-- become less moral and less ethical from before until after they've taken the undergraduate economics course. OK? So Ec 1 or whatever you call it here, presumably because it makes people more dispassionate about certain kinds of what they had previously considered to be moral judgments, their scores on certain ethical scales decline.
I worry-- I guess my answer to the question is-- I've blathered a little bit trying to process the question. You've been asked to assess how you're doing at the things that you say you're doing, right?
AUDIENCE: Well, one of the things you have to determine first is, of course what you think you're doing.
HARRY LEWIS: Exactly. So as long as you don't say you're doing any of this kind of civic education and responsibility for being leaders in society and so on and instead are simply training people to be engineers and economists, the assessment problem goes away by virtue of the fact that you haven't set those as objectives.
If you set them as objectives-- have you set them as objectives? Are they there anywhere below the level of the mission statement? I mean, we have some of that in kind of our mission statement.
AUDIENCE: No, no. We're working on this. And there are certain objectives that you can, I think, probably are generally agreeable. But to me they are relatively low-level objectives. That's why it seems to me your comment about the soul is so much more important. And that's the toughest possible thing to measure, it seems to me.
HARRY LEWIS: I mean, again, it's a flippant answer but it's meant in a serious vein. Any test you can design, students will figure out how to [? game. ?] Because we all have really smart students, and the way they got into our kind of institution is, to some degree, by learning how to [? game tests ?] and various things. Right? So it's very hard to-- it still might be a thing worth doing. But requirements and tests and so on-- that part of the system has also been optimized to achieve [? that ?] [? in. ?]
The way you really figure out whether you've been successful is by talking to people on their 50th reunions or their 25th reunions. Now, that's kind of a rather slow feedback loop into your educational process. You will have undergone seven curricular reviews between the time you taught them and the time you're able to determine whether it was successful.
But I actually do think alumni feedback-- maybe even on a five or 10 year time frame-- has given people enough distance from the courses they hated the most to be able to acknowledge that those courses may have done some good. You know?
One of my complaints about the way of the world is that we rely so much on immediate student feedback. I love students. I'm interested in hearing what they have to say. But I thought as a mechanism for designing our structures-- it was a very poor measure. I think that student evaluations of faculty-- at least the way we do them-- it doesn't matter how well you write the questions. The answers are always correlated with whether you like the professor or not. And very often whether you like the professor-- it turns out when you do psychometric studies of student course evaluations-- to be largely associated with measures of cheerfulness and optimism. It had nothing to do with the course itself.
Do you do student course evaluations here? Do you know about the [? Abadi ?] Rosenthal study? OK. So I can tell you a little more about it if you're curious, but we've got another question here.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. I'd like to go back to your opening comments and challenge them a little bit because, while I agree that universities 100, 200 years ago that were established were these general maintenance of social values and continuation of liberty and freedom all these other things. With the foundation of the land grant system and the foundation of Cornell, which has been described as a new American University, that changed a lot.
And certainly with the development of science and technology and engineering and sort of the real prominence this is playing in our futures, the university has taken on new roles clearly. And parts of the university are now very well-connected with these new social roles so that there is-- if you translate soul into purpose, the universities now have a dual purpose, in a sense, to continue these ancient traditions that you describe, but also these new needs of society which are increasingly being called upon to save American civilization in terms of the future.
And so I think our challenges are different than you describe them. They're both covering the liberal arts and ethics and values, but also applying these in terms of the new technologies that we're asked to be developing for the future of society.
HARRY LEWIS: I don't disagree with that. It's just I just see the first one getting lost. You think it's there? [INTERPOSING VOICES]
You think it's in reasonable equipoise in-between these two kinds of objectives?
AUDIENCE: I don't think all parts of-- if you're trying to sort of save the humanities, for example-- as there are discussions about this-- it's not going to save all of humanities. But any decision we're making about our future in terms of sustaining ourselves has a value base to it. So you have to confront that in any sort of reasonable discourse. It's not just technology. It's how that's being applied. The inequalities exist in who gains access to this. So that there are a whole range of social values that are built into these kinds of decisions.
HARRY LEWIS: Yeah. I actually think the engineering schools are, in some ways, actually in better shape on these issues than many of what used to be the humanistic disciplines are. I mean, I think it's a somewhat weird development. Because you used to think of learning the classics as the place where you would learn-- where people might get some sense of virtue. Right?
But actually it's in engineering. I think is more likely to come up in engineering where you're doing this really interesting research on tissue engineering or something like that, and you can actually go over to the hospital and imagine the difference it can make if you can achieve it.
So I think part of this is definitely disciplinary-based. I'm actually going to save a little of my fire on this for my talk this afternoon, because I'm going to talk about it there in that context.
But another piece of the puzzle, I think-- let me just throw out another potentially-controversial proposition on this. I don't know what the mix is in this audience. I see a couple of engineers. It may be biased that way.
But one of my theses is that what happened after the Second World War when-- as you quite-correctly reported-- you're right. It goes back to the founding Cornell and the moral act and all the rest of that. And my place has a particular troubled, ambiguous history about doing these stuff where you got your hands dirty. So we have particular issues at Harvard that I've had to live with my whole life.
But what happened after the Second World War, when the real money started to come into science and engineering, and there was an enlightened recognition that the economic future of America was going to be driven-- as well as the national security-- would be driven by scientific progress.
It got coupled later-- starting, I think, in the '60s-- with the social changes that were happening in America. And universities' recognition of the social biases in their faculty hiring and student admissions processes was that the-- and it really actually goes a little bit to Charlie's question-- was that universities started to develop objective measures of quality for their faculty. Right?
Which was easy to do in the sciences. So we started ranking people according to their scholarly output and trying to shift the kind of old-boy, "hire your graduate student when you retire" kind of way of appointing faculty, which tended to produce pretty severe social biases, to some more-objective way that would both improve quality and allow previously-discriminated groups to get a greater foothold in the academy.
And one of my theses is that that system, which worked perfectly in science and engineering, worked far-less perfectly in the humanities where the standards of quality are less objective. The most important thing may not be the thing that changes everybody's mind from one day to the next. And where there is a, I think, has inherently some more conservative structure-- not politically conservative, but in terms of preservation of tradition-- is more what they have historically done.
So they humanists now get judged according to these quality metrics rather than on, well, what will the students remember in the value sphere 10 or 20 or 30 years, of what they actually got out of reading Shakespeare or the classics or whatever it is.
And so the humanities faculty are kind of caught in an unhappy bind. They probably went into these fields because they were studying something essential about what it means to be human. That's why they're called the humanities after all. They're not called literary critics or whatever it is. But actually they're not being judged in the promotion and tenure process on their humanistic values. They're being judged on whether they can produce books the way the scientists produce research papers. Anyway--
SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: Hi. I liked your-- I thought your answer was right on in terms of assessment in that it starts with what you're saying.
HARRY LEWIS: Would you mind, actually, introducing yourself? I'm curious where my questions are coming from.
AUDIENCE: Matthew Herreman, the Department of Natural Resources. And yet I'm having a little hard time engaging with this because it seems like there's several definitions of soul that are being used. And you've related it to civic-mindedness, civic engagement, which is maybe a narrow piece of it. But then we're also sort of talking about the liberal arts education.
So I wondered if you could juxtapose your broader ideas of soul against the philosophy of liberal arts education? Because it occurs to me, has anybody ever assessed a liberal arts education and whether that's delivered what it's ideally meant to deliver?
HARRY LEWIS: So it's another assessment. You're asking me another assessment question about liberal arts education. I don't have a different answer than I gave to Charlie. I think it's something that's hard to measure in the short run.
About whether I'm changing definitions or not-- my point was-- well, I've got one notion of soul which is pretty clear in my mind. You know, that curriculum that endured at Harvard for 30 years or so and was inspired by a particular historical event, and which I believe actually produced the consensus in the faculty. Can you imagine getting a consensus in the faculty about anything like that today? It's very hard to imagine.
In anything except a religious institution. By the way, I should just say, that's another definition of soul. I think the Catholic colleges are having their own troubles figuring out what they're about in secular societies. But I think if we had a representative from a religious institution here they would probably offer their own notion of what the soul of their education was supposed to be or had been or something. It's not mine. I'm not a religious person. And the soul in my title is in no way intended to suggest that.
So those are a couple of examples. And I'm I'm not suggesting that every institution has to find that ideal-- that motivating ideal in the same place. But I would say there's at least two pretty clear examples.
Now critics, including the people who classify themselves as "critical scholars," skeptics about all of these kind of idealistic visions of what social institutions have defined themselves to be, will dismiss my idealism as a nostalgic view of something that never was.
In fact, a few of us had dinner last night and I-- but I acknowledge that, unhappy as it makes me, I have to respect the principle author of Harvard's most recent General Education Report, [? Lou ?] [? Menand, ?] an English professor at Harvard, a wonderful writer and thinker who describes what I remember as this commitment to democratic ideals as a motivating force in undergraduate education as an attempt to create a benign national ideology. So that's another take on a far less-- but my--
So let me-- again, having blathered for a moment, let me get back to your question. You wanted me to say something about liberal education or liberal arts education--
HARRY LEWIS: No. It's not-- no. It's not distant from what a classical liberal education is supposed to do. A classical liberal education, in my view, is actually supposed to be liberating. I think it's not actually a coincidence that that's the root term in there.
And that what it's supposed to do-- and it's designed around, I believe, the fact that it's being presented to people at a particular developmental stage, their late adolescence, on their way to adulthood, more at the end than they were at the beginning of their college career, and they're-- in places like ours anyway-- largely away from their families for the first time-- not so much since the invention of the cell phone, but nonetheless.
And we have an opportunity to expose them to and make them think about the way people in the past have thought about what it meant to be human and a member of a human society. So that's my kind of interpretation of what a liberal education means today. I mean, there's the trivium and the quadrivium and do all that.
But it's actually less about-- it generates, to some degree-- gets redefined, implemented-- certainly has at my place. I don't know what liberal arts college outside a university context would say about this. But in my place what we tend to define a liberal arts education as meaning is, an education where students get exposed to the various academic disciplines of the scholarly experts that are distributed around the faculty.
And with that kind of objective, than it quickly degenerating into a turf day. You know? Everybody-- the scientists get a third and the social sciences get a third, and the humanities get a third, except we're now an eighth so who gets the extra one-eighth or two-eighths or so on and so forth. So it very quickly degenerates from trying to think about these larger ideals of what you're trying to accomplish into just making sure that everybody gets represented who's in a specialty.
But I think fundamentally the real objective is very much in line with what we used to think liberal arts education meant.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] Cornelia [? Farnam ?] from the College of Veterinary Medicine. I wonder if you could comment a bit on how much what students' expectations are when they enter drives what we do?
HARRY LEWIS: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: And I too am a product of a liberal arts education at a red and white institution, but on the West Coast at about the same time as you were. And I would think it would be fair to say that I entered there because my parents believed in a liberal education. I became a veterinarian, thinking of my professional goals as quite separate from-- not separate, but at a different time point. And I think that students nowadays aren't looking to that kind of adding on to a liberal education, that they may be entering with much more professional goals in mind.
And I am also interested in your comments of, is that appropriate and realistic for today's young students both in terms of the economics of the education as well as their whole approach to what their careers are going to be?
HARRY LEWIS: Yeah. It's a great question. It's a great question because it hits on a point that I wanted, actually, to talk about. One of my complaints-- I have lots of complaints. But one of my complaints is that this tension gets defined as a tension between liberal and professional studies.
And in my [? institute-- ?] I think it's a I don't know enough about Cornell. But at Harvard there's only one professional undergraduate degree program, and it's in engineering. And we don't have a separate admissions process. We choose-- our engineering students come from the same admissions pool as everybody else.
And there is a tension in the air in my place about pre-professionalism, that students who have pre-medical expectations are going to be the death of us and so on. And "us" meaning, often, people who are over on the more humanistic side of the discipline. And we certainly believe that you can major in anything and go on and make a career later on. And there's plenty of evidence for that, and that law schools always choose people who studied the classics and all the rest of that.
What's changed-- and which I don't think we did enough to self-assess over the last several decades when we have been going on through various somewhat-wrenching changes in our undergraduate affairs-- what's changed is that our student body has changed drastically.
And changed drastically in two related ways. One is, as you say, everybody has become more economically-motivated. Particularly the most ambitious people. And we tend to get increasingly ambitious students. We all do.
But the other is that it's perfectly reasonable that our student body is more economically-motivated than they used to be, because on average they have less money than they used to. Right? I've been so frustrated in some of my conversations with my colleagues who complain about and rue and-- you know, Harvard's getting all of these people and all they want to do is make money. You know, it's not like it was 30 years ago when we were all-- we just wanted to write poetry. And I said, if you already have money writing poetry is kind of a reasonable objective. If you don't have money you probably want to make some before you start thinking about writing poetry.
But that increases the burden on us. It does two things. First of all, we've got to get past this notion that somehow professional and liberal education are in some opposition. And that, as I say, that the examples that we talked about, about engineering, certainly that human values are actually run through the engineering-- there's certain parts of the engineering curriculum in some-- in some fields more in greater evidence than they do in some of what we label the humanistic disciplines. So we have to get past that.
But those who teach political science and philosophy and all the rest of that have got to recognize that, as we've all done more outreach to students who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds socio-economically and parts of the country that we never use to get students from, that we're getting students who are not as well-educated in high school as the students of the past were. Right? Which is a good thing. It's a fine thing that we now take the valedictorian from a school that we never would have taken anybody from 20 years ago.
But guess what? We can't expect that person to understand how humanistic thinkers or political thinkers or the legal scholars and so on have thought about these things. Because that wasn't part of their high school experience. So I think it actually increased-- I think that the forces that you've described, quite accurately-- the rising expectations of families that their children become employable and all the rest of that-- I don't see anything wrong with any of that.
I mean, as I say, I'm a member of an engineering school. Nothing wrong. But it's not incompatible with having a kind of institutional philosophy that supports some kind of curriculum or program or thread running through the college to tell people there are these other important things that you should learn as part of that education as well.
But you're absolutely right about where those forces are. [INAUDIBLE] OK.
AUDIENCE: Since I have the mic.
HARRY LEWIS: Yeah. Hi.
AUDIENCE: I'm Kathleen [? Gemmill ?] from arts and sciences here at Cornell. And I would just note that it is our engineering college that requires the greatest chunk of arts and sciences coursework for their students, so I think they share an appreciation.
HARRY LEWIS: Oh, is that right?
AUDIENCE: Yes. What I would take issue with, I think, is the notion that liberal arts are so targeted that the goal-- the mission of the liberal arts would be so targeted as to create a civilized populous. A central objective of the college is to expose students to the very different ways that one can define truth or develop factual information. You do this differently in the sciences than you do in the social sciences, and there are quite different ways of coming to an understanding of how things are through studying the humanities.
So what we might want to assess is, have we adequately exposed students to those very different ways of understanding the world and our place in it. I don't know exactly where else I'm going to go with that, but--
HARRY LEWIS: Well, that's-- so I actually-- so that's a good question. What?
SPEAKER 1: I think that's a good question.
HARRY LEWIS: Yeah. It was a good question. We're agreed on that. Right? OK.
So now I'm going to say something disagreeable. OK?
You have just precisely described what happened in the transition from that old red book curriculum to what Harvard called the "core curriculum." Which wasn't a core curriculum, but was the curriculum that we adopted in the late '70s, which defined itself exactly as you have described, that the purpose of the general education program in my institution was to expose students to different ways of knowing, different ways of apprehending knowledge, different modes of inquiry in a kind of neutral way. That we're all good, whether we're mathematicians or sociologists or so on, and everybody ought to see how we think of that.
And I, with all due respect, refers to that as the narcissistic motivation for educational requirement, which is the one where the faculty all congratulate themselves on how important their disciplines are, which are all equally important for students to apprehend. And when they are going to see how the different approaches to knowledge are, they just happen to be the different approaches to knowledge of the various people who happen to be teaching in that institution at that moment in time.
Now, what happened-- the effect of that way of viewing things was that we thought it was equally good for students to take courses in areas where-- well, there's two things that happened. One was-- one on the subject matter oddity and one on the sort of methodological-- which is kind of a way of describing what this approach is, the [? knowledge ?] ways of apprehending things took us. So let me say [? one. ?]
What happened was, on the approaches to knowledge side was that we had weird periods in minor cultures of odd moments in time as reasonable things for people to take in order to become exposed, because they got to see the historian of that weird culture at that weird moment in time in action, and therefore presumably got apprehended. But they couldn't learn anything about constitutional law because that was taught by the law faculty, which was a professional thing and was not part of the liberal arts education.
When we managed to somehow sneak in-- somebody on the side would teach a course on the development of the Constitution or something, you'd get like 1,000 students taking it. Right? So we got very weird subject matter disparities as a result of that.
But that's OK. Because the philosophy was not to teach people subject matter. It was to teach people ways of apprehending knowledge and how the different academic disciplines do that. And the trouble there was, we never assessed-- and I have a great deal of skepticism, having known a lot of Harvard students who were exposed-- I think that's the term you used-- to these various disciplinary approaches by that structure.
We never made any attempt to assess whether anybody thought any differently about anything after taking a course in, you know, dinosaur cladograms than they were before they took the course on dinosaur cladograms where they got to see the paleontologist in action talking about how you classify dinosaurs. OK?
So I think in practice what that happened to, as attractive as the notion of exposure to approaches to knowledge might be, was that a lot of students took a lot of courses from which they didn't learn very much that stuck with them for very long. That was our experience.
Now, maybe you've been able to do it better than we did. Which certainly we couldn't have done it much worse in some ways. So I would certainly respect that as a possibility. But we never even tried to make the assessment as to whether we had actually opened anybody's mind to a different way of viewing the world by making the mathematicians take the humanities course and the humanists take the math course.
AUDIENCE: Except that, presumably, to succeed in those courses the students have to have demonstrated an ability to think in the way that someone in that discipline approaches acquiring knowledge, approaches testing and--
HARRY LEWIS: Well, they had to succeed in satisfying the professor in that course, that they had been able to answer the questions the way the professor in that course wanted them answered. And that Professor was a professor in that discipline. So, in that narrow sense, your answer is tautologically correct. But whether there was any-- whether anything stuck to their ribs of larger significance a few years later, I think, is-- I'm somewhat skeptical.
AUDIENCE: One has to hope they weren't just being asked to regurgitate facts in any of those Harvard courses.
HARRY LEWIS: Well, yeah. Well, you know-- I had a couple-- a couple of my children went through one of these courses, so--
SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE] carrying the microphone, Harry, is it the failure to make connections between the disciplines to understand something--
HARRY LEWIS: I actually think this is a way with my slap at [? Lou ?] [? Menand's ?] dismissal of the red book, the general education in a free society. This is one thing he actually got right in his redefinition of what the educational program should be, which is that the new one explicitly talks about not what I describe as the narcissistic-- it's about me. It's about the way I, the sociology professor, understand the world that you're here to learn. But it's specifically instead about the connection to your later life. Right?
The new program is supposed to teach people who are not going to be disciplinary specialists in our various disciplines why the hell they should care about what they've learned and in what parts of their non-Harvard life, their post-graduate life, they're-- they don't use the word "citizens," but I'm going to use the word "citizens." The various subjects have significance. So I think that's a constructive improvement.
AUDIENCE: Marcia [? Emsheavley ?] in the Department of Horticulture. In our program we have been really inspired by the work of Rachel Kessler, who has studied the soul of adolescents, the spiritual development of adolescents, and actually offers a framework that we are enamored with that looks at how to foster soul in young people.
And in the beginning you were laying out the problem, that is that young people are extremely expert but with no common soul, and you talked about scholarly excellence and research productivity but at a cost. So sort of turning that around and looking at what is soul fostering, I'm just curious as to what are the systems or the approaches or the frameworks that you've come across that have been really inspiring to you that you've been really impressed with?
HARRY LEWIS: Well, I should read her work. I'm prepared to learn something. I don't have a lot of good models to go on. And I hope everybody has figured out by now I'm a complete amateur in this field. I wasn't trained to think or talk about any of this stuff, but I've done a certain amount of reading and reasoning about it, and worrying.
I think another thread-- another reason why it matters-- just let me say this-- is that I worry-- and again, I don't have a lot of expertise. I'm not a historian of higher education. I'm not even a broadly-knowledgeable scholar of higher education as it exists today. And so I always run the risk, when I give these talks, of being excessively-focused on the failures of my own institution, about which I know too much, and appreciate too little the successes of other institutions, about which I know too little. So I want to be clear about that.
But there are phenomena in American society that we all recognize, that Harvard can't be solely responsible for. So I think there's got to be some blame that has to be shared to a larger degree. And one is just the anti-intellectualism and ignorance of the American population in general. You know? The fact that there are more people who believe in astrology than in evolution, the general contempt that political figures have for any kind of intellectual argument or even the possibility of any kind of intellectual idealism, and so on.
And I worry whether the experience of students-- maybe not in your program, which is great that you've taken so seriously the writings of people that I don't even know--
AUDIENCE: Oh, and I really want to clarify we're just inspired by this. We're striving toward it. We haven't got the answers. I really want to make that clear.
HARRY LEWIS: Without that you can't do anything. So it's good to get [? it ?] [? good ?] inspire. That the people who were graduating may have their own anti-intellectual streak because of the weirdness of the way they perceive what we think is important in the world. You know? They walk out and say, well, you know, string theory. You know? She's really into string theory. That's cool. But, you know, I'm out of here now. And you'd like them to come away with some greater respect for why we think what we do is important than I think they sometimes get.
HARRY LEWIS: That was not a reference to Lisa. Lisa [? Randall ?] is terrific-- I've suggested by saying string theory--
SPEAKER 1: Thank you, Marcia, for introducing another thinking that we will all look into. And as I'm carrying the microphone now I'll ask the question, do you think that some of these problems are certainly not a failure of our moral fiber in the society or even in higher education, but maybe something to do with the historical moment that you said framed the original good picture of a generation ago?
And then I had one other thought, and hand the phone to you, and that is whether the 19th-century disciplinary model has so imposed itself on undergraduate education as to kind of create this disciplinary hermetic vacuum. Here you go.
HARRY LEWIS: Do you want me to answer those questions or--
You don't want me to answer them. All right.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I was an undergraduate. Now I'm a master's student. Now computer science as well. My question is, maybe, is it possible to teach any of these things when-- I think what matters is where the consequences for students' actions.
And from my high school I know the valedictorian or the top students in the class are very often the ones who cheated, and they ended up at these institutions. And the ones who graduate at the top of the class very often are the ones who, again, cheat in class. And they're the ones who on these objective measures will end up at these-- the CEO [? of the next ?] company. If you look at this-- Enron. You look at-- they completely falsified the resume.
So I think it's a matter of-- maybe you should think about more incentives and consequences for actions. You can teach in a humanities class what's the right thing to do, but at the end of the day I think students know very well what they have to write for the term paper to get an A, but they know very well who's going to get a job when they graduate, and that's a matter of-- I think these are what drives the long-term.
Whereas maybe in a small society people are going to-- you cheat or something, you might be ostracized. Whereas I know students if they get caught it's, OK, we'll put a black mark in your file. The employers will not see it. Nobody's going to know. You get a stamp.
HARRY LEWIS: Right. It's a wonderful-- here's a solution to the problem. Right. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] You graduate from most prestigious institution and nobody even knows about it. And then when the students who might follow the rules, they know very well they're not going to come out ahead. That's just [INAUDIBLE].
HARRY LEWIS: Let me begin with something that may not be reassuring to you given that you seem to be on your way to the top pretty well. You're a graduate student in computer science at Cornell. But--
AUDIENCE: [? I'm doing ?] [? very well. ?]
HARRY LEWIS: OK.
So the good news is that there was actually a study-- somebody should do this study over again. This is kind of a 25-year-old study or something like that-- of who was successful coming out of Harvard. And now you have to define success, of course. But this was a school thesis. And so I think that success was defined on the basis of self-reported satisfaction with one's own success. There was a, I think, family income was a piece of it, but only a third. And the third was community involvement and community leadership, or some combination of things like that. They did not over-weight the narrow professional success.
And the result was that among people who graduated from Harvard-- and again, I'll bet you'd get the same result here. There's nothing distinctive about Harvard, but there is something distinctive, I suspect-- as I'll explain in a moment-- about the top universities-- that success was inversely correlated with GPA on graduation.
The people at the top of their class wound up-- like me, as a computer science professor, going around complaining about the world all the time. Right? And the people at the bottom of the class were Steve Ballmer. Or maybe he's not a good example. But these were-- because he's going to be the titan of industry.
But these were the people who succeed. I think of Steve because Steve was a very extracurricularly-involved guy when he was a high school student and a [INAUDIBLE]. Don't want to suggest that I've got a view about Microsoft's ethics or anything like that [INAUDIBLE] personally. But that the people who had been athletes and had been heavily involved in extracurriculars and his grades hadn't done that well actually did better in life and were happier with their life in the long run.
And the reason was that, in a competitive admissions process where everybody who gets in is from the top 5% of the American population or something, the people at the bottom of the top 5% are there because of other qualities that they had, whereas the people at the top of the top 5% are principally there because they did all the things that you described people as doing. Which actually, in the long run, neither makes them a lot of money nor makes them very happy. So that was the thesis.
OK. So that was, again, somewhat of a flip answer. But you do hit on another thing which I have fairly strong feelings. I actually devote two chapters in the book to the grading problem, because it seems to me that the grade inflation issue is noxious because of the way that it increases the competitive emphasis on getting grades as the true metric of achievement in college.
And particularly in the absence of any other incentive and reward system for developing any of these other values, except insofar as they can be measured by your getting an A-minus rather than a B-plus in your ethics course, students will make decisions that are designed to optimize their grade point average. Because, after all, that's the one thing-- at the end of senior year they print the list and then you can show who was first and who was second, or at least who graduated suma and who graduated magna. And so people optimized that.
And that's profoundly anti-educational because it means any elective available to the student-- if you have an elective slot in your program and your principal objective is to optimize your GPA, you choose the course from which you'll learn the least and know the most. Right? You know? In the absence of any other reason for [? it. ?]
Now, we hope that students will have some inner ambition and curiosity that will drive them to push against that impulse. But insofar as we overvalue the GPA, we've created a system-- to go back to the phrase that I [? started-- ?] which can best be optimized by learning the least. And there's something profoundly wrong with that.
And one of the things you can do against that is to talk a lot about-- and in some serious way in an advising context and I-don't-know-what-all-else-- somehow get students to recognize that there are other things they should be trying to do with their education other than learning physics if you're a physics majors and optimizing their GPA. There has to be some other soul thing out there that the institution teaches as important. But, again, it's very hard to-- I don't see that conversation happening.
SPEAKER 1: And I'm going to come around with the microphone. This one's on, so I'm going to ask you to, if you would, tell a story that is in your book that struck me, Harry, and is related to your point. If you could pass it up to this gentleman here, that would be great. Thank you.
In law school I learned that you don't want to make law from hard cases.
HARRY LEWIS: Right.
SPEAKER 1: So, very briefly, the story that really struck me was the one where the young man apparently had cheated when he was asked to re-do a test. And the professor had had the foresight to copy the test before he handed it-- does that ring the bell.
HARRY LEWIS: Yeah. It does. It really happened.
SPEAKER 1: Yeah. Really quickly. Because it points out also how parents have become over-involved in some ways. And I don't want to take away from the next question, but it's revealing.
HARRY LEWIS: So this professor had been stung by people taking their blue books home after they'd been graded and coming back and saying, you missed my answer, it was there. So he had taken the precaution of photocopying every blue book. Maybe everybody does it now. I don't know. But he'd done it.
And, sure enough, he gives the exam and this kid-- excuse me-- student comes in with his blue book and says, you missed my answer. And the professor says, a-ha! But I have the photocopy, and that answer wasn't there before. And this happened not in a direct conversation, but over a period of days as the process unfolded.
And the kid came back with testimony from his father, who was an engineer-- this was a physics problem set-- that he had dropped the kid at some place over spring break and waited in the car for him and noticed the kid's blue book and saw the test and saw that the kid had the wrong answer, and had worked out the math on the right answer and written it in the blue book, and it was the father's scribbles in the kid's corrected blue book, and that he shouldn't be thrown out for cheating because it was the father's fault, not the son's for turning in the false answer.
So I'd say, OK. You know, with that kind of parental support for moral education-- you know?
It's a hard job.
AUDIENCE: I'm David Williamson. I'm part of the school of operations research here and also involved in the information science program, and one of the people who know you first and foremost for [? Lewis ?] [INAUDIBLE] and only your book afterwards.
The question I have is not about the current state of the university or the past but maybe about its future. I'm just curious on your thoughts about what's the future of the modern research university? And, I guess, one thought that prompts the question is sort of the rising costs associated with research universities. And there's some saying by someone that thinks it can't go on forever. It'll eventually stop. But what's the future of a research university.
HARRY LEWIS: Yeah. That's a very troubling question. That's a very troubling question because-- and as a society we ought to be a lot more worried about that than these questions that I'm raising about what research universities-- what universities and colleges should be doing. Because the gentleman's point about the importance of the discoveries that get made in universities to the future of society, our economic future is very real.
I have some hope-- and certainly the current administration may give us some reason to hope that there's a social and political recognition of the importance of that role that universities play. Research funding is up and not down.
But I also-- yesterday morning I got up to read-- I read these stories of Brandeis closing down whole programs and departments. Very hard thing to do. You know? They tried to close down their art museum. They didn't do it very well, but there's no perfect way to do everything.
So I don't have an answer for you. I think you're right. The current-- as a national model for higher education, the current economic model does not appear, to me, to be sustainable.
SPEAKER 1: What are its main [INAUDIBLE] How would you make [INAUDIBLE]
HARRY LEWIS: Well, I think we're just talking about the cost structure and who's paying the bills. I mean, the bills are ultimately, at this point, being paid by the taxpayers, families who can afford it and, in places like ours at least, alumni. But there's only-- we can't keep shifting the burden onto parents.
I mean, we-- I don't know what the financial aide structure is at Cornell, but at Harvard we've been fortunate, although we've made lots of other sacrifices over the last year [? and have ?] been able to keep the financial aid program involved. But that's not a model that can work for the country. Because there just isn't enough money coming out for that to be possible. It's a good question. Sorry I don't have a better answer.
SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE] OK. So [? why ?] don't we have your question, your question, and we'll probably be right up to our time of 11:00. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. I'm Pedro Perez. I teach undergraduate business management. And maybe I should tell you a little bit about my education so that I frame the question. I'm a chemical engineer, master's in industrial, MBA. I have a master's in Western philosophy and a doctorate in business.
From a point of view this is a liberal arts education. What I find out, and what is really troubling me, is that more and more it is impossible to talk from a common frame to my students. In other words, it is relatively easy to talk to my students in terms of their goals, in terms of what they have to do to achieve their goals, and in terms of the common knowledge that we are trying to achieve.
But it is almost impossible to find common references, say, using a Shakespeare quote to illustrate the point, or make a value judgment-- literally a value judgment on, for example, pricing strategies. What does this mean for society? The students simply don't get it anymore.
HARRY LEWIS: Try sports metaphors.
AUDIENCE: I have tried. It's not [? easy either. ?]
HARRY LEWIS: At least in America they usually work. You're absolutely right. And, as I said in an answer to one of the questions I [? had over here, ?] there is a part of that that's very good. Right? There's a part of that's very good because some of the common frame that we used to be able to assume came because-- as a beneficial byproduct of the fact that we had a narrow selection process from American society. Right? You were able to assume that people knew the same things because they were all the same to some degree. I mean, this is an exaggeration.
So it increases the institutional burden [INAUDIBLE]. It increases the institutional burden to help provide that common frame. But the system has been optimized for specialization, not for giving that common frame to undergraduates. That's, I think, a fair description of the problem. And thank you for putting it that way.
SPEAKER 1: Thank you very much. We have a question from our internet audience and, Matt, we'll end with you.
AUDIENCE: This question comes from the teaching, learning, and technology department at Stony Brook University. And it refers back to when you were outlining some of the difficulties when looking at evaluations that students are giving. And the questioner wants to know, "do you think that one of the fundamental problems is that we don't teach the students to be good evaluators? What about having a student course on what good teaching is and how to provide constructive feedback?"
HARRY LEWIS: That's a very fair-minded question. I wonder if it came from a student or from a faculty member. But--
HARRY LEWIS: Staff. Yeah. No. I don't think that's the-- I don't think that's the right solution to the problem. I think it's a-- this is a psychometric problem. We should talk to people from psychology who do psychometrics all the time. And it's very hard to get a fair assessment out of a student survey like this, for reasons that are not going to be solved by teaching students how to be fair evaluators.
In any case, that's a waste of their time. We shouldn't be-- that's not an important-- if we've got a little more time to teach students something, that isn't something I would spend a lot of time teaching students how to do. I just think that this mode of evaluating faculty is-- and, as I say, there's plenty of research to support this. You know, it just won't work.
SPEAKER 1: But it is a good question, though. It does reflect how much assessment has become part of our thinking, that we would want to--
HARRY LEWIS: Right. Assessment has become part of our thinking. And things that we can provide that will provide reasonable proxies for assessment, even though they actually don't assess anything become very important to institutional structures. That's absolutely true.
SPEAKER 1: Well, I want to thank, again, everyone for coming out on a very snowy day, and also especially Professor Lewis for coming to Cornell to engage us in these important questions.
HARRY LEWIS: I really enjoyed the conversation.
SPEAKER 1: I'll also remind people that at 4:15 in B-17 of Upson Hall Professor Lewis will be speaking on technology and privacy.
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The fundamental purpose of undergraduate education is to turn young people into responsible citizens, believes Harry Lewis.
Lewis, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Harvard College Professor at Harvard University, discusses whether modern concepts of assessment and customer satisfaction, and students' instrumental approach toward learning, have displaced our teaching mission.
He spoke at Cornell on Feb. 25, 2010 as part of the University Computer Policy and Law Program speaker series.