The Decline and Fall of Education

The Decline and Fall of Education

Harvard’s crisis of standards
Does the world�s most prestigious university deserve its stellar reputation? A recent graduate has his doubts.

Wow!  A great article that clearly discerns the crisis in higher education at America’s premier institution of higher learning. Which crisis incidentally is not unique to Harvard, but is in fact nearly universal in our colleges and universities.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Harvard, and it seems unlikely that, in a century�s time, it will be anything other than a premier university. However, there is something fundamentally wrong with undergraduate education at Harvard: the university has little idea what to do with its undergraduates. There is a widespread but largely unarticulated belief that undergraduates are meant to be doing something other than preparing just for professional work or for post-graduate studies. This something has traditionally been called a liberal education; it is the idea that undergraduates should struggle toward an appreciation for the great accomplishments of the past and the great attempts made at making sense of human existence. In some respects, Harvard clings to this idea; it does not, for instance, offer majors in professional fields, say accounting or finance. Yet neither does it encourage its students to aim for an education.

I don�t intend to propose what such a course of study would consist of. It is supposedly what a college is meant to offer its students. Harvard does not. Professors are supposedly the ones able to guide students through the library of antiquity. Harvard�s do not. The university does not aim to give its undergraduates a liberal education. In fact, it does not aim to give them much of anything, except the opportunity to take more or less whichever courses they please (and professors happen to be offering). As things are, a student can graduate from Harvard not having read one single great book of Western civilisation and without having taken even a single course in mathematics. There is what Harvard calls its �core curriculum�, but the numerous courses in each of its various divisions are of such diversity, and often of such narrowness, as to make a mockery of the title � it is a core curriculum with neither a core to impart nor a course to follow.

He goes on to say one could piece together a good liberal education at Harvard, but that few students do because none are encouraged to do so. His proposed solution: surprising! Go read it yourself.

The saddest thing to me is that Harvard has become the model that so many other colleges strive to follow. During my time at Boston College I felt that BC was always looking over its shoulder to see what Harvard was up to, striving to become just like the big boy across the river. Sadly, I think BC is succeeding quite nicely.

I was blessed to go to The University of Dallas, a school with a true core curriculum and a real understanding of what a liberal education should be. Sadly, forces there are at work to errode that curriculum and that understanding, to make UD into another BC/Harvard clone. I hope and pray that they fail and the university maintains its distinctive character, but I fear the author of hte article is correct in his final assessment: it is unlikely that suddenly high school students and parents will begin to see the value of a real liberal education.

Thanks to Father Peregrinator at the Canterbury Tales blog for the link.

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