March 7, 2006
Cathedrals and Faith
In the grand
scheme of things, the recent resignation of Harvard's president,
Lawrence Summers, was a small episode. But its implications are
large and reach beyond Harvard -- and well beyond the academic
said that we are living in the cathedrals of learning, without
the faith that built those cathedrals. We are also living in a
free society without the faith that built that society -- and
without the conviction and dedication needed to sustain it.
came first. Centuries ago, farmers and others scattered throughout
New England made whatever small contributions they could, whether
in money or in produce, to help build a little college in Cambridge,
University is renowned but it has lost the sense of dedication
that built it back in 1636. The faculty run the university, as
Lawrence Summers has painfully discovered, and they run it in
their own narrow self-interest.
A full professor
at Harvard gets no personal pay-off for teaching undergraduates.
That can be left to the junior faculty and graduate students.
Research is where the money and the prestige are.
wanted professors not only to teach undergraduates but to teach
introductory courses in a structured curriculum and to stop giving
out so many A's that 90 percent of the students graduate with
A's wholesale saves the faculty's time that would otherwise be
taken up by students wanting to know why they received B's, C's,
or D's. That time is now available for research, writing and other
things with a bigger personal pay-off for the faculty.
introductory courses in a structured curriculum can provide undergraduates
with a far better education than the current cafeteria style of
student choices among a hodgepodge of whatever courses happen
to be available. But teaching introductory courses in a structured
curriculum is also very time-consuming, which is why so few colleges
really have a curriculum any more.
It is far
easier to teach whatever narrow subject in which a professor is
already doing research. Thus in some colleges there may be a course
on the history of motion pictures but no course on the history
of Britain or Germany.
can graduate from some of the most prestigious colleges in the
land without a clue as to what the Second World War or the Cold
War was about. At Harvard, chances are nine out of ten that such
uninformed students can graduate with honors.
and no society can survive solely on the narrow self-interest
of each individual. Somebody has to sacrifice some of his own
interests for the greater good of the institution or society serving
some have to put their lives on the line, as fireman, policemen
and people in the military still do. But, for that, you have to
believe that the institution and the society are worthy of your
now been through at least two generations of constant denigration
of American society, two generations in which cheap glory could
be gained by flouting rules and mocking values.
Is it surprising
that we seem to have dwindling numbers of people willing to take
responsibility and make sacrifices to preserve the social framework
that makes our survival and advancement possible? Harvard is just
one small example.
a time when being at war meant accepting a great weight of responsibility,
even among politicians. After Wendell Willkie waged a tough presidential
election campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, winning
more votes than any Republican ever had before, nevertheless after
it was all over, he became FDR's personal envoy to Winston Churchill.
In the midst
of war today, we see former presidents and defeated presidential
candidates telling the world how wrong we are -- sometimes collecting
big bucks in foreign countries for doing so -- and members of
Congress playing demagogic party politics with national security.
have the cathedral of freedom but how long will it last without
2006 Creators Syndicate