Thursday, June 12, 2003

Maybe more economists should be administrators 

The Commissioner of the Northern Alliance writes in the Weekly Standard about the commencement address of Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Summers, a former economics professor and Secretary of the Treasury, is trying to revitalize undergraduate education at Harvard. Like Hugh, I see some good and some bad in the speech, but two things struck me.
in sorting through the various balances that any curriculum must strike -- between depth and breadth of knowledge, between content and method, between freedom and prescription, between education in a common heritage and openness to the future and the world -- I hope we will look to the plausible intellectual aspirations of our students and ask ourselves what knowledge and capacities they ought to take with them into the world.

The letters from students and faculty raise two seemingly contradictory themes. One is the call, by both faculty and students, for greater flexibility in choosing courses. The other is a yearning that I have heard often from students in my visits to the Houses, for greater guidance with respect to what they should know in certain broad fields of knowledge.

Yes, that's true enough and has been for about 25 years. I recall when I entered St. Anselm as a freshman that my only choice the first semester was over which natural science I would take ("Want chemistry with that?") and which language (Latin for me). You didn't get an advisor at that time -- they handed you a schedule and you went on your merry way to classes and parties.
I recently commented to one of our leading art historians that it would be terrific if Fine Arts 13 were still available as an introduction for students who would probably never take another art history course in their lives. Reacting with a mixture of consternation and hilarity, she wondered how I could possibly expect any self-respecting scholar to propel our students -- like a cannon ball -- from "Caves to Picasso" in one academic year.
Tenure or no, she'd be gone if she worked for me. The most rewarding course I took at St. Anselm was a year of western civilization, which was "Babylon to the UN". I don't know if the fellow who taught it respected himself, but I respected him.
Fourth, in thinking about the capacities with which we should equip our students, we would all, I suspect, agree on certain fundamentals:
  • All of our students should know how to compose a literate and persuasive essay;
  • All of our students should know how to interpret a great humanistic text;
  • All of our students should know how to connect history to the present; and
  • All of our students should know -- they should genuinely understand at some basic level -- how unraveling the mysteries of the genome is transforming the nature of science, and how empirical methods can sharpen our analysis of complex problems facing the world.
Summers, who worked on international affairs during his undersecretary days at Treasury, also has much to say about how students connect to the developing world and recognizes the contribution of international students to learning. There's much to commend about the address. Hewitt notes that Summers has a handpicked committee working on revitalizing Harvard's curriculum. Of course, at St. Cloud you have to be a union member and we have to have the right balkanization of membership.

I for one wish President Summers good luck.