Monday, September 22, 2003

Summers again 

Michael at Highered Intelligence! discusses another story about Larry Summers, the Harvard president, as he battles to reform the curriculum. Notes the Boston Globe
Conant's curriculum [Conant was Harvard's postwar president and created a general education curriculum that focused on the humanities --kb] spoke to an age when the belief in systematically unifying human knowledge, and using it to advance democracy and prosperity, was strong. In his own way, Summers is an heir to Conant's optimistic, liberal-minded, science-friendly tradition. But he lives in a very different age, when the belief that there is any single, universally valid organization of knowledge has come into question, and some theoreticians batter away at the universal truth claims of science even as it changes the world at a dizzying pace.

Summers and his faculty are searching for educational consensus at a time when new fields of knowledge are multiplying as rapidly as Internet blogs, and the very concept of consensus is in ill repute in some quarters. Harvard College Associate Dean Jeffrey Wolcowitz estimates that "with 650 faculty members, there will be 650 ideas about what we want our students to learn.''

Conant's vision, summarized in the Redbook that defined Harvard general education in 1945, was unifying and structured, not the mishmash that we teach today at places like SCSU and
our accrediting body. That is to say, they don't take the humanities seriously, and this is the problem Michael sees for both Harvard and the rest.
You see, at UCLA the science scholars take the humanities seriously. That's because they are scholars. At Harvard, Larry Summers wants the collegiate dilettantes to take the sciences seriously. But the problem isn't that they aren't taking science courses, or that they aren't getting enough science content. The problem is that the collegiate dilettante, whatever field they are in, doesn't take knowledge seriously.
So here's the problem we face: We need to have a faculty that can make students take knowledge seriously, nurture a love of learning that lasts a lifetime. And yet we are asking faculty who in many ways do not take knowledge seriously themselves. The dilletantes are tenured.