Bennett: Harvard Epitomizes Failures in Higher Education
Secretary Criticizes the Core Curriculum in Address Today
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett says Harvard exemplifies a failure of universities nationwide to meet their obligations to students, according to the prepared text of an address he is to deliver this afternoon at a Sanders Theater.
"There are too many intellectual and educational casualties among the student body of Harvard," Bennett says. "Our students deserve better."
Bennett, a 1971 graduate of the Law School, was invited to speak on the state of higher education as part of the College's 350th anniversary celebration. His speech is an assault on the moral, intellectual, and pedagogical condition of America's colleges and universities.
Although a university may be immensely rich, Bennett says, its resources offer no assurance "that Harvard or any similarly situated university is really fulfilling its obligation to its own students of seeing to it that when they leave after four years, they leave as educated men and women."
President Derek C. Bok issued a statement last night denouncing the secretary's remarks as polemical and uninformed.
After reading the speech, Bok, who has been a frequent critic of Bennett since the secretary took office 20 months ago, decided to respond at the event this afternoon (see accompanying story).
In his 19-page text, Bennett assails academia for offering students a "smorgasbord" instead of a fundamental, structured curriculum, and he points to Harvard's Core Curriculum as a glaring example of this failure.
It is "a symbolic nod, a head feint" in the direction of a basic education, Bennett says.
"I think students would benefit from a real core curriculum--i.e., a set of fundamental courses, ordered, purposive, coherent. I cannot discern such a core curriculum here," Bennett says.
"I have studied the Harvard catalog, and I agree that under the heading of the Core Curriculum we find an agglomeration of courses, many of them obviously meaty and important, taught by eminent scholars, on a wide variety of subjects," Bennett says.
"But it seems to me that many of them could more appropriately find their place among the individual offerings of the various departments of instruction, from where, indeed, they give every appearance of having been plucked, only to be regrouped in new combinations."
At a minimum, Bennett says, a solid core curriculum must encompass "the basic body of knowledge which universities once took it upon themselves as their obligation to transmit, under the name of a liberal education."
It includes "a systematic familiarization with our own, Western tradition of learning: with the Classical and Jewish-Christian heritage, the facts of American and European history, the political organization of Western societies, the great works of Western art and literature, [and] the major achievements of the scientific disciplines," he says.
The stated aim of Harvard's five-year-old Core Curriculum is to introduce students to different "modes of learning" or academic approaches. Its authors eschewed the notion that students should be required to master a basic body of knowledge--or that such a body of knowledge could be defined.
Under the Core Curriculum, Bennett says, the quality of a student's Harvard education hinges on a combination of "luck, seren- dipity, chance, peer pressure, and a kind ofinstitutional negligence."
"Some people don't get educated here--too manyfor the greatest university in the country,"Bennett says.
Not Worth the Bucks
Colleges and universities have not justifiedthe financial demands they make on parents,donors, and the government, Bennett says.
Lobbyists for higher education are "very goodat getting their funds from a Congress seeminglyenraptured by the pieties, pontifications, andpoor-mouthings of American higher education," hesays.
However, the secretary says, "Money is not anunambiguous good."
"After a certain point, the more money youhave, the fewer distinguished professors you willhave in the classroom.
"This is an oddity of academic life. X dollarsbuys the students one professor, 2x dollars buysthem two, but 3x and 4x and 5x dollars graduallyremove the professor from the student, and 6xdollars may replace all the classroom professorswith graduate students."
Bennett, who acted as a freshman proctor andSocial Studies tutor during his three years atHarvard, also chastises the College for paying toolittle attention to its individual students.
"Sometimes a proctor, a professor, a dean,steps in and takes a real interest in a student'seducation--but that's often the luck of the draw,"he says.
Bennett cites the results of a recent survey ofundergraduates to support his point.
Two-fifths of the students polled reported thatno professor at their institution took a "specialpersonal interest" in their academic progress.Fewer than one-fifth of the sample rated theirinstitution's academic advisory programs "highlyadequate," Bennett says.
"Students should not accept this state ofaffairs as inevitable or preordained," Bennettsays. "Demanding greater guidance, a more seriousassumption of responsibility by theirinstitutions, is worthy cause for studentactivism."
Another shortcoming of colleges anduniversities, Bennett says, is their failure toaccept responsibility for the moral education oftheir students.
"Many colleges freely dispense guidance tothose beyond their walls, and such guidance is tobe welcomed in a free society; but colleges thataim, as they might put it, to 'lead' society'sconscience on various social problems should not,when faced by a real problem within theircompetence to deal with, duck or throw up theirhands."
Along these lines, he calls on schools tocombat drug use on campus more aggressively.
He also cautions academia to guard against aliberal intolerance of opposing views thatthreatens to stifle free expression.
"Prestigious, selective, leadinguniversities--whatever modifier you wish--you havea tendency in our time to show a liberal bias.This is partly because most of the people in thehumanities and social sciences departments inthese universities stand to the left of center,"Bennett says.
"If we cannot protect the basic principle ofacademic freedom," he says, "then we cannot evenbegin to hope that our colleges and universitieswill evolve into a recognizable imitation of whatthey claim to be."
"There is an extraordinary gap between therhetoric and the reality of American highereducation," Bennett asserts. "The gap is so wide,in fact, that we face the very realpossibility...of an erosion of public support forthe enterprise."
Bennett is scheduled to speak at 4:00 p.m. Theevent is open to all members of the Harvardcommunity, and there is no admission charge