In China, Lewis Touts Liberal Arts

Former College dean shares his views as Hong Kong’s educators look inward

McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrapped up a week-long speaking tour at Chinese universities last weekend, stressing the value of a liberal arts education.

Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, said that his primary interest in the talks at Hong Kong and Shanghai universities was to stimulate conversation.

“I was not proselytizing for liberal education,” he said, adding that he was not adequately informed about the goals of China’s educational system to offer formal advice.

“It would be presumptuous of me,” he said.

Peter A. I. Gordon ’80, a former student of Lewis who invited him to Hong Kong, expressed his appreciation for the professor’s insights.

“America has an embarrassment of academic riches, and sharing them is very much in the interests of both America and the recipient,” Gordon wrote in an e-mail. “I’m very grateful to Professor Lewis for having been willing to take the time and share his views so openly and patiently with educators in my adopted home.”

Lewis’ visit to Hong Kong came as the country embarks on a transition from a three-year to a four-year university system. The switch has prompted educators to discuss the goals of an undergraduate education, according to Gordon, who is also the head of the independent Hong Kong publisher Chameleon Press.

Shanghai is not currently considering any large-scale educational reforms, and Lewis characterized the Chinese education system, which has remained largely pre-professional and test-driven, as a “grind.”

“They are trying to produce people with a set of skills that don’t vary in any way with the talents and interests of the individual,” Lewis said.

However, Lewis emphasized that he sought to provide exposure to a different set of educational goals in his lectures, as opposed to what he called “proselytizing.”

“I think my audiences were more interested in the big picture, what a liberal arts education can accomplish and the notion that education should have larger and more ambitious goals than professional training,” Lewis said.

Lewis penned the 2006 book “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education,” a reflection on the purpose of college education and Harvard’s struggle to define that purpose.

When asked about his educational philosophy, Lewis cited former Harvard President James B. Conant ’14, who said that “education is what is left after all that is learnt is forgotten.”

—Staff writer Carolyn F. Gaebler can be reached at