Cathedrals and faith

March 09, 2006|By THOMAS SOWELL

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 world.

David Riesman 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.

The faith 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, Mass.

Today, Harvard University is renowned, but it has lost the sense of dedication that built it back in 1636. The faculty members run the university, as Mr. Summers has painfully discovered, and they run it in their own narrow self-interest.

A full professor at Harvard gets no personal payoff for teaching undergraduates. That can be left to the junior faculty and graduate students. Research is where the money and the prestige are.

Mr. Summers wanted professors not only to teach undergraduates but also 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 honors. Giving out 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 payoff.

Teaching 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. 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.

Students can graduate from some of the most prestigious colleges without a clue as to what World War II or the Cold War was about. At Harvard, chances are nine out of 10 that such uninformed students can graduate with honors.

No college 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 others.

In crisis, some have to put their lives on the line, as firefighters, police officers and soldiers still do. But, for that, you have to believe that the institution and the society are worthy of your sacrifices.

We have 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.

There was a time when being at war meant accepting a great weight of responsibility, even among politicians. After Wendell Wilkie waged a tough presidential election campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, winning more votes than any Republican ever had before, 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. We still have the cathedral of freedom, but how long will it last without the faith?

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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