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April 5, 2001


To the editor:

I read with interest and initially with approval the account of Ira Harkavy's address to the plenary session of the University Senate (March 22 University Times). His exhortations and predictions about what the influence of the universities on society in the 21st century can and will be sounded seminal. He claimed that higher education will be "the core institution that will shape the nature of… societies worldwide."

Bravo, I thought. In between the vague and vacuous cliches there were hints of a resurgent idealism about universities exerting an uplifting influence on earlier schooling and about helping students to become knowledgeable participants in democracy. Yes, there certainly are a panorama of challenges that cry out for attention. Universities should become more aware of their obligation to society and the boundless opportunities open to them. So far, so good.

The mission, says Harkavy, is to solve "real world problems…." But which problems, I began to wonder as I read on. Two interconnected success stories were offered as examples. It seems that at the University of Pennsylvania an anthropologist had devised an urban ecology and nutrition project designed to reduce obesity in a community in West Philadelphia. Gaining the confidence of the community through nutritional advice inspired a graduate student to work out a spin-off project of starting a "school store" the nutritional aim of which was to market products that would reduce obesity in juvenile females. The success of these efforts was so conspicuous that the anthropologist managed to get a cool half-million dollars in grants to continue the work. Q.E.D.

In summary, Harkavy advises us to listen to Francis Bacon, the philosopher of science, and John Dewey, the prophet of contemporary pragmatism, and to forget about Plato and his abstract ideas.

I am not easily surprised and shocked, but in this case I am appalled.

The core service that this University or, for that matter, any university worthy of the name, is the inestimably valuable, glittering gift of the liberation of the human intellect. That effort is called liberal education. It means asking and taking seriously the most basic questions that any educated person must address: Is there a God? Is there a human nature and, if so, what is it? Are there transcultural truths beyond transcultural mathematics? What is justice? How would you design the very best human society and how does the one in which we live compare to it? What subjects are more worthy of our study than others?

Let it be said that I am all for having obesity reduced. And I am all for the relevant disciplines being well and freely taught. But I do not see how these disciplines have anything more than a remote tangential connection with the awesomely difficult task of making students citizens of the Republic of Letters. One can disagree with Plato, Aristotle, Kant and whomever but no citizen of the Republic of Letters would so casually dismiss them in favor of John Dewey.

The mission message of a university as described by Harkavy can be most charitably described as turning the university into more of a trade school than it already has become, whether the trade be high-tech or a nutritional project. In reality, Harkavy's thesis about a university's raison d'etre is nothing but intellectual rubbish and not even original rubbish. That is to say, it is claptrap.

Robert G. Hazo


American Experience Program


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