Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education

reviewed by Vicki J. Rosser - March 05, 2007

coverTitle: Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education
Author(s): Harry R. Lewis
Publisher: Public Affairs Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1586483935 , Pages: 305, Year: 2006
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The essential purpose of an undergraduate education has been the subject of much debate, discussion, and conflict among scholars, students, and our public. Throughout the history of higher education, educators have constantly struggled to define what it means to be an educated person. Other words, what are the intellectual and human experiences we want our students to take away with them when they leave the academy? More specifically, and as Lewis notes, how can we “help [our students] to grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings” (p. xii)? Excellence Without a Soul is an impassioned and thought-provoking examination of the many issues (e.g., curriculum, advising, grade inflation, athletics, meritocracy, citizenship, morality, money) that are confronting higher education and our educational souls.

The book is divided into nine chapters that focus on an array of controversial topics that may influence the growth and development of undergraduate students’ academic, social, and life experiences, as well as issues confronting the faculty’s work: Choice and Direction (How the Curriculum Became Aimless); Meritocracy and Citizenship (What Should Graduates Share?); Contact, Competition, Cooperation (The Downside of the Pursuit of Excellence); The Eternal Enigma: Advising (What to Study, or How to Live?); Why Grades Go Up (A Drama Without a Villain); Evaluation is Education (Why Grade Inflation Isn’t very Important); Independence, Responsibility, Rape (The End of Moral Development in College); Students and Money (Educational Excellence for the Rich and the Poor); and College Athletics and Money (Elitism in the Name of Amateurism). There is no doubt that among the faculty, these are important topics frequently discussed and debated within colleges and universities and across higher education, and the pressure to perform well in many of these areas has become relentless due to accountability measures from our external constituencies (e.g., policy makers, alumni, the public).

The primary audience for the book is the faculty, although students, administrators, and parents would be well-served by reading the breadth and depth of issues presented in the book. However, course and curricular content, assignment of faculty members to teaching and research, standards for admissions to programs, graduation and degree requirements, academic policy, and academic advising are areas clearly under the purview of the faculty. In essence, the words, who shall teach and what shall be taught, are referred to as the most important rights and privileges won by the university (Lucas, 1994), and the faculty is the university. Our public has entrusted those rights and privileges in deference to the expertise of the faculty, and in turn the public demands that the faculty educate their youth. Which begs the question, have we as a faculty lost our public’s trust by the way we educate, evaluate, and assess their children’s academic performance?

The focus of the book is on Harvard, but those who believe this is just another book about Harvard and its uniqueness as an institution of higher education are misguided. While Harvard does have unique qualities that many of us aspire to have or even work to achieve, the topics raised by Lewis regarding the curriculum, student learning and achievement, advising, grade inflation, athletics, and money are issues and challenges that are, unfortunately, pervasive throughout higher education. Whether we like it or not, Harvard often sets educational trends for scholarship and student academic achievement in higher education, and understanding how these educational perspectives have evolved would serve us all well within our own institutions.

The organization of the book flows nicely from one topic to another, and some of the chapter topics tend to be more sensitive (e.g., Independence, Responsibility, Rape) to discuss than others. However, no matter what the topic in higher education, there will be those who agree and those who will disagree with the author’s premises regarding these tough topics, and I sincerely commend Lewis for his honesty and courage, albeit thought-provoking and challenging, for taking on these difficult issues. He also provides a brief historical context on the primary topic in each chapter, as well as Harvard’s history more specifically. As someone who teaches the history of higher education, it warms my educational soul that he provides this historical context. We need to know where we came from to better prepare ourselves for where we are hopefully going. One example is the examination of the university’s core curriculum, and let me re-emphasize that Harvard is not alone in this regard. If you have ever tried to participate on a university committee that examines the core curriculum, then you know how challenging and often discouraging the work can be for a committee member who sincerely cares about student learning and development.

I would also like to comment on the author’s preface and introduction sections. In many books authors tend to diminish these sections as meaningless pieces of information to fill space in the book, rather than providing the readers with the author’s thoughtful insight and unique perspective. Lewis nicely sets the tone of the book in the preface by passionately presenting his thoughts on the breadth of issues that may have an impact on students’ undergraduate education, either directly or indirectly through the faculty, parents, etc. The introduction is also beautifully written and well organized; chapter objectives are presented in a clear and thoughtful manner. His chapter notes are thorough and well placed.

Excellence Without a Soul contributes greatly to our understanding of the important issues confronting students’ academic, social, and moral development, and to the educators who teach them. Lewis presents and discusses the chapter topics in a comfortable scholarly manner that is neither preachy nor insulting to those of us in the academy. While there have been a plethora of books that have taken on student learning, curriculum standards, and other student social and academic issues, this book goes much deeper, and the author challenges us to do the right thing and to strive for excellence in the education of our students. Moreover, the author doesn’t just criticize the ways in which we may have missed those “teachable moments” to educate our students, but rather he struggles intellectually and passionately with these topics, as an educator and as a previous administrator, to provide thoughtful alternatives.

While Lewis is very ambitious to take on such a diverse range of difficult topics, I believe he has provided the means to stimulate further discussion and debate among academics. He provokes our thinking and challenges us to become better at educating the whole student. Lewis does stir our educational soul--the moral, emotional, and intellectual aspects of being an educator. After all, isn’t the attainment of higher education about allowing students and faculty members to grow and develop as scholars and as individuals; to support effectively the life of the mind (Fuess, 1935), or have we indeed lost our soul?


Fuess, C. M. (1935). Amherst: The story of a New England college. Boston: Little Brown and Company.

Lucas, C. J. (1994). American higher education: A history. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13714, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 10:44:58 PM

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