It doesn't help that Harvard students are creatively lazy, gifted at working smarter rather than harder. Most of my classmates were studious primarily in our avoidance of academic work, and brilliant largely in our maneuverings to achieve a maximal GPA in return for minimal effort. It was easy to see the classroom as just another résumé-padding opportunity, a place to collect the grade (and recommendation) necessary to get to the next station in life. If that grade could be obtained while reading a tenth of the books on the syllabus, so much the better.
Sometimes you didn't have to do even that much. One of the last papers I wrote in college was assigned in "The American West, 1780—1930." The professor handed out two journal articles on the theory and practice of "material history"—essentially, historical research based on the careful analysis of objects. We were told to go to the Peabody, Harvard's museum of archaeology and ethnology, where the professor had set out three pairs of objects from the frontier era. One object in each pair had been made by Indians, one by Europeans, and we were to write a ten-page paper that compared the objects in a given pair. Aside from the articles on material history and a general text, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, we were to use no sources.
I picked a Sioux war club and an American revolver with its carrying case. As I stood in the museum taking notes, the assignment seemed impossible. How could I eke out ten pages when I knew nothing about the provenance of the weapons or the significance of their markings?
Sitting at my desk two weeks later, I realized I had been wrong. The paper was pathetically easy to write—not despite the dearth of information but because of it. Knowing nothing meant I could write anything. I didn't need to do any reading, absorb any history, or learn anything at all.
Some excerpts give the flavor of what I came up with.
Chief Running Antelope's war club is less a weapon than a talisman of supernatural power … The club's red paint and eagle feather link the weapon and its holder to sacred, invisible worlds; the "H. A. Brigham" inscription, a 19th century version of the modern logo, reinforces the revolver's connection to a capitalist order in which weapons are mass-produced, rather than individually crafted … The case is clearly an impractical method of carrying the gun … it is, rather, an eminently practical method of displaying a gun, with the paradoxical corollary that the gun is displayed by not being displayed … The book-like case, with its gold leaf and intricate images, transforms the gun by containing its potential for violence …
By the time I had finished, I almost believed it. My professor must have too: the paper got an A.
Not every class was so easy. Those that were tended to be in history and English, classics and foreign languages, art and philosophy—in other words, in those departments that provide what used to be considered the meat of a liberal arts education. Humanities students generally did the least work, got the highest grades, and cruised academically, letting their studies slide in favor of time-sucking extracurriculars, while their science- and math-minded classmates sometimes had to struggle to reach the B-plus plateau.
The theory is often advanced that grade inflation is worst in the humanities because grading English essays and history papers is more subjective than marking problem sets and lab reports, and thus more vulnerable to student pressure and professorial weakness. There is a teaspoon of truth to that claim, I suppose. But I think the problem in the humanities, as with grade inflation in general, can be traced to the roots of elite America—and specifically to the influence of the free market.
Attempting to explain the left-wing biases of his Harvard colleagues, the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick once hypothesized that most professors oppose capitalism because they consider themselves far smarter than boobish businessmen, and therefore resent the economic system that rewards practical intelligence over their own gifts. I'm inclined to think that such resentment—at least in money-drunk America—increasingly coexists with a deep inferiority complex regarding modern capitalism, and a need, however unconscious, to justify academic life in the face of the fantastic accumulation of wealth that takes place outside the ivory tower.
If I am right, some areas of academic life aren't vulnerable to this crisis of confidence in the importance of one's work. Scientists can rest secure in the knowledge that their labors will help shove along the modern project of advancing health—and wealth. Abstruse genomic work could one day yield in utero engineering; mucking around with chemicals could produce a cure for AIDS, or the next Viagra.
Then there is economics, the new queen of the sciences—a discipline perfectly tailored to the modern market-driven university, and not coincidentally the most popular concentration during my four years of college. It's also no coincidence that economics was the only department at Harvard in which the faculty tilted to the right, at least on issues of regulation and taxation. (Martin Feldstein, who taught Economics 10, Harvard's most popular class, was an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan.) To tilt to the right is in some sense to assert a belief in absolute truth; and the only absolute truth that the upper class accepts these days is the truth of the market.
The humanities have no such reservoirs of confidence. And attempts by humanities professors to ape the rigor of their scientific colleagues have led to a decades-long wade in the marshes of postmodern academic theory, where canons are scorned, books exist only as texts to be deconstructed, and willfully obscure writing is championed over accessible prose. All this has merely reinforced capitalism's insistence that the sciences are the only important academic pursuits, because only they provide tangible, quantifiable (and potentially profitable) results. Far from making the humanities scientific, postmodernism has made them irrelevant.
The retreat into irrelevance is visible all across the humanities curriculum. Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists; history departments emphasize exhaustive primary research and micro-history. In the field of English there is little pretense that literature is valuable in itself and should be part of every educated person's life, rather than serving as grist for endless academic debates in which every mention of truth is placed in sneering quotation marks.
Sure, historians believe in their primary sources, English scholars in their textual debates, philosophers in their logic games. But many of them seem to believe that they have nothing to offer students who don't plan to be historians, or literary theorists, or philosophers. They make no effort to apply their work to what should be the most pressing task of undergraduate education: to provide a general education, a liberal arts education, to future doctors and bankers and lawyers and diplomats.
In this environment who can blame professors if, when it comes time to grade their students, they sometimes take the path of least resistance—the path of the gentleman's B-plus?
One might expect Harvard's Core Curriculum to step into the breach. But the Core is a late-1970s version of a traditional liberal arts curriculum, and it's even worse than that description makes it sound. It has long been an object of derision among students (during my junior year the Crimson called it a "stifling and stagnant attempt" at a liberal arts education), and a curricular-review committee recently joined the chorus, observing dryly that the Core "may serve to constrain intellectual development" and recommending that it be replaced with "a new system of general education." (Harvard's faculty will begin voting on the committee's recommendations this spring.) At its inception, in 1978, the Core was seen as a less elitist alternative to the Great Books programs offered at Columbia and other universities. It has no universally required courses, mandating instead that students take, at some point before graduation, at least one class in seven of eleven areas—areas whose titles and subject matter sound suitably comprehensive. They include Literature and Arts, Historical Study, Science, Foreign Cultures, Quantitative Reasoning, Moral Reasoning, and Social Analysis.