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.
But although these subject areas are theoretically general, the dozen or so classes offered annually in each of them (nearly all Core courses are designed for the Core) tend to be maddeningly specific and often defiantly obscure. The Core makes no attempt to distinguish between "Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies" and "Tel Aviv: Urban Culture in Another Zion" in terms of importance; either will satisfy the Foreign Cultures requirement. For Science a student might choose "Human Evolution"—or he might choose "The Biology of Trees and Forests" or "Dinosaurs and Their Relatives." For his Social Analysis requirement he might decide to study basic economic principles in Martin Feldstein's Ec 10—or he might take "Food and Culture" or "Psychological Trauma" or "Urban Revolutions: Archaeology and the Investigation of Early States." And for Literature and Arts he might decide to take Helen Vendler's wide-ranging course "Poems, Poets, Poetry"—but then again, he might be drawn to "Women Writers in Imperial China: How to Escape From the Feminine Voice."
This is not to denigrate the more whimsical and esoteric choices that fill out a course catalogue. A computer-science major, his head spinning with lines of code, might be well served by dipping into "The Cuban Revolution: 1956—71: A Self-Debate." But under Harvard's system that might easily turn out to be the only history class he takes. It seems deeply disingenuous, at best, to suggest that in the development of a broadly educated student body the study of Castro's regime carries the same weight as, say, knowledge of the two world wars, or the French Revolution, or the founding of America. (During my four years at Harvard the history department didn't offer a single course focusing on the American Revolution.)