The Truth About Harvard

It may be hard to get into Harvard, but it's easy to get out without learning much of enduring value at all. A recent graduate's report

As if in reply to this complaint, the Core's mission statement asserts, with a touch of smugness, that "the Core differs from other programs of general education. It does not define intellectual breadth as the mastery of a set of Great Books, or the digestion of a specific quantum of information … rather, the Core seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education."

These words, which appear in the course catalogue each year, are the closest that Harvard comes to articulating an undergraduate educational philosophy. They suggest that the difference in importance between, say, "Democracy, Development, and Equality in Mexico" and "Reason and Faith in the West" (both offerings in Historical Study) does not matter. As the introduction to the history courses puts it, both courses offer a "historical" approach to knowledge that is presumably more valuable than mere "facts" about the past. Comprehending history "as a form of inquiry and understanding" trumps learning about actual events. The catalogue contains similarly pat introductions to the other disciplines. In each case the emphasis is squarely on methodology, not material.

My experience of the Core was probably typical. I set out with the intention of picking a comprehensive roster of classes that would lead me in directions at once interesting and essential, providing perspectives that were unavailable in my concentration: American history and literature. The first Core course I wandered into—"Concepts of the Hero in Greek Civilization"—proved to be spectacular, notwithstanding its nickname, "Heroes for Zeroes." It was a survey course with a twist, in which an enthusiastic professor took an initially reluctant crowd of students on a whirlwind tour of the classics, with assists from contemporary films such as Blade Runner and When We Were Kings.

During the next three years I sought other courses that offered what this one had: Great Books and great teaching. What I found were unengaged professors and overburdened teaching assistants who seemed to be marking time until they could return to the parochial safety of their departmental classes. Indeed, parochialism often overtook even the broadest-sounding Core classes. "Understanding Islam" involved only cursory analysis of the Koran, the history of Islamic civilization, and the rise of radical Islam, but devoted weeks to Muslim diaspora communities in London and Muslim-animistic syncretism in Africa. I chose another class, "The Portrait," because it seemed likely to offer something of a crash course in art history. And for the first few weeks it did, focusing on E. H. Gombrich's comprehensive The Story of Art. The rest of the time, however, was devoted to police photography in nineteenth-century France, sexual fetishism in Victorian daguerreotypes, aboriginal head-shrinking … The list goes on, but I didn't: by the middle of the semester I had stopped going to the lectures.

The few Core classes that are well taught are swamped each year, no matter how obscure the subject matter. The closest thing to a Harvard education—that is, to an intellectual corpus that most Harvard graduates have in common—is probably obtained in such oversubscribed courses as "The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice," "First Nights: Five Performance Premieres," and "Fairy Tales, Children's Literature, and the Construction of Childhood."

A Harvard graduate may have read no Shakespeare or Proust; he may be unable to distinguish Justinian the Great from Julian the Apostate, or to tell you the first ten elements in the periodic table (God knows I can't). But one need only mention "Mass Culture in Nazi Germany" or "Constructing the Samurai" and his eyes will light up with fond memories.

As in a great library ravaged by a hurricane, the essential elements of a liberal arts education lie scattered everywhere at Harvard, waiting to be picked up. But little guidance is given on how to proceed with that task.

I remember vividly the moment late in my high school senior year when Harvard's course catalogue arrived in the mail. It was a doorstop of a book, filled with descriptions of hundreds, maybe thousands, of classes. I pored over it, asking myself how I could choose just thirty-two classes, four years' worth, from the sea of fascinating choices.

Harvard never attempted to answer that question—perhaps the most important question facing any incoming freshman. I chose my classes as much by accident as by design. There were times when some of them mattered to me, and even moments when I was intoxicated. But achieving those moments required pulling myself away from Harvard's other demands, whether social, extracurricular, or pre-professional, which took far more discipline than I was usually able to exert.

Mostly I logged the necessary hours in the library and exam rooms, earned my solid (if inflated) GPA and my diploma, and used the rest of the time to keep up with my classmates in our ongoing race to the top of America (and the world). It was only afterward, when the perpetual motion of undergraduate life was behind me, that I looked back and felt cheated.

Afterward, too, I began chuckling inwardly when some older person, upon discovering my Harvard affiliation, would nod gravely and ask, But wasn't it such hard work?

It was—but not in the way the questioner meant. It was hard work to get into Harvard, and then it was hard work competing for offices and honors and extracurriculars with thousands of brilliant and driven young people; hard work keeping our heads in the swirling social world; hard work fighting for law-school slots and investment-banking jobs as college wound to a close … yes, all of that was heavy sledding. But the academics—the academics were another story.

Whatever nostalgists think, there was never a golden age when students did all their work and attended every lecture. When Aquinas held forth in Paris, and Heidegger in Freiburg, lazy undergraduates were doubtless squirreled away in their rooms, frantically skimming other people's notes to prep for the final exam. What makes our age different is the moment that happened over and over again at Harvard, when we said This is going to be hard and then realized No, this is easy. Maybe it came when we boiled down a three-page syllabus to a hundred pages of exam-time reading, or saw that a paper could be turned in late without the frazzled teaching fellow's docking us, or handed in C-quality work and got a gleaming B-plus. Whenever the moment came, we learned that it wasn't our sloth alone, or our constant pushing for higher grades, that made Harvard easy.

No, Harvard was easy because almost no one was pushing back.

Ross Douthat is a reporter and researcher for The Atlantic. This article is adapted from his book, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, to be published this month by Hyperion.
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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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