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

At the beginning of every term Harvard students enjoy a one-week "shopping period," during which they can sample as many courses as they like and thus—or so the theory goes—concoct the most appropriate schedule for their semesters. There is a boisterous quality to this stretch, a sense of intellectual possibility, as people pop in and out of lecture halls, grabbing syllabi and listening for twenty minutes or so before darting away to other classes.

The enthusiasm evaporates quickly once the shopping period ends. Empty seats in the various halls and auditoriums multiply as the semester rattles along, until rooms that were full for the opening lecture resemble the stadium of a losing baseball team during a meaningless late-August game. There are pockets of diehards in the front rows, avidly taking notes, and scattered observers elsewhere—students who overcame the urge to hit the snooze button and hauled themselves to class, only to realize that they've missed so many lectures and fallen so far behind that taking notes is a futile exercise. Better to wait for the semester's end, when they can take exhaustive notes at the review sessions that are always helpfully provided—or simply go to the course's Web site, where the professor has uploaded his lecture notes, understanding all too well the character and study habits of his seldom-glimpsed students.

But during the shopping period the campus bubbles with academic energy. And so Harvard Hall 101 was packed on the February day in 2001, midway through my junior year, when Harvey Mansfield gave the semester's first lecture in "The History of Modern Political Philosophy." Every seat was filled; the overflow jammed the aisles and windowsills and spilled out the door.

It was a good setting for an act of political theater.

Mansfield cuts a distinctive figure on campus, both physically and intellectually. Short and trim, tanned and handsome, with an angular face, bright eyes, and a wide, sharklike grin, he is dapper in an age of professorial slovenliness, favoring fedoras, pastel shirts, and unusual ties. He is famously conservative, well known for his opposition to affirmative action and gay rights and for his (sometimes cryptic) critiques of feminism and political correctness.

"Before I begin the lecture, I have a brief announcement concerning the class's grading policy," he said that day. "As many of you know, I have often been, ah, outspoken concerning the upward creep of Harvard grades over the last few decades. Some say that this climb—in which what were once Cs have become Bs, and those Bs are now fast becoming As—is a result of meritocracy, which has ensured that Harvard students today are, ah, smarter than their forebears. This may be true, but I must tell you that I see little evidence of it."

He paused, flashed his grin, and went on. "Nevertheless, I have recently decided that hewing to the older standard is fruitless when no one else does, because all I succeed in doing is punishing students for taking classes with me. Therefore I have decided that this semester I will issue two grades to each of you. The first will be the grade that you actually deserve—a C for mediocre work, a B for good work, and an A for excellence. This one will be issued to you alone, for every paper and exam that you complete. The second grade, computed only at semester's end, will be your, ah, ironic grade—'ironic' in this case being a word used to mean lying—and it will be computed on a scale that takes as its mean the average Harvard grade, the B-plus. This higher grade will be sent to the registrar's office, and will appear on your transcript. It will be your public grade, you might say, and it will ensure, as I have said, that you will not be penalized for taking a class with me." Another shark's grin. "And of course, only you will know whether you actually deserve it."

Mansfield had been fighting this battle for years, long enough to have earned the sobriquet "C-minus" from his students, and long enough that his frequent complaints about waning academic standards were routinely dismissed by Harvard's higher-ups as the out-of-touch crankiness of a conservative fogey. But the ironic-grade announcement changed all that. Soon afterward his photo appeared on the front page of The Boston Globe, alongside a story about the decline of academic standards. Suddenly Harvard found itself mocked as the academic equivalent of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.

This was somewhat unfair—if only because, as the article made clear, Harvard was hardly alone. Still, its numbers were particularly staggering. More than 90 percent of the class of 2001 had earned grade-point averages of B-minus or higher. Half of all the grades given the year before were As or A-minuses; only six percent were C-pluses or lower. By way of comparison, in 1940 C-minus was the most common GPA at Harvard, and in 1955 just 15 percent of undergraduates had a GPA of B-plus or higher.

What lay behind this trend? Writing in the college newspaper, the Crimson, Mansfield posited some historical factors. "Grade inflation got started … when professors raised the grades of students protesting the war in Vietnam," he argued. "At that time, too, white professors, imbibing the spirit of the new policies of affirmative action, stopped giving low grades to black students, and to justify or conceal this, also stopped giving low grades to white students." (As you might imagine, this theory was hotly contested.) But the main culprit now was simply this: "The prevalence in American education of the notion of self-esteem." Mansfield wrote, "According to that therapeutic notion, the purpose of education is to make students feel capable and 'empowered,' and professors should hesitate to pass judgment on what students have learned."

This may be partly true, but I think that the roots of grade inflation—and, by extension, the overall ease and lack of seriousness in Harvard's undergraduate academic culture—run deeper. Understanding grade inflation requires understanding the nature of modern Harvard and of elite education in general—particularly the ambitions of its students and professors.

The students' ambitions are those of a well-trained meritocratic elite. In the semi-aristocracy that Harvard once was, students could accept Cs, because they knew their prospects in life had more to do with family fortunes and connections than with GPAs. In today's meritocracy this situation no longer obtains. Even if you could live off your parents' wealth, the ethos of the meritocracy holds that you shouldn't, because your worth as a person is determined not by clan or class but by what you do and whether you succeed at it. What you do, in turn, hinges in no small part on what is on your résumé, including your GPA.

Thus the professor is not just a disinterested pedagogue. As a dispenser of grades he is a gatekeeper to worldly success. And in that capacity professors face upward pressure from students ("I can't afford a B if I want to get into law school"); horizontal pressure from their colleagues, to which even Mansfield gave way; downward pressure from the administration ("If you want to fail someone, you have to be prepared for a very long, painful battle with the higher echelons," one professor told the Crimson); and perhaps pressure from within, from the part of them that sympathizes with students' careerism. (Academics, after all, have ambitions of their own, and are well aware of the vicissitudes of the marketplace.)

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.

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.)

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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