14 Mar

The Truth about Harvard

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/14/05

Sure, Harvard is hard, but not the way you might think. Writing in The Atlantic (March 2005), a recent Harvard graduate reflected on what was missing from his education. Ross Douthat observes that getting into Harvard was hard. Once there "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."

Ross Douthat's "The Truth about Harvard" (The Atlantic, March 2005) exposes some not entirely surprising facts about one of America's most respected credentialing agency. After some anecdotes and analysis about the origins of grade inflation, Douthat looks at the effects of postmodern academic theory on the humanities. "The retreat into irrelevance is visible all across the humanities curriculum," judges Douthat. "Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists; history departments emphasize exhaustive primary research and microhistory. 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."

Douthat then looks at the Core Curriculum, a program that one might hope retains some of the content and confidence of a traditional liberal arts curriculum. But the Core is so loosely defined and governed that it gives equal weight to peripheral questions as it does to central ones. Douthat cites as an example a history course entitled "The Cuban Revolution: 1956—71: A Self-Debate." Under Harvard's system, such a class fulfills the history requirement, and may thus turn out to be the only history class taken by a student. "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.)"

The rationale for this system is suggested in the Harvard course catalogue, which explains 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."

As Douthat exegetes this, developing a knack for the "historical approach" is more valuable than actually knowing anything about history. The results for individual students and for society are tragic. "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."

The article is available online on The Atlantic webpages. MARS HILL AUDIO Journal subscribers may wish to revisit our interviews with Susan Wise Bauer, Daniel Ritchie, Louise Cowan, and Leland Ryken to compare Harvard's views about the goals of liberal arts education with those of our guests. [Posted March 2005, KAM]