My friend Ross Douthat has a column in the current Atlantic Monthly about his experience as an undergraduate at Harvard. According to Douthat, college life at Harvard and other elite universities is marked by two features. The first is the ascendance of the meritocrats. The students at today’s Harvard (or Yale, or any of the other top universities) got in because of impeccable grades, stratospheric test scores, and extraordinary extracurricular accomplishments. In college, these super-achievers continue their striving. They aim for the highest possible marks, for extracurricular honors, for places at the most prestigious graduate schools and most famous firms. How could they do otherwise? The relentless pursuit of accomplishment is what got them into college, and what they presume will lead them to success after graduation.
Based on Douthat’s description of today’s elite students, one might expect the academic environment at Harvard or Yale to be highly challenging and rewarding. Put the country’s most talented and competitive students together, and how could classes fail to be both intense and inspirational?
Surprisingly, Douthat takes the opposite position. According to his column, the second characteristic of today’s top universities is the poverty of the academic experience they offer to their students. To hear Douthat tell the story, professors have abandoned any pretense that their courses are relevant to their students’ lives. Within Harvard’s Core Curriculum, excessively narrow classes (e.g. “The Cuban Revolution,” “The Portrait”) crowd out broader studies of the history and literature of Western civilization. Good grades, in particular the gentleman’s B-plus, are handed out indiscriminately. And the students are actually closet slackers, “studious primarily in [their] avoidance of academic work.”
As a Harvard graduate from the class above Douthat’s, I have to say that much of his critique resonated with me. Students at Harvard are insanely competitive, a trait that bodes ill for their interpersonal relations and happiness in life. And Harvard is full of easy classes on subjects of limited importance. I vividly remember searching the course catalogue for “guts” that promised good grades in exchange for little work (or learning). Like Douthat, I found quite a few.
But Douthat greatly overstates his case. First, while some classes (especially within the core curriculum) are light on substance, many others are famously rigorous and deeply rewarding. In my departmental courses, laziness was not an option as I learned about international relations from some of the world’s foremost authorities in the area. Writing my thesis allowed me to work closely with a professor and to develop a newfound appreciation for the research and thinking that good academic work requires. Though one would never know it from his column, I suspect Douthat’s experience was similar to mine — a bit disappointing with regard to the Core, far more satisfying within our concentrations.
Second, elite universities’ classes are not quite as easy as Douthat makes them out to be. Yes, you can often get a B-plus just for showing up (though you may not want to try that approach in a science or math class). But a transcript full of B-pluses will not get the ambitious Ivy League meritocrat the career for which she pines. The doors of the most desirable investment banking and consulting firms will be closed to her, and it is easier for a rich man to enter heaven than for a Harvard graduate with a 3.3 GPA to get into Hopkins Med or Yale Law. In a way, it is a bit rich for Douthat to complain that college was too easy. For him — one of the most spectacular student writers I have ever read — it surely was not difficult to earn As with minimal effort. But his experience is far from that of the typical student.
Finally, the academic deficiencies Douthat identifies are the consequence not of eliteness or postmodernist decay, but rather the emergence of the modern research university. Why is there no canon of great works for all students to study? Why are classes often highly specialized and inaccessible to the generalist? Why is the course selection (with its inevitable stars and duds) so vast? The answer is not that meritocracy demands such a situation, nor, as Douthat suggests, that the Ivy League has taken “a decades-long wade in the marshes of postmodern academic theory.”
No, the real answer is that today’s great universities cannot return to the attitudes and practices of a bygone era. Fifty years ago, Harvard or Yale could sensibly seek to impart a definite quantum of information to undergraduates, secure in the knowledge that the students’ backgrounds and aspirations were largely shared. Today, this assumption has been eviscerated. The chemistry major and the English major (let alone the chemistry professor and the English professor) are likely to have little more in common than their college residence. To ask them to undergo the same education is to try to fit a 21st-century peg in a 19th-century hole.
In fact, the only way that Harvard could have addressed Douthat’s concerns is by restricting its course offerings, mandating that all students learn a common canon and curtailing the eccentricity of its departments. But then Harvard would have transformed itself from research university into liberal arts college. Douthat might like that outcome, but do the rest of us really want Harvard to become Swarthmore?
Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a second-year student at the Law School.