Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Education of the Douthat

Please join me as I read Ross Douthat's 2005 account of the failure of Harvard University to turn him into an elite.
The Truth About Harvard
Dirt (Of Dubious Merit) on Harvard That Will Create Controversy So People Will Talk About Me
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
How I managed to get away with not learning much of enduring value at Harvard despite the fact that my parents spent enough to buy a vacation house on my education.
By Ross Douthat
By Crusader Rabbit
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.
At first Harvard was exciting. We rushed around and didn't have to work or stay in lectures and we talked a lost about devising the schedule most appropriate for our needs.
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.
Soon, however, I grew bored. Like every other college campus in our fair land, fewer people went to class as the term wore on. Some people worked hard. I was not one of those people. When I didn't sleep drunkenly through the alarm and actually went to class, I found that I was too far behind. So I took the lazy way out, which was totally the fault of my professor for not forcing me, a young adult smart enough to get into Harvard and paying through the nose for the privilege, to work.
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.
After two years of this I finally got to see a famous conservative. He was sooooo popular unlike all those other liberal professors who couldn't even force kids to go to class.
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.
He was a well-dressed dick, just like I wanted to be.
"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 insulted us a little and then complained that we young whippersnappers had it too easy.
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."
He told us that he was going to grade like all the other professors but he would make sure we knew what he really thought of us.
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.
Mansfield's grandstanding did the trick. Everyone in the elite milieu loves talking about Harvard so his little lecture spread far and wide, well, around the elite circle. Meanwhile all of us conservatives studiously avoided talking about past generations of national leaders and their Gentlemen's Cs, including George W. Bush.
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.
I knew I had finally learned something at Harvard when I quickly realized that insulting my Alma Mater would get me a lot of attention, just like Mansfield. Harvard paid him to work there, other people paid him in part because of the prestige of being a professor at Harvard, and now he was increasing him potential income by increasing his visibility in the media. I, too, could make money by leveraging Harvard's prestige into a job at The Atlantic and then turn around and denigrate and undermine Harvard for the attention it would give me and the increase in earning potential that the fame might get me.
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."
Mansfield showed me that I didn't need to be clever or wise, I just needed to round up the usual suspects and blame them. What could be easier than giving the people what they want and expect? Professor McDreamy blamed affirmative action, which got him the kind of attention I did not want, but he also blamed self-esteem, which I knew I could work with. Conservatives hate self-esteem because you are never supposed to feel good about yourself and I am a very, very good conservative.

And there is something about Harvard that I really hated. I though Harvard would transform me from an awkward, chunky nerd into William F. Buckley.  Conservatives belong to a group, a tradition, a way of life. You don't have to figure any of those things out for yourself. You just dress like Harvey Mansfield and Buckley and everyone else since they all dress alike. You quote the same philosophers and authors, you tell the same jokes, you figure out what everyone else believes, thinks and wants and you limit your own life accordingly. You fit in. You belong. Liberals say they abhor people who hurt others but conservatives abhor people who are Other.  Harvard would transform me from an Other into a Someone Who Belonged.

But I never felt I belonged, no matter how conservative I was. I did everything I was supposed to do--well, almost everything. And yet I still didn't feel good about myself. I felt different and that upset me tremendously.  I wasn't supposed to have self-esteem: to see my value as a unique individual, accept myself with all my flaws, accept responsibility for living up to my claims of being a good person by doing good things.  My self-esteem came from being born into a high position on the conservative hierarchy. I was a superior creature, a Leader Among Men, an intellectual, an elite. Yet I felt like none of those things.  Harvard was supposed me make me cool.
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 is true that I just said Harvard was lowering standards but there is no reason why I cannot also say that I achieved all my goals due to my superiority. After all, my position is superior and I am in this position so I am superior. If I am superior then I know I didn't get to Harvard because my father was a successful lawyer in Connecticut and sent me to an exclusive prep school although not exclusive enough to suit me--Choate was just down the road, people!--and paid for my Harvard misadventure. Therefore it is the fault of the school that I do not feel like I belong. They failed in their job. Why? Because I know everyone else had to be just like me at Harvard. They all just wanted to leverage their current advantages into bigger advantages.
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.
 Sure, I was lazy at Harvard. Wasn't everyone except a few swots?
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.
How could I do my assignment without knowing what to think? Usually I pull some philosopher or historian out of my books and repeat what he said only with more God and Country. Or regurgitate what the professor said or what I think he wants to hear. This professor expected me to look at the objects and come up with my own opinion based on what I had learned so far in the course. What a maroon!
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.
I looked at the club and remember that Indians believed in a lot of heathen gods and all their stuff had meanings, that important objects had spiritual meaning. I looked and saw a feather, an eagle feather, and red paint, war paint. The club looked hand-made, by someone who imbued it with personal and tribal meaning. I looked at the pistol. It was mass-produced, commercialized death in a box, for a people who massacred a nation. Industrialized death, made pretty to hide its ugliness. I was forced to look beyond the surface to imagine the lives and motivations of people in the past, people whose actions affected my life today.

What baloney! The purpose of an education is to make you feel educated. Universities are supposed to teach you stuff, not how to think about stuff. They tell you what you are supposed to know to fit into the world you expected to enter. You had to know lots of stuff to be elite and if you didn't the elite would laugh at you and refuse to invite you into their clubs and parties. Sure, I chose the easiest classes, concentrating in English and History the better to be well-read and not do math, and tended to skip class and skate on assignments, but whose fault was that? Right. The liberal professors.
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.
When you attack an institution it's often best to attack its lest-powerful members so I attacked the professors. Everyone knows that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. Everyone knows that people are wicked and envy the rich and powerful. Our dear Lord and Savior knows I do. Everyone knows that the poor are so envious of the rich that they want to tear down the rich. Some professors don't envy the rich because they are in the maths and sciences, which are conservative, and can become rich themselves. But the people who work in my chosen fields can only ape their betters by while abandoning their real job: forcing me to study the right facts and figures that will advance me to the next level.
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.
My need for order, an outward source of self-esteem, a sense of belonging, a guidebook to life, all made me turn to conservatism. The same needs made me turn to God. When I turned to Harvard it failed me and unlike attacks on God or Mom or conservatism, attacking Harvard sells books.
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.
It's not the professors' jobs to be scholars, if you want to glorify what they do with that name. Their job is to tell me what to know. They didn't. Therefore they failed me, I did not fail them. They failed me to prepare to fit into an upper class of professionals and other important people. Sure, I said class had nothing to do with anything but I lied. Because it's not really their fault, they don't belong in the right group and they don't know how to prepare a gentleman like me to fit in to the right group.
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.
Sure, I chose to go to Harvard knowing the way they were structured but that is irrelevant. Harvard was a necessary stepping-stone to The New York Times.  Nonetheless, the purpose of history (and English and Philosophy and Arts) is to teach you what you need to know to be an elite, a winner. You do not understand history. You do not use history to understand the present. You do not study history to image the future. You memorize a bunch of facts. You use it to attack your enemies, justify your support for wars of aggression, give you authority in discussions and arguments, confuse and intimidate the enemy, win the cocktail party, ace the job interview. Everyone would agree with me.

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.

The first thing I did while studying in the humanities department was to try to avoid the perspective of the humanities department. I was able to find one professor who worked very hard at entertaining me and forcing me to learn about Greek heroes. Sure, I had already studied mythology at my prep school but this was the sort of thing I was looking for; easy, quick, fun, and lots of men in gladiator outfits, just like Russell Crowe in the Gladiator poster on my dorm wall.
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.
I took a course in understanding Islam but instead of teaching me of its evil it made me look at all its facets. I took a quickie course--one of those fluff courses that Harvard offers to lazy students instead of a comprehensive survey of the Old Masters, they should be ashamed--but instead of being given good taste and the ability to spot a Cezanne on the walls of Wm. F. Buckley's study I had to listen to everyone else's idea of art, as if they mattered.
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.
Harvard gave me too much freedom and not enough structure. I need structure. My home life was weird. School was a relief. It had rules and laws and mores. I could deal with that. I couldn't deal with making my own rules or purpose or mores. I didn't want to find new things and go down accidental pathways that opened new doors, to learn how to think or to learn how other people thought. I wanted to be elite.
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.
I was too lazy and undisciplined to take full advantage of my education at Harvard, which is the school's fault for not making it easier on me.
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.
Harvard cheated me out of my golden opportunity to feel special.
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.
Using Harvard as a stepping-stone to better things rather than a chance to learn and grow was very difficult. Coasting through their curriculum, something I learned long ago, was easy.
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.
Not only did I get away with doing the minimum, I get to get paid to brag about my laziness. Conservatism is the greatest thing ever.

12 comments:

Yastreblyansky said...

"Knowing nothing meant I could write anything. I didn't need to do any reading, absorb any history, or learn anything at all."

And so a pundit was born. He's telling all his secrets!

You know, he really followed the Buckley playbook very precisely, seeking fame by dumping on atheistical Harvard just the way Buckley had dumped on Yale. It strikes me there's a reason why he didn't become cool like Buckley, and it's that he never had nearly enough money, only in the 5%, never in the 1%. Couldn't put on a dinner party with a fleet of servants or take a dozen friends out on the yacht. Poor Ross! Now he's at NYT and still feeling like a failure.

Incidentally I don't think Catherine Corman's course in The American West in 2001-02 had any space for a discussion of material culture. It was most likely Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's class that fall on Material Life in Early America, and he's probably lying about the assignment, since like any other specialist in the subject she is interested in an investigation that uses artifacts (along with
relevant documentary, statistical, and oral data) to explore cultural
questions."

fish said...

Shorter Mansfield:

Market forces that I totally worship are making me give you higher grades and I don't like it. Yes I love cognitive dissonance.


(HAH! Fooled the robot detector again! Thanks Turing)

Anonymous said...

I recently read Sonya Sotomayor's autobiography. She writes a lot about her time at Princeton. Talk about a different attitude. She studied hard, did whatever extra her professors advised her to do, sought out mentors, learned a new word every day and generally made the most of her opportunity. I thought to myself, "so that's why she was so successful and me, not so much." I don't know that Douthat would have that same reaction.

Emily

Susan of Texas said...

I suspect he would say that all those things made her conservative, while also saying (as he does) that affirmative action corrupts everyone.

"Affirmative action has always been understandable, but never ideal. It congratulates its practitioners on their virtue, condescends to its beneficiaries, and corrodes the racial attitudes of its victims.

All of this could be defended as a temporary experiment. But if affirmative action persists far into the American future, that experiment will have failed — and we will all have been corrupted by it."

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/opinion/20douthat.html

Susan of Texas said...

Yastreblyansky, I read your post on this--it would be just like Ross to mix up the details.

Yes, he said in his book about Harvard that he was very distressed that there was a group of people that were too cool for him, with their good looks and athletic bodies and more-expensive prep school and most especially their money, which let them into the right school clubs, throw the best parties, and go on the best vacations.

His class (including McArdle) thought they could work their way up to the level of to-the-manor-born, but they were born in the manor's lawyer's house, so they are out of luck.

Susan of Texas said...

Yastreblyansky, I read your post on this--it would be just like Ross to mix up the details.

Yes, he said in his book about Harvard that he was very distressed that there was a group of people that were too cool for him, with their good looks and athletic bodies and more-expensive prep school and most especially their money, which let them into the right school clubs, throw the best parties, and go on the best vacations.

His class (including McArdle) thought they could work their way up to the level of to-the-manor-born, but they were born in the manor's lawyer's house, so they are out of luck.

Anonymous said...

And speaking of affirmative action--it's supposed to be an admissions office saying, "let's take a second look at some under-represented groups to see if we can find applicants who would do well here, but for whatever reason their test scores aren't so hot." This is what Douthat and every other conservative doesn't understand.

Emily

Susan of Texas said...

I think Douthat does understand that but he will use anything to win an argument, true or not, important or not. Race is taken into account so it's an unfair advantage. His unfair advantage is noted but shrugged over. He says the way to make things fair is to let in the real unrepresented group--conservative whites.

Susan of Texas said...

Oh god I just realized why Douthat wants a theocracy. He wants everyone to force him to be good, the way he wanted his school to force him to be a scholar.

http://agonyin8fits.blogspot.com/2010/03/nearer-my-god-to-thee.html

KWillow said...

Well, gee! A sow's ear can't turn itself into a silk purse!

Smut Clyde said...

"Knowing nothing meant I could write anything."

Such an apt summary of his entire career, I couldn't help re-blogging the point at Riddled.
I begin to suspect that self-awareness is not this mook's strong point.

Smut Clyde said...

I did get that Affirmative Action has ruined Harvard, by allowing people in who just slack around without putting in any effort or intellectual curiosity or adult self-agency.

Basically the food is terrible, AND the portions are too small, AND they're letting just anyone sit at a table these days.