The classics scholar Sarah Ruden calls out Harvard, where she used to teach as a grad student.  She says the university “helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead” through what amounts to fraud. It is shocking — truly shocking — to read about the humiliation a superior inflicted on her as a Latin instructor, when she was getting her PhD there. It was all done to cater to a spoiled-brat student. Boy, is she bitter, and rightly so. Excerpt:
Naive as I was as a grad student, I suspected from the start that teachers’ defeat in clashes over standards was built in, as our humiliations served a clear purpose: Undergraduates emerged more powerful the more obnoxiously they behaved; they felt they owned the system — how else could they induce it to give them high grades certifying their excellence when their work was mediocre or nonexistent? — and so they would be likely to support it all their lives with large alumni donations. This, of course, levied high costs on everyone else and on what a university claims, in public, as its core purpose: intellectual achievement. Over and over, administrators decreed that the costs would be paid; in particular, pressure from above would be allowed, whenever convenient, to turn teachers into pushovers and lackeys.
In fact, genuine rigor — which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students — isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.
And when I recall that scene in the professor’s office, I’m reminded in particular of the various accounts of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s Harvard acceptance, which strongly suggest that his way was paved with family money and connections.
It’s a system that polishes privilege, its byproduct a contempt for earned authority. Many of the people who started with this attitude had it ratified and encouraged by perhaps the most prestigious university in the world — and now they’re running the whole show.
Did you know that 29 percent of Harvard’s freshman class this fall are legacy , meaning that one or both of their parents are Harvard grads? And:
Legacy students tend to be wealthy and white, students who, as a group, are already disproportionately represented at college. The New York Times found that, at five Ivy League schools, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown, as well as 33 other colleges, there are more students from families in the top one percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent.
They hire each other, and make sure their kids get into the same elite colleges. Thus is the system perpetuated.
To be fair, there may be less objectionable about this than it appears.  Still, there is no way at all — none — to justify morally what Ruden was compelled to do. I was told a similar story by a professor at a small Christian liberal arts college, so no, I don’t think this is only a Harvard thing. But then again, nobody thinks a degree from that college means as much as a Harvard degree.
It stinks of fraud, of a Potemkin village. But as long as Harvard and other elite schools serve as sorting mechanisms for the ruling class, nothing will change. At some point, the false economy in all this will be revealed, right? Right?
Prediction: nothing will change.
Any current or former Harvard students or grad students among this blog’s readership? I’d love to hear your take on Ruden’s charges.
UPDATE: From a Harvard Classics department professor:
In the Washington Post article discussed here, Dr. Ruden fails to mention that she was a graduate student at Harvard almost 30 years ago. The make-up of the Department of the Classics has significantly changed since then.
Grade inflation is a problem at every university I know of, not just within the Ivy League. The power of donors is an unfortunate reality at every university I know of, not just within the Ivy League. These serious issues do not justify Ruden equating a private interaction from the 1980s with the current sociopolitical climate.
As junior faculty at Harvard in the very department that Ruden describes (but 30 years later), I have never once felt any pressure to treat the small minority of highly privileged students any differently than the rest. I should also add that I and many of my colleagues are part of a network that provides advice and resources for first-generation college students here — one of several systems of support for those from less privileged backgrounds that are designed to help them perform to their full potential.
70% of Harvard undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. 60% receive need-based scholarships and pay an average of $12,000 per year. 20% pay nothing at all. These statistics belie the assumption that Harvard puts money before talent and prefers to pander to the rich rather than offer a rigorous education to all who enter its gates.
Assistant Professor of the Classics
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of the Classics