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Harvard: Extra Credit For Oligarch Kids

The classics scholar Sarah Ruden calls out Harvard, where she used to teach as a grad student. [1] 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.

Whole thing here. [1]

Did you know that 29 percent of Harvard’s freshman class this fall are legacy [2], 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. [3] 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.

Naomi Weiss
Assistant Professor of the Classics
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of the Classics
Harvard University

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "Harvard: Extra Credit For Oligarch Kids"

#1 Comment By Ben H On September 21, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

We’d all be better off with more Harvard (etc) legacies rather than fewer. Approaching 100% if possible.

The problem of Harvard for the rest of us is the entitlement mentality that comes from thinking oneself the ‘best’, the entitlement coming from supposed meritocracy. The merit mentality encourages the Harvard man to destroy all before him because he, the meritorious, knows better. Harvard etc knowingly and deliberately cultivates this mentality. It’s their official ideology.

These institutions participate in an open conspiracy against the rest of us with this ideology as their justification.

Destroy the ‘merit’, destroy this poisonous ideology. I’m fine with a Harvard populated entirely bu upper class twits.

#2 Comment By Ben H On September 21, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

As an aside, adopting my plan would mean that the Harvard faculty would be tormented daily by having to teach idiots. This is a feature not a bug.

#3 Comment By John Mark On September 21, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

Robert Coles of Harvard had an exit interview with a young woman of working class background from the mid-West, who cleaned student rooms to pay her way through the university.
Again and again, she reported to Coles, people who were in classes with her treated her ungraciously because of her lower economic position, without simple courtesy and respect, and often were rude and sometimes crude to her. She was repeatedly propositioned for sex by one student in particular as she went about her work. He was a man with whom she had had two “moral reasoning” courses, in which he excelled and received the highest of grades.
During the exit interview she mentioned her involvement in a number of philosophy courses and asked Coles, “What’s the point of knowing good if you don’t try to become a good person?”
This is only slightly adapted from Dallas Willards majesterial book, The Divine Conspiracy, published in 1998. The problems at Harvard obviously go back a long way. And touch on more than expectations of ‘A’ grades for ‘C’ level work. Another book that you might find interesting, and I know you have more books to read and perhaps too many people suggesting books to you, is Finding God Beyond Harvard (Kelly Monroe Kullberg). Her book is a fascinating account of going to school there as a divinity student and finding the school remarkably hostile to Christians. (She is a mainliner, I think, so it is not an ‘evangelical thing.) Some of the stories she tells are close to chilling. And Willard’s book, a bit daunting for me because his background in philosophy informs everything he writes, is–really–a must read.
As someone commented above, “What’s new about all this?” The answer is, nothing, this sort of thing–if not the exact same thing–has been happening at Harvard and other Ivy League schools for a long, long time.

#4 Comment By Chris On September 21, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

At the end of the article… How does she turn this into a Republican thing???

#5 Comment By Colonel Bogey On September 21, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

Russell Kirk had the remedy sixty years ago: Issue a Ph.D. to everyone at birth, so that the colleges need not have to accommodate any students except those who are truly interested in scholarly achievement.

#6 Comment By O’Brien On September 21, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

I spent a year studying at the University of Chicago in the mid 1970’s. Chicago students and faculty thought that Harvard was for dumb kids. In graduate school, grades were given out strictly on the Bell curve, a D was a passing grade, in grad school. A C meant your performance was near the mean for your class. I don’t know what it is like now. I hope it has remained true to itself. I do know that a son or grandson of the founder, John D. Rockefeller, got a Ph.D.in Economics there. Students wondered whether David Rockefeller was a founder’s admit and degree awardee.

#7 Comment By TTT On September 21, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

Since I was STEM at Harvard just under 20 years ago, for some unholy reason I was supposed to take organic chemistry. I ended up getting 3 sit-down warning conferences: one from my TF, then the head TF, then the prof. I would routinely get 15-40 out of 150 on tests. Passing grade was C-. I got two tutors, went to office hours and study group every week, and took a ton of practice tests. When I got my C+, my parents took me out for a steak dinner.

I have never once in my life had any need or use for organic chemistry, I’ve forgotten it all and regret the emotional strain it put on me while I was still a teenager. I WISH there had been some “auto A” inflationary policy in place.

#8 Comment By Novamama On September 21, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

I TA’d a few undergraduate classes at Harvard about 25 years ago when I was a law student there. There was grade inflation, but not as bad as it sounds now, and there was definitely not the sort of outright fraud described in the article. I did have one student who never showed up and didn’t turn in most of the work, but she got the F that she earned, and as a result did not graduate that term. (That was the professor’s call, not mine, thank goodness. I just led small-group discussion and graded papers). Most of the grades were As and Bs, but you know, the students were pretty smart and most of their work was pretty good. Some were extraordinary.

Still, it tells you something about the quality of education that a law student like me was TA’ing philosophy classes. I’d like to think I did a decent job, but let’s face it, they weren’t getting a very qualified instructor. And nobody should ever think that good grades at Harvard are especially impressive. Getting in is a feat. Getting through and getting good grades there, not so much.

#9 Comment By cecelia On September 21, 2017 @ 5:58 pm

there have been studies done which demonstrate that grade inflation occurs most at elite schools. and of course this gives those students the best shot at getting into the elite med schools, law schools, etc. Princeton has attempted to deal with the problem but of course students then complain that they are disadvantaged.

The balance is out of whack – fight back!

#10 Comment By Joan from Michigan On September 22, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

I once dated a man who TAed for Sheldon Glashow, one of Harvard’s big name theoretical physicists. His office, like those of Glashow’s other TAs, was just outside Glashow’s own. Every semester, he would have one or two underperforming undergrads pleading for leniency. One of them pleaded that the low grade had kept him from graduating summa cum laud. The TA was unmoved, so the undergrad said he would take up the matter with the professor himself. The TA warned him, “Don’t tell Shelly he spoiled your summa cum laud. He’ll throw you out of his office.”

The undergrad went into Glashow’s office. Not five minutes later, The TA heard “GET OUT!” and saw the undergrad flee.

#11 Comment By Name withheld… On September 22, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

I’m a current student at Harvard Law, and while I can’t speak to the undergraduate situation, some similar things go on here. We’ve been told by professors and staff “don’t worry too much; you’re at Harvard, you aren’t going to fail.” Good grades are still an extraordinary achievement, but the intimation is that non-passing grades are basically unheard of.

#12 Comment By Tim On January 17, 2019 @ 5:55 pm

Sarah Ruden was a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-80s to early 90s. Nowhere does she mention that the experience she relates happened at least 30 years ago. Hiding any detail of chronology, she clumsily exploits both Harvard’s recent negative press and the current political climate so that she can find a way to tell the world about a traumatic experience from a long time ago.