Monday, March 01, 2010

The Cluelessness of Harvard

Tim Noah sent me to:

Super-active students are over-scheduled | Harvard Magazine Mar-Apr 2010

The article is, to me, horrifying, in that it suggests that Harvard has, with respect to undergraduates, completely lost its liberal arts roots (I am sure the Ph.D. programs in Arts and Sciences are another matter). But two passages in particular bother me. The first is from Admissions Dean Fitzsimmons:

"....but there’s no question that this place has many more people from the bottom quarter and bottom half of the American income distribution. Now, about a quarter of the class comes from families earning less than $80,000 per year.”

But median household income in the US is $50,000 per year; at $80,000, a household is somewhere in the second highest quintile (and about the same distance to the top of the quintile as the bottom). A more accurate statement, then, is that 75 percent of Harvard students come from the top 25 percent of the income distribution, which is better than 90 and 10, but is still hardly an indicator that Harvard is an engine of social mobility. For that, one needs to turn to places like that Cal State schools.

Even more annoying is

Harvard may or may not be the greatest university in America,” says Howard Gardner, “but it is clearly the greatest one in the world” in that it’s known from Malaysia to Chile to Sri Lanka, whereas references to Yale, Stanford, and Princeton draw only blank stares even in western Europe.

I want to know where in Western Europe Yale, Stanford and Princeton draw blank stares. Hell, in most places I go, people have even heard of the University of Southern California.

Harvard has so much wealth and such extraordinary faculty and students, it survives its insularity. But to see such insularity put on display in its own alumni magazine...


marcdcase said...

I can't speak to Harvard but I've spent some time teaching and observing undergraduate students in economics at several major University campuses as a grad student and now postdoc, this article rings generally true. Many undergraduate students have little interest in any learning that they perceive as irrelevant to professional school admission or a job in the business world. Make a reference to one of the classics and receive blank stares. When I explain, they say why would they need to know something like that when they are interested in finance.

Partly it's selection, but I spent much of my free time as an undergrad in DC going to talks at bookstores, museums, and conversing in coffee shops: all the things that a poor, inner-city boy like me imagined college was like because I had no one to advise me otherwise. By the standards of undergrads today I would have been considered a lazy underachiever despite graduating magna because I did few extracurriculars and never did an internship.

What troubles me is that so many view a university education as vocational training and credentialing. Such views help provide an environment that leads to accepting reduced investment in higher education and people openly questioning the necessity of the humanities.

Unknown said...

Excellent point about Harvard's misunderstanding of income distribution in America.

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