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All the privileged must have prizes

The banality and sense of entitlement of rich students at Harvard left John H. Summers feeling his teaching had been degraded to little more than a service to prepare clients for monied careers

I joined the staff of the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies at Harvard University in 2000. As tutor, then as lecturer, I advised senior theses, conceived and conducted freshman and junior seminars and taught the year-long sophomore tutorial, Social Studies 10, six times. The fractured nature of my appointment, renewed annually for six successive years while never amounting to more than 65 per cent of a full-time position in any one year, kept me on the margins of prestige and promotion even as it kept me there long enough to serve three chairmen of social studies, two directors of study and three presidents of Harvard.

The post-pubescent children of notables for whom I found myself holding curricular responsibility included the offspring of an important political figure, of a player in the show business world and the son of real-estate developer Charles Kushner.

In the first meeting of my first seminar of my first year, Kushner's son Jared entered my classroom and promptly took the seat across from mine, sharing the room, so to speak. I was drawing an annual salary of $15,500 (£7,700) and borrowing the remainder for survival in Cambridge, in order that he might be given the best possible education. Jared later purchased The New York Observer for $10 million, part of which he made buying and selling real estate while also attending my seminar. As publisher, one of his first moves was to reduce pay for the Observer's stable of book reviewers. I had been writing reviews for the Observer in an effort to pay my debts.

Most of the students I encountered had already embraced the perspectives of the rich, the powerful and the unalienated, and they seemed to have done so with appalling ease. In keeping with the tradition of the American rich they worked exceptionally long hours, they were aggressive in exercising their talents, and on the ideological features of market capitalism they were unanimous. Their written work disclosed the core components of the consensus upheld by their liberal parents: the meaning of liberty lies in the personal choice of consumers; free competition in goods and morals regulates value; technological progress is an unmixed good; war is unfortunate.

Around this consensus crystallised an ethos. One of my less affluent students, the son of a postman, asked me once for advice about a financial investment. He said his friends had told him to invest "in prisons", meaning one of the private companies winning the management contracts for correctional facilities. I told him what I thought about this recommendation; but only later, when I learnt how little he had to invest ($2,000 was his total savings), did I allow myself to think I understood the significance of his question. No amount of money may be permitted to lie idle if something may be got for nothing. The capitalist theory of life as a game disallows uncapitalised advantages.

I asked each of my seminars whether they had so far encountered a teacher they genuinely appreciated. If so, what aspects did they most admire? Invariably they said good teachers made them "feel comfortable". To sense the sterility one had only to listen: "shopping period" was the name of the week they selected their classes. Once, when I proposed to teach a junior seminar entitled "Anarchist cultural criticism in America", I was instructed to go ahead only if I first changed the title to "America and its critics". Here was the same method of cultural hygiene that has transformed Harvard Square from a bohemian enclave into an outdoor mall.

Grading, the one instrument of power I wielded, offers the best example of the degradation of pedagogy by the frenzy of success. The Boston Globe's expose of grade inflation at Harvard has left little doubt that it is a semi-rigged competition, another subsidised risk. The formal scale runs from A to F. The tacit scale runs from A to B. I learnt the latter from students and supervisors, but especially from colleagues, few of whom wish to carry the opprobrium of the low end. This is as it may be. But the presence of two standards of value, one official and one tacit, is always a sign of corruption: the one necessarily dishonours the other. It also abridges the academic freedom of the teacher. Although I never gave a final grade below B minus, I can attest to the petty harassment that teachers attract in such cases. I do not mean merely that the students are never so aggressive and articulate as when they hunt for grades. I mean that they wage political reprisals against the B-minus grader and send gifts to high-placed academic directors.

Once, a judge and his wife went to my supervisor to complain about a grade I had assigned to their child in a senior oral examination. They rested their complaint on the fact that I was not yet in possession of the all-encompassing credential, the PhD. They pointed out that the second examiner in the room had assigned the exam a slightly higher grade, and that this second examiner was, in fact, a PhD. The judge and his wife did not know, nor did they care to discover, that I was by far the more experienced of the two graders. I had been conducting exams for four years; the second examiner had never before conducted one. A minor gaffe, but one that William James, author of "The Ph.D. Octopus" (1903), could have understood and appreciated.

In January 2008, a "group of Harvard alumni from the Vietnam War era" sent an open letter to the university's president. "We are concerned by what we see to be the widespread apathy and political indifference of the student body at Harvard College today," said the letter (reported in Times Higher Education on 4 January 2008), which defined the problem as "self-examination and broad intellectual growth versus the careerist, vocational orientation". The letter was only half-right: the students are the opposite of apathetic and indifferent. The new student rich have retained the radical energy of the 1960s, only to engage it in more lushly monetised competencies. The New Left occupied universities to protest against the bureaucratic hollowness of examination rituals and grading rationales. Now its children complete the attack on the authority of teachers, who are simply annexed to the management of student careers, drawn into a tacit agreement between corporation and client in which failure is not an option. I had to grade the students, and I had to grade them well. Everyone expected a recommendation letter.

The ethos, so understood, mimics the psychodynamics of inflation in this age of unlimited markets. Since the students were young, apparently, their parents and teachers have bathed them in ambitious glances, so that the source of their very identity has come to lie in their potential. Perhaps this is why, though they demand to be graded, they resent the teacher's claim to judgment based on performance, which implies a stable set of values. A relatively low judgment may be met by the always available thought that they could have done better.

This thought is not as easy to rebut as one might suppose. Harvard students may be divided into three types. The first two are those who infer from their presence on campus that they have already made it and those who infer that they are on their way to making it. Both types are keenly aware of the prestige-value of their situation. To mention to a stranger where one studies is to drop the "H-Bomb". Neither type, accordingly, has encountered any really good reason to suppose that their potential is anything but limitless. Members of the third type, the ironists and the scoffers, have their degree and eat it too, since their anti-Harvard posturing carries no real risks. The gigantic endowment, that great symbol of unspent potential, blesses their scepticism by indexing their value on the credentials market.

Consider how the grading scandal (an open secret on campus) broke into the public discussion at the same time the dot-com bubble burst. Try to see these phenomena as twin instances in the chronic overextension of the credit markets. Now ask the question: when intellectuals act as clerks and students act as clients, how do college teachers differ from corporate accountants?

Should I say I am grateful for the chance to teach at Harvard? I am. Should I acknowledge the many fine exceptions it was my privilege to instruct? I do, with pleasure. But the sedulous banality of the rich degrades teaching into a service-class preoccupation whose chief duty is preparing clients for monied careers. The liberal flattery of the student is both sentimental and irrelevant. If youth is wasted on the young, is teaching wasted on students?

Teaching on the part-time staff at Harvard is a little like visiting Disney World. The magic dust induces a light narcosis. The mind goes incontinent in the presence of paradox and conflict, and it is tough to tell how much fun you are having from how much you are having to pretend. The important thing is never to become the screamer who ruins the ride for everyone. The line is long.

Readers' comments (116)

  • I appreciate the issues raised in this piece, but why pinpoint Harvard? Grade inflation is everywhere, if not in most US institutions, then in all the Ivy leagues.
    I don't deny there are rich students at Harvard who are offsprings of the rich and powerful, but the author has stayed at Harvard long enough and should have noted the many Harvard students working in libraries, etc., to pay off part of their tuition. Let's not forget them.

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  • Agreed with Gomez. That much resentment is unhealthy in a teacher. Why did you stay if you felt exploited? There are many other opportunities out there and to act like a victim at/of Harvard is absurd. Pity the students!

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  • (Full disclosure: I am a Harvard College alumnus; I worked to pay my tuition. I am a Harvard Ph.D. student as well, meaning I carry out many of the same duties as described by Mr. Summers.)

    This piece would have been a much more effective critique of Harvard had the author not shown his true colors in the first paragraph: the guy has an axe to grind!

    "The fractured nature of my appointment, renewed annually for six successive years while never amounting to more than 65 per cent of a full-time position in any one year, kept me on the margins of prestige and promotion even as it kept me there long enough to serve three chairmen of social studies, two directors of study and three presidents of Harvard."

    Apparently, it was "the system" that prevented his meteoric rise in academia? Yes, indeed, someone smacks of entitlement and bitterness. To say so in your first paragraph? Come on, man, you clearly should rethink your career choice.

    As it stands, your piece basically falls under the old, tired "Harvard is an elitist institution; those bastards!" trope. If I had a nickel...

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  • I graduated from Harvard with a degree in Social Studies back in 2000, so I missed John's term in the department by a few months.

    First I'll say that most of the Social Studies tutors and professors I encountered were excellent. I am proud of the education I received in that department (or "concentration," as they called it then for reasons I still don't fully understand). Each of them probably should have been paid more (and presumably earned better benefits) than they were offered.

    Having said that, John's characterization of the students in the department is totally at odds with my experience. I have worked in the non-profit sector since I graduated, as have many of my social studies classmates. Certainly there is a problem at elite schools in general, and Harvard in particular, that the career path of least resistance has led to management consulting and i-banking. However, back in 2000 it felt like Social Studies was a bubble for those of us who thought differently, and preferred to model our thinking on patterns set by Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and Jurgen Habermas (in fact, there was an intense, bizarre peer pressure to do so).

    Of course there were a few obnoxious kids in every batch, but its simply inaccurate to describe that as the norm for either the students or the University.

    The great thing about that environment, which I miss terribly, is that each student went about his or her daily life sincerely believing that, for better or for worse, he or she can and would change the world. I don't think of that as a sense of entitlement, but rather as a sense of possibility which should be evangelized, as many of us bratty kids from the Social Studies department are now doing.

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  • Yes, all true -- but mainly at the top elite universities. For example, someone I know at Columbia was told when she arrived there to teach that the modal grade (what students would regard as average -- not good, not bad) was A-.

    However, state universities and lesser known private universities have more flexibility because the students are less rich and less self-assured. The "modal grade" here at Rutgers-Newark (a highly diverse state university campus dominated by upwardly mobile immigrants and first generation students) is somewhere between B and B+. My colleagues and I -- my having talked about this with several of them -- have no problems marking lower, and I have maybe only once or twice in four years had a student come to me and try to persuade me to change his or her grade. (I refused, of course.)

    Actually, I think the situation is just as bad or worse in British universities, where I taught for 33 years (York, Leeds and Manchester). What is done through elite pressure in the US is done in the UK by league tables. Pretty much everyone gets 2:1s these days (the equivalent of an A- in the US), 3rds are almost unheard of, and the number of firsts is increasingly inflated in order to make the university and the department look better to the bureaucratic targetmasters who hold the purse strings.

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  • Gomez: I don't think the intent of the article was to call out Harvard as an exception of grade inflation.

    Instead it was for the writer to speak about personal experiences which took place at Harvard. It would have been out of scope for the writer to apply the experience to all Ivy league schools.

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  • I too taught at Harvard in a similar position to the one John describes, during the same period. While there were certainly wonderful students there, what he describes is spot on, and I applaud him for it. I am sure similar truths hold at other elite institutions, but you will never know the amazing sense of entitlement these Harvard undergrads have until you have taught them.

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  • I was a graduate student at Harvard until very recently. I left because my students--generally depraved in all of the ways mentioned in this article--were driving me crazy, among other reasons. (Another was that the capital-U University doesn't pay its graduate students--i.e. its main teaching force--enough to live in Cambridge in any condition much more comfortable than constant financial panic.)

    I commend John Summers and his article, most of all for making so forcefully clear what is worst about Harvard's students: their moral imagination is fundamentally limited, and they cannot conceive of any form of value that is not, just as Summers says, regulated by the market. Consequently they cannot imagine what an education is for, unless it is for making money, for somebody, somewhere. They may disagree about for whom, and where, their advantages should be capitalized ("For me, on Park Avenue!" "No, for the poor, in Uganda!"), but "on the ideological features of market capitalism"--now understood as a theory that arrogates to itself the question of moral value--"they [are] unanimous."

    Ari Lipman's nostalgic evocation of a dormful of 19-year-old kids in sweat pants, fully assured that they will "change the world"--most of us, unlike Lipman, have to choke down a powerful surge of revulsion to call up such an image--doesn't put the lie to Summers' point; it underscores it. This education is the first stop on a career path pointed straight at making money; this teacher is just another potential professional reference.

    It seems to occur only to the rarest few of them that it might be good, good in itself, just to know something, or to think now and then. That's a regrettably more radical thought than it used to be.

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  • I Graduated from Harvard in 2008. For all four years I played a varsity sport, worked, and volunteered. Now, I am working at Trader Joe's before my career as an officer in the Marine Corps begins in January. Summers et al., can you compare the paycheck of a Marine to a Wall Streeter, and get back to me please? Not the same? Well, I'm glad I chose the Marines because my career is pointed at making money.

    The point is, only 40% of Harvard students (in a good year, I think it's only in the low 30% for my graduating class) go straight to Wall Street. Yes, many others will matriculate there after years of Teach For America, a year off, law school, etc. However, this man Summers would like you to think that 100% of Harvard's student body is fixated on making money. What about the 4 students who did ROTC and are now officers in the U.S. military (yes, quite low given past data, however, their choice and presence is not to be overlooked). What about others like Ari Lipman working in public service? What about others with science degrees working to cure diseases and those others becoming opera singers and others following Summers own path and entering academia?

    Summers clearly, as spameggs says, has an axe to grind. Sadly, he stereotyped the Harvard Student body he so obviously failed to get to know during his 7 years at the school and wants to take us students down with him. Shame on you, Summers, for not caring enough about your students to get to know more than half of an amazing group of people. I know that getting tenure at a University is tough, and especially so at Harvard. The bureaucracy is intimidating and timing is crucial. However, Summers, just because you don't still teach at Harvard doesn't mean you should take the student body down with you. Summers, before attacking Harvard's students again, should remember that a good majority of us value our degrees for what they are: titles given to recognize the student for achieving knowledge. What authority does Summers have to denigrate that title and process besides being an ex-low-level participant with an obvious beef and a pen? Yes he is controversial and opinionated, but he is also out of line and off the mark.

    We must thank this hubristic author for stereotyping Harvard students as money-hungry brats who waste the time of Harvard's teachers. Don't let Summers or any of his supporters sway you: the flipside of his coin is that teachers of his mindset (ie students should learn for learning's sake, a VERY antiquated notion in America today) are only teaching at Harvard so that the name appears on their resume. As mentioned above, Summers must have taken little interest in the students he was teaching, and thus he must not care as much about the students as he would like you all to believe. I would be interested to see Summer's evaluations from his students (CUE evals). I know some of his students personally, and they don't have favorable things to say.

    Not all teachers at Harvard care as little about their students as Summers obviously did. But it is the case that there is a good percentage of them out there like Summers (just as is the case there is a good percentage of money-hungry brats out there too.) In neither case is it a majority, though Summers as a chump ex-part-time teacher with an overblown sense of authority says otherwise about me and my peers. Take it from me: Harvard students are not all that bad.

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  • Let me begin by admitting that I am currently a Harvard undergraduate.

    This article is a bitter, all-out attack on an enormous body of students who every day defy the narrow ambitions and categories that the author so quickly imposes on them. His haste to categorize all of us as philistines, grubbing for grades and money before we complete our degrees, is hugely unfair to the population of students on campus (the large population) who do not come from monied backgrounds, who do not view money as the axis about which all our dreams, actions, and papers rotate, and who do not think ourselves more entitled to success and an easy life than the rest of the world.

    Certainly, there is a percentage of students here who have had life easy, and always will, and backchannels do exist at Ivy League Institutions for those who know how to operate in them. But many of us come from middle-class backgrounds and communities, and have had to work hard to get here. We value what we have achieved, but don't expect it to come without more hard work, and a little but of luck, not handed to us by a cadre of cooing advisors and grade-happy teaching assistants.

    Certainly there is grade inflation - but what am I to do about that? Demand that my teacher give me a lower grade? My father, who's about to serve a tour of duty in the Middle East, is certainly not going to run to my advisor if I get a low grade; he's going to tell me to work harder, and to pay more attention to my studies.

    While some of the criticisms he levels are accurate - the grade inflation, the pressure put on teaching fellows and assistants to grade easily, and how little they are cared for and remunerated - this is all true. None of this is disputed. But characterizing a huge population of students as a monolith of callous prigs driven only by the Almighty Dollar is irresponsible, unfair, and a disservice to this publication.

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