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February 13, 2005

Thanks Guys, About Twenty-Two Years Late

Reading through this month's Atlantic I find an article by Ross Douthat: "The Truth About Harvard": "It maybe 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."

I need to confess that I am very, very skeptical of everything Douthat writes. Citing Harvey "if you leave your office door open, undergraduates will come in" Mansfield as a model undergraduate educator? And how am I to deal with the statement that "Economics was the only department at Harvard in which the faculty tilted to the right" when of all the Harvard Economics Faculty I can offhand think of only five who I would say "tilt to the right"--Bob Barro, Marty Feldstein, Greg Mankiw, Andrei Shleifer, and half each of Caroline Minter Hoxby and Ed Glaeser? For Douthat to then follow with "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" is to convince me that he has no contact with reality whatsoever.

Plus the whole article is a weird exercise: it's a horse, led painstakingly and expensively to water, bitterly complaining that nobody forced it to drink.

Nevertheless, he does hit on something in his conclusion:

[A]fterward, when the perpetual motion of undergraduate life was behind me... I looked back and felt cheated.... I began chuckling inwardly when some older person... 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... competing for offices and honors and extracurriculars... swirling social world... fighting for law-school slots and investment-banking jobs.... But the academics... were another story....

[T]he moment 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... or handed in C-quality work and got a gleaming B+... it wasn't our sloth... or our pushing for higher grades, that made Harvard easy.

No, Harvard was easy because almost no one was pushing back.

What he has hit upon is that it was indeed possible to arrange your academic life at Harvard so that no one was pushing back.Fortunately, perhaps, I did not discover this in time. So I took courses in which teachers pushed back--and pushed back very hard.

There were professors I never knew--those who stood in front in large lectures. But some of them pushed back: David Herlihy, Albert Lord, Michael Walzer, Wallace McCaffrey, and Ed Purcell come to mind.

And then there were the smaller classes where I really got to know the teachers. Rick Ericson pushed back hard from the first week in economics 10 and kept pushing back the whole year. Others who pushed back really hard include... what was the name of that math 55 professor?... what was the name of that Straussian gov 106b section leader?... In my sophomore year John Geanakoplos and Roger Guesnerie in micro theory, Shannon Stimson and Jeffrey Weintraub in social theory, and most especially Marty Feldstein and Olivier Blanchard in macro theory blew my mind wide open. Peter Huber in statistics pushed back, as did Zvi Griliches and Mark Watson in econometrics, Richard Musgrave and Manuel Trajtenberg in economy and society, and William Thomson (visiting from Rochester) teaching advanced micro theory. In my senior year Bill Lazonick was a superb thesis supervisor. Because Karen Huang persuaded me that I needed to learn something about sociology, I landed in the company of Harrison White and Mark Granovetter, who tried very hard to teach me some (but it didn't stick).

Thus by the time I hit graduate school, and the truly extraordinary teachers and colleagues I found there and have continued to find since, I was more than ready. I had found undergraduate Harvard very hard indeed--not that my grades had been low, or that good grades had been hard to get, but a lot of people had been convinced that I could think hard and had made it their business to make very sure that I had done so.

It is, I think, extremely easy to have Ross Douthat's experience as a Harvard undergraduate--especially if you go looking for it. But I didn't have that experience. For that, I owe a lot of extraordinary teachers an enormous debt.

Thanks guys.

UPDATE: My brother raves about the "stupendous seminars from Bailyn, Bisson, May, and Ozment. All were incredibly dedicated, extremely knowledgeable, brilliant fully tenured professors..."

Posted by DeLong at February 13, 2005 12:37 AM