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February 24, 2005

That's Not What I Said. That's Not What He Said

Ross Douthat fails to accurately summarize what I said.

Even worse, he fails to accurately summarize what he said.

He writes now:

The American Scene: It's probably, no, definitely a bad idea to start responding to every criticism of my Atlantic article (and soon book) on Harvard, elite education etc. But I've heard a variant of Brad DeLong's argument from a lot of people -- namely, that my complaint that Harvard provides little or no institutional guidance to its students once they arrive makes me the equivalent of "a horse, led painstakingly and expensively to water, bitterly complaining that nobody forced it to drink."...

But then he wrote something different. If you go read the conclusion of Douthat's Atlantic Monthly article, the complaint is not that Harvard "provides little or no institutional guidance to its students," the complaint is that Harvard is too easy:

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.

I do think that Harvard (and Berkeley!) make it too easy for the Douthats to slide by, and that at the administrative level the universities do much too little to reward and encourage those teachers who do push back hard and demand much. But let me stand by what I said before: In my day--and, by all accounts, in Ross Douthat's day, and today--it is easy to find teachers who will push back hard: indeed, you have to work pretty hard to avoid them.

Ross Douthat claims now that his point was: "[at Harvard] the only academic guidance takes the form of a terrible, terrible Core Curriculum," and that as a result most students "didn't do a good job picking... (I don't know what the advising system was like in DeLong's era, but it's nearly nonexistent now), thirty-two classes out of the hundreds and hundreds of potential offerings that Harvard flings at you."

But as he wrote then, he and his peers were "studious primarily in our avoidance of academic work, and brilliant largely in our maneuverings to achieve a maximal GPA in return for minimal effort. It was easy to see the classroom as just another résumé-padding opportunity.... If that grade could be obtained while reading a tenth of the books on the syllabus, so much the better...." In such a situation, better advising and guidance--better information about courses and what they were like--would not have helped at all.

Damned if I know what can be done to keep those "studious primarily in... avoidance of academic work, and brilliant largely in... maneuverings to achieve a maximal GPA in return for minimal effort" from wasting their time. The smarter and more energetic they are, the harder the problem.

Posted by DeLong at February 24, 2005 11:26 AM