Harvard and America

 

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, FIRE, announced the results of a recent survey on the free speech climate at America’s universities. Out of 254 colleges, Harvard University ranked at the absolute bottom.

I’m reminded of some comments about Harvard written by the English traveler Harriet Martineau following her visit in 1835:

The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of pre-eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her principles and management so as to suit the wants of the period; and she will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults. She has a great name, and the education she affords is very expensive in comparison with all other colleges. The sons of the wealthy will therefore flock to her. The attainments usually made within her walls are inferior to those achieved elsewhere, her professors (poorly salaried, when the expenses of living are considered) being accustomed to lecture and examine the students, and do nothing more. The indolent and the careless will therefore flock to her. But, meantime, more and more new colleges are rising up, and are filled as fast as they rise, whose principles and practices are better suited to the wants of the time. In them living is cheaper, and the professors are therefore richer with the same or smaller salaries; the sons of the yeomanry and mechanic classes resort to them; and, where it is the practice of the tutors to work with their pupils, as well as lecture to them, a proficiency is made which shames the attainments of the Harvard students. The middle and lower classes are usually neither Unitarian nor Episcopalian, but“orthodox,” as their distinctive term is; and these, the strength and hope of the nation, avoid Harvard, and fill to overflowing the oldest orthodox colleges; and, when these will hold no more, establish new ones.

Also, after attending a meeting of the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society, she said:

The traveller is met everywhere among the aristocracy of the country with what seems to him the error of concluding that letters are wisdom, and that scholarship is education. Among a people whose profession is social equality, and whose rule of association is universal self-government, he is surprised to witness the assumptions of a class, and the contempt which the few express for the many, with as much assurance as if they lived in Russia or England. Much of this is doubtless owing to the minds of the lettered class having been nourished upon the literature of the old world, so that their ideas have grown into a conformity with those of the subjects of feudal institutions, and the least strong-minded and original indiscriminately adopt, not merely the language, but the hopes and apprehensions, the notions of good and evil which have been generated amidst the antiquated arrangements of European society: but, making allowance for this, as quite to be expected of all but very strong and original minds, it is still surprising that within the bounds of the republic, the insolence should be so very complacent, the contempt of the majority so ludicrously decisive as it is.

Excerpt of her full remarks on Harvard here.

I’m also reminded of something that a great writer on management and society, the Austrian-born Peter Drucker, wrote back in 1969:

One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…

We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande École status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above. A distinction between “schools for leaders” and “schools for followers” is, as Drucker noted, a socially malign one.  Extreme Ivy credentialism is much stronger in some industries than in others. It is especially high in government, in ‘nonprofits,’ and in finance.

I’m sure it’s possible to get a great education at Harvard and other Ivies, at least in some fields, and I’ve known several impressive individuals who graduated from these schools, both as undergrads and from the business schools. But I’ve also need a lot of impressive people who followed other educational paths, and I don’t see that there is any magic sauce possessed by the ‘elite’ universities, at least as far as actual education goes. But as far as the contacts and the ‘brand’ go, there is indeed some magic, though not of a beneficent kind. The dominance of these universities in government and the archipelago of institutions that surround it has reached the point that an Ivy degree is something like one of those Titles of Nobility that were prohibited by the US Constitution.

(I see that former Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is now a lecturer at Harvard. Her scholarly attainments may not be particularly noteworthy, nor did her job performance reach a level of excellence that would make a useful case study–but her appointment does strengthen the Harvard linkage with the governing party.)

On a positive note, there is starting to be some significant pushback against Ivy credentialism and academic credentialism in general. For example, the Thiel Fellowship “gives $100,000 to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” (Ten of the companies started by Thiel Fellows now have valuations of over $1 billion.) The 1517 Fund defines itself with the line: “We back dropouts, renegade students & sci-fi scientists at the earliest stages of their companies.” Michael Gibson, co-founder & co-manager of 1517, has written an interesting book titled Paper Belt on Fire:

Paper Belt on Fire is the unlikely account of how two outsiders with no experience in finance—a charter school principal and defrocked philosopher—start a venture capital fund to short the higher education bubble. Against the contempt of the education establishment, they discover, mentor, and back the leading lights in the next generation of dropout innovators and in the end make their investors millions.

(Former Harvard president Larry Summers is not a fan of the Thiel Fellowship, calling it “the single most misdirected philanthropy of the decade” and averring that it would be “tragic” for intellectually capable young people to eschew college in favor of Thiel’s backing. I doubt he is very fond of the 1517 fund, either.)

Some corporations and some states (Virginia) are eliminating universal college requirements for a broad range of jobs.  The Federal Aviation Administration no longer requires a college degree for Air Traffic Control candidates (although degrees are still considered a positive). There is a revived interest in vocational education and trade schools.

Universities and K-12 schools have been seriously abusing their power, with malign consequences for the economy and the full use of human talents.  The only hope for reform lies in the reduction of that power through the development of alternative paths for the acquisition of knowledge.

Some related previous posts and discussion threads:

Harvard–a View From 1835

The Ivy League and American Society

The Scribes and the Idea of Freedom

The Rule of the Prince-Electors

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  1. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    David Foster (View Comment):
    Now, if by ‘elite’, by mean ‘graduating students who will act as a virtual aristocracy is filling the key power positions of society,’ they have been pretty successful in recent decades. 

    By graduating poor thinkers.

    • #31
  2. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):‘Elite’ seems to me to imply that an institution is actually Good at whatever it is doing.

    David,

    The question you are addressing is

    Yes/No: Is Harvard College elite?

    To start with, let’s remember, and act in accordance with, a fact that we are in the bad habit continually forgetting, and failing to heed when reminded of it, on Ricochet:

    If you want a meaningful answer, you must start with a meaningful question: ensure that the writer and the readers are using materially the same definitions and assumptions.

    You have chosen this definition of elite:

    exhibiting excellent performance at its assigned tasks

    Given your definition, I agree with you that the answer is No.

    Given my definition, do you agree with me that the answer is Yes?

     

    Harvard’s purpose is to be elite but it fails to achieve that purpose.

    You didn’t answer the question.

    (You still have two tries left to heed the fact that we are in the bad habit continually forgetting, and failing to heed when reminded of it, on Ricochet.

    Yes, I agree that I did not answer the question. Sometimes I am able to convey what I think with my own words. But I’m not perfect.

    Nobody thinks you have to answer the question.  You don’t have to, unless you want to know what I was thinking. Not being curious about what I am thinking does not mean you are not perfect.

    It just means that, like most people, you have more important things to think about than what I’m thinking!

    You are being too hard on yourself.

    • #32
  3. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):‘Elite’ seems to me to imply that an institution is actually Good at whatever it is doing.

    David,

    The question you are addressing is

    Yes/No: Is Harvard College elite?

    To start with, let’s remember, and act in accordance with, a fact that we are in the bad habit continually forgetting, and failing to heed when reminded of it, on Ricochet:

    If you want a meaningful answer, you must start with a meaningful question: ensure that the writer and the readers are using materially the same definitions and assumptions.

    You have chosen this definition of elite:

    exhibiting excellent performance at its assigned tasks

    Given your definition, I agree with you that the answer is No.

    Given my definition, do you agree with me that the answer is Yes?

     

    Harvard’s purpose is to be elite but it fails to achieve that purpose.

    You didn’t answer the question.

    (You still have two tries left to heed the fact that we are in the bad habit continually forgetting, and failing to heed when reminded of it, on Ricochet.

    Yes, I agree that I did not answer the question. Sometimes I am able to convey what I think with my own words. But I’m not perfect.

    Nobody thinks you have to answer the question. You don’t have to, unless you want to know what I was thinking. Not being curious about what I am thinking does not mean you are not perfect.

    It just means that, like most people, you have more important things to think about than what I’m thinking!

    You are being too hard on yourself.

    Actually I wonder about something you, Mark,  might have and interest in and something to say.

    A lot of public discourse today is carried on in an atmosphere in which a process may be defined in a certain way but executed in a different and deceptive manner and this seems to bring a complication to discussions about it.

    • #33
  4. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):
    Now, if by ‘elite’, by mean ‘graduating students who will act as a virtual aristocracy is filling the key power positions of society,’ they have been pretty successful in recent decades.

    By graduating poor thinkers.

    The progressives and liberals, yes; but for conservative and classical liberal students, attending an “elite” (i.e., highly selective) left-wing university is intellectual combat training.  

    • #34
  5. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):
    I think an awful lot of them are just looking for a magic ticket.

    I think this is absolutely all that distinguishes Harvard, Yale. the other Ivy League schools and a few others.

    The principle advantage that these students and their families are seeking is connection to to those who will be the movers and shakers.

    Being admitted to a selective university is a proxy for the IQ tests that employers are generally not permitted to use (due to “disparate impact”).

    • #35
  6. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):‘Elite’ seems to me to imply that an institution is actually Good at whatever it is doing.

    David,

    The question you are addressing is

    Yes/No: Is Harvard College elite?

    To start with, let’s remember, and act in accordance with, a fact that we are in the bad habit continually forgetting, and failing to heed when reminded of it, on Ricochet:

    If you want a meaningful answer, you must start with a meaningful question: ensure that the writer and the readers are using materially the same definitions and assumptions.

    You have chosen this definition of elite:

    exhibiting excellent performance at its assigned tasks

    Given your definition, I agree with you that the answer is No.

    Given my definition, do you agree with me that the answer is Yes?

     

    Harvard’s purpose is to be elite but it fails to achieve that purpose.

    You didn’t answer the question.

    (You still have two tries left to heed the fact that we are in the bad habit continually forgetting, and failing to heed when reminded of it, on Ricochet.

    Yes, I agree that I did not answer the question. Sometimes I am able to convey what I think with my own words. But I’m not perfect.

    Nobody thinks you have to answer the question. You don’t have to, unless you want to know what I was thinking. Not being curious about what I am thinking does not mean you are not perfect.

    It just means that, like most people, you have more important things to think about than what I’m thinking!

    You are being too hard on yourself.

    Actually I wonder about something you, Mark, might have and interest in and something to say.

    A lot of public discourse today is carried on in an atmosphere in which a process may be defined in a certain way but executed in a different and deceptive manner and this seems to bring a complication to discussions about it.

    Ok, I’m ready!

    What’s the question?

    Then (as the need is revealed, not all at the beginning!) we will need to ensure that it’s meaningful: that you (the writer) and I (the reader) are using materially identical definitions for all the terms, and making materially identical implicit assumptions.

    But this time, unfortunately, someone (me) WILL be saying that you DO HAVE TO say what just these definitions and assumptions are, when I legitimately need to know, in order to continue an intelligent conversation.

    Just as I will HAVE to, whenever YOU legitimately need to know in order to continue an intelligent conversation.

     

    • #36
  7. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    David Foster (View Comment):
    ‘Elite’ seems to me to imply that an institution is actually Good at whatever it is doing.  If a welding school graduates students who can’t weld, I don’t think you can could call it an ‘elite’ welding school. If a university’s mission is really to ‘“teach future leaders of the society how to think, read, and write”, can the ‘think’ part of this really be done if the campus climate is hostile to open discussion?

    Fair point, but “elite” has two possible meanings:

    1. Of high birth or social position; aristocratic or patrician.
    2. Representing the choicest or most select of a group.

    A university can produce poorly educated graduates and meet the first definition but not the second, since it is increasingly the case that universities, seeing themselves as gatekeepers for professional and social advancement, seek to indoctrinate rather than educate while weeding out those who resist indoctrination.

    • #37
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    From the OP:

    I’m sure it’s possible to get a great education at Harvard and other Ivies, at least in some fields, and I’ve known several impressive individuals who graduated from these schools, both as undergrads and from the business schools. But I’ve also need a lot of impressive people who followed other educational paths, and I don’t see that there is any magic sauce possessed by the ‘elite’ universities, at least as far as actual education goes. But as far as the contacts and the ‘brand’ go, there is indeed some magic, though not of a beneficent kind. The dominance of these universities in government and the archipelago of institutions that surround it has reached the point that an Ivy degree is something like one of those Titles of Nobility that were prohibited by the US Constitution.

    I think this was true to some extent before World War II. As the story is told in “The Great Sorting” (Atlantic, 1995) by Nicholas Lemann, when the country was desperate to find as much talent and brain power as we could as fast as we could, the government approached Harvard. Harvard said, paraphrasing, “They are not all here.”

    The government said, “How do we find them?”

    Harvard said, “Nationwide testing. It will help us find intelligent young people trapped in underperforming schools.”

    The rest of the development of the College Board’s Standardized Aptitude Test (SAT) is history. :)

    The GI bill added to that. It enabled us to get education and credentials to people who had served in the military.

    And it is the theory behind almost all of our country’s public and private scholarship programs.

    All professions have one thing in common: the people in them share a vocabulary. That’s what professional education does more than anything else. It gives the people inside the field an efficient communication system. And the meaning of the credentials is essentially the same. Doctor A can trust that Doctor B has the same basic understanding of cell metabolism.

    Frankly, higher education is more about communication than it is about process or discovery.

    This is where the Ivies shine. They create working vocabularies in the various academic areas.

    • #38
  9. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    MarciN (View Comment):

    I’m sure it’s possible to get a great education at Harvard and other Ivies, at least in some fields, and I’ve known several impressive individuals who graduated from these schools, both as undergrads and from the business schools. But I’ve also need a lot of impressive people who followed other educational paths, and I don’t see that there is any magic sauce possessed by the ‘elite’ universities, at least as far as actual education goes. But as far as the contacts and the ‘brand’ go, there is indeed some magic, though not of a beneficent kind. The dominance of these universities in government and the archipelago of institutions that surround it has reached the point that an Ivy degree is something like one of those Titles of Nobility that were prohibited by the US Constitution.

    I think this was true to some extent before World War II. As the story is told in “The Great Sorting” (Atlantic, 1995) by Nicholas Lemann, when the country was desperate to find as much talent and brain power as we could as fast as we could, the government approached Harvard. Harvard said, paraphrasing, “They are not all here.”

    The government said, “How do we find them?”

    Harvard said, “Nationwide testing. It will help us find intelligent young people trapped in underperforming schools.”

    The rest of the development of the College Board’s Standardized Aptitude Test (SAT) is history. :)

    The GI bill added to that. It enabled us to get education and credentials to people who had served in the military.

    And it is the theory behind almost all of our country’s public and private scholarship programs.

    All professions have one thing in common: the people in them share a vocabulary. That’s what professional education does more than anything else. It gives the people inside the field an efficient communication system. And the meaning of the credentials is essentially the same. Doctor A can trust that Doctor B has the same basic understanding of cell metabolism.

    Frankly, higher education is more about communication than it is about process or discovery.

    This is where the Ivies shine. They create working vocabularies in the various academic areas.

     

    Are you certain what you are describing is what we still have?

    • #39
  10. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    MarciN (View Comment):

    All professions have one thing in common: the people in them share a vocabulary. That’s what professional education does more than anything else. It gives the people inside the field an efficient communication system. And the meaning of the credentials is essentially the same. Doctor A can trust that Doctor B has the same basic understanding of cell metabolism. 

    Frankly, higher education is more about communication than it is about process or discovery. 

    This is where the Ivies shine. They create working vocabularies in the various academic areas.  

     

    Common vocabularies & common conceptual frameworks can be very valuable, but they can also be harmful thru constraining thought to predefined patterns. Virtually all MBAs are familiar with discounted rate of return calculations and with various strategic frameworks (like the old BCG growth-share matrix), but these more than occasionally lead the individual to be more focused on fitting a particular business (or piece of a business) into the framework than on understanding the tangible business and its real threats and opportunities.  The vocabulary and framework of Critical Race Theory are doing far more harm than good.

    • #40
  11. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    David Foster (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    All professions have one thing in common: the people in them share a vocabulary. That’s what professional education does more than anything else. It gives the people inside the field an efficient communication system. And the meaning of the credentials is essentially the same. Doctor A can trust that Doctor B has the same basic understanding of cell metabolism.

    Frankly, higher education is more about communication than it is about process or discovery.

    This is where the Ivies shine. They create working vocabularies in the various academic areas.

     

    Common vocabularies & common conceptual frameworks can be very valuable, but they can also be harmful thru constraining thought to predefined patterns. Virtually all MBAs are familiar with discounted rate of return calculations and with various strategic frameworks (like the old BCG growth-share matrix), but these more than occasionally lead the individual to be more focused on fitting a particular business (or piece of a business) into the framework than on understanding the tangible business and its real threats and opportunities. The vocabulary and framework of Critical Race Theory are doing far more harm than good.

    Creativity requires an ability to shift from the what to think mode to the how to think mode.

    • #41
  12. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    David Foster (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    All professions have one thing in common: the people in them share a vocabulary. That’s what professional education does more than anything else. It gives the people inside the field an efficient communication system. And the meaning of the credentials is essentially the same. Doctor A can trust that Doctor B has the same basic understanding of cell metabolism.

    Frankly, higher education is more about communication than it is about process or discovery.

    This is where the Ivies shine. They create working vocabularies in the various academic areas.

     

    Common vocabularies & common conceptual frameworks can be very valuable, but they can also be harmful thru constraining thought to predefined patterns. Virtually all MBAs are familiar with discounted rate of return calculations and with various strategic frameworks (like the old BCG growth-share matrix), but these more than occasionally lead the individual to be more focused on fitting a particular business (or piece of a business) into the framework than on understanding the tangible business and its real threats and opportunities. The vocabulary and framework of Critical Race Theory are doing far more harm than good.

    Agreed. 

    That’s partly why some parts of academic and professional fields go like lemmings over the edge. :) Pediatric psychiatry is a good example. 

    But my point is that they do contribute something significant, and that is a shared vocabulary.

    Before the Internet, there were global university networks that did a lot to enable academics and professionals to work together productively. 

    The truth is that there is no single thing we can know about a person that will tell us very much about him or her–not his or her religion, age, national origin, sex, skin color, or college degree. I think God wants it that way. He wants us to leave judgment to him.  That’s really clear in the story of the Good Samaritan. :) :) 

    • #42
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