How Harvard helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead

September 19

Sarah Ruden has a PhD in classical philology from Harvard University. She is a former Guggenheim fellow, the author of “The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible” and the winner of a Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant for her work translating Augustine’s Confessions.

It was the end of a semester at Harvard University, where I was a doctoral student, and I’d been called into a professor’s office. He was the faculty member overseeing the third-year undergraduate Latin course that I had just finished teaching and grading. One of my students was seated in the office when I arrived, with a look of dignified outrage on his face, having already made his case against me. The offense?

I’d given him an A-minus.

That he apparently felt welcome to petition against that grade might tell you everything you need to know about how Harvard coddles certain students.

True, giving an A-minus to a classics major, a potential “friend of the department” (read: likely future donor), didn’t always go over well. But the same professor who was now entertaining that undergrad’s grievance had, that year, briefed us teaching assistants on the tough new guidelines for combating grade inflation, counseling us to be judicious, to think through what a Harvard “A” meant before awarding one. Hence, it had seemed reasonably safe to assign that grade.

[College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one.]

In that course, I’d had only a handful of students, so they weren’t hard to keep track of. Latin isn’t the most heavily subscribed course and may seem like an esoteric subject, but mastering it can help a lot in writing clearly and persuasively in English. No matter which careers my students were headed for (law and finance were popular choices), I encouraged them to work hard and take the language seriously. To arrive at the final grades, I’d carefully marked all the assignments and used a standard point scale and the prescribed weighting of each part of the coursework. I had given only one A in the class. The complaining student was smart, but on the evidence, he had been coasting; at an ordinary institution, he would have earned a C, not an A-minus. but Harvard undergraduate courses aren’t set up that way.

I thought this professor would ask to see the student’s written work as a backup to his complaint. That’s what had happened to me years before when I challenged the C-minus I got for my first undergraduate essay at the University of Michigan. The reaction was harsh — I was grimly scolded; the C-minus went unchanged — but it motivated me. I shut up, buckled down and improved my performance so much that I not only received an A for the course but also eventually graduated summa cum laude and was offered the nation’s premier fellowship for PhD study in classics.

All this had misled me as to what I should expect when teaching at Harvard. This professor didn’t ask to see any evidence. He accepted the student’s plea that he had “worked really hard.” Then, in front of the student, he pressed me to explain the reason for my poor teaching, apparently the only thing that could reveal why the student wasn’t satisfied with his grade. I had had a breakdown two years previously (after which I’d taken a year off and received a clean bill of health); with strong hints, the professor leaned on me until I blamed that: Try as I might, there was nothing else I could come up with. Once he extracted my synthetic mea culpa, the professor happily raised the grade. The triumphant student left, and the professor praised me for my professional behavior.

The majority of students accepted into Harvard University’s incoming freshman class are not white. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
[Free tuition? Programs should focus on students who started and had to stop.]

At Harvard, this kind of encounter wasn’t limited to the humanities and social sciences, where the requirements are sometimes easier to bend. For example, three biochemistry graduate students I knew and trusted all had an identical story. In the introductory course they taught, undergraduates weren’t required to show up at a single lecture or section; they could score in the teens on the final and still pass. The professor’s basis for leniency, they said, was that “they pay too much tuition for us to fail them.”

Naive as I was as a grad student, I suspected from the start that teachers’ defeat in clashes over standards was built in, as our humiliations served a clear purpose: Undergraduates emerged more powerful the more obnoxiously they behaved; they felt they owned the system — how else could they induce it to give them high grades certifying their excellence when their work was mediocre or nonexistent? — and so they would be likely to support it all their lives with large alumni donations. This, of course, levied high costs on everyone else and on what a university claims, in public, as its core purpose: intellectual achievement. Over and over, administrators decreed that the costs would be paid; in particular, pressure from above would be allowed, whenever convenient, to turn teachers into pushovers and lackeys.

In fact, genuine rigor — which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students — isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.

Many of the better-off young people at Harvard appeared to require intense favoritism to reassure them, perhaps because of the less-moneyed achievement and potential that loomed all around. Though some of the anointed developed their capabilities to the full, the institutional imperative to establish a hierarchy between them and us took precedence. Undergraduate honorees included a strangely high number of the well-connected who hadn’t impressed any of us in the classroom. Professors teamed up to prevent certain honors from resulting in public embarrassment; if a Latin orator’s commencement address, for example, was going to draw jeers from anybody who knew Latin, it would be expertly rewritten before he delivered it.

Sound familiar? It’s not unlike what we see in today’s White House, where flunkies tout the brilliance of a president who plainly struggles to grasp the finer points of any number of public policy questions. And when I recall that scene in the professor’s office, I’m reminded in particular of the various accounts of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s Harvard acceptance, which strongly suggest that his way was paved with family money and connections.

It’s a system that polishes privilege, its byproduct a contempt for earned authority. Many of the people who started with this attitude had it ratified and encouraged by perhaps the most prestigious university in the world — and now they’re running the whole show.

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