15 February 2007

A Harvard "Designer Education"--Will it Go With Your Suit and Shoes?

Harvard has a reputation as the world's best university. I wonder why? Certainly a Harvard education isn't what most people think it is. But as long as "they" think it's worth something--it's worth something.
You might wonder: how Harvard can risk its reputation by dumping a social scientist for telling the truth and appointing a self-serving feminist apparatchik in his place?

Don't be silly. Colleges are among the least competitive institutions in this country. Their reputations are almost foolproof.

If you want to understand status and power in modern America, you need to grasp how the college prestige game works.

....An Atlantic Monthly study of admissions selectivity found that

"one good predictor of a school's selectivity rank is nothing more complicated than the date of its founding. The average founding years of the top five, ten, twenty-five, fifty, and 100 most selective schools in the nation are 1767, 1785, 1822, 1839, and 1850, respectively." [The Selectivity Illusion, by Don Peck, November 2003]

And practically no private college has fallen sharply in status since 1975. In other words, incompetent administrators can't do much damage to a college's reputation in less than a couple of generations.

....A friend who started at homely Cal State Northridge, then transferred to UC San Diego and on to UC Berkeley in pursuit of a more glamorous degree, told me the quality of instruction fell with each step up the ladder of cachet.

Yet, Stanford's and Berkeley's renown have only increased.

The Harvard alumnus who interviewed me in 1975 mentioned that he had taken courses from Henry Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Kenneth Galbraith, and David Riesman.

"Wow," I burbled. "You must have learned a lot!"

"Oh, no," he replied. "They were mostly terrible teachers."

He explained that Harvard's policy of luring away the most celebrated middle-aged professors at lesser colleges meant that undergraduates were systematically shortchanged. Harvard's superstars devoted their best efforts to overseeing grad students, advising the President, and other duties more pleasant than correcting undergraduates' essays.

Novelist Scott Turow's 1977 memoir One-L of his first year at Harvard Law School depicts an equally dysfunctional system of teaching.

But, who really cares how much you might (or might not) learn at Harvard? The point of getting into Harvard is to be able to say you got into Harvard. (And to make friends with other ambitious hotshots who also got into Harvard.)

The article quoted above has a lot more fascinating material about Harvard, and its current predicament. Of course, Harvard's predicament is the same as most other elite colleges and universities. When balancing the education of students against the "business of education", and maintaining just the right level of political correctness in the faculty, staff, and curriculum--it's no surprise that the students' education gets the short end of the stick.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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