This is all well and good; as the watchdogs of the academic integrity of the World’s Greatest University (or, if you subscribe to U.S. News and World Report, America’s second best college), the powers that be in Harvard’s administration have a prerogative, if not a pressing existential interest, in ensuring that the content of a Harvard degree—that is, the courses that a student takes to gain such a degree—are only of the highest quality.
Enter Harvard Summer School into the equation, though, and this all goes out the window, as those in the administration who enact these strictures begin to look like nothing more than a bunch of hypocrites and phonies—a group that takes extensive prophylactic measures against letting mediocre coursework from other institutions count for Harvard degree credit, while turning a blind eye to, and granting full Harvard College credit for, sub-par instruction that occurs right here in Cambridge.
This past summer, as part of my remuneration for being a proctor in the Secondary School Program (SSP) of Harvard Summer School, I had the opportunity to take a summer course gratis. ‘Lucky me!’ I thought, ‘I’ll be able to take something interesting and fun and different.’
During the first few days of class, I checked out classes in several different departments, including government, economics, and English. What I found was that all of the courses I shopped—and indeed the better part of the courses offered—were not taught by regular term Harvard faculty and followed very different—that is, very much watered-down—syllabi from similar courses taught during the regular year. And, perhaps most importantly, they had a constituency composed in large part of high school students and students from other colleges and universities.
Not every summer class is like this, to be sure; I was able to find, for instance, a class on the Roman poets Catullus and Horace that was taught by a Harvard professor, and closely followed the syllabus of the course on Catullus and Horace taught annually by the department during the regular academic year. But it was the exception, and not the rule, in the Harvard Summer School catalog.
Let me give an example to make this more tangible. Some of the high school students in my entryway were enrolled in Government S-40: “Introduction to International Relations.”
Naive fellow that I was, I assumed that this course bore at least a vague resemblance to the regular introductory IR class, Historical Study A-12: “Conflict and Cooperation in the Modern World,” and I warned them at the beginning of the summer that class would probably be conceptually difficult and very labor-intensive.
Wrong, and wrong again. As it turned out, the total amount of reading for the eight week class was about three weeks’ worth of reading from A-12, and there were no papers or even take-home section assignments. But here’s the best part: the grades in that class were based almost entirely on a midterm and a final, composed of matching, multiple choice, and short-answer questions, all of which the professor—an assistant professor of government at Bentley College—handed out to students in advance.
Let me reiterate: these were not essay questions—they were objective, factual questions—and they were handed out in advance, and they comprised the students’ entire grade. Even among courses commonly considered “guts” during the regular term, I have yet to hear of anything even approaching the level of travesty engendered by such lax requirements.
Granted, this is a particularly egregious example—but the phenomenon I have described is rampant at the summer school in less extreme incarnations. In the introductory economics courses, for example, the mean on tests would routinely be in the 80s and 90s—a far cry from the sub-50 percent averages that are common in Social Analysis 10: “Principles of Economics.”
More generally, most all of the introductory science courses are frequented by high school students, meaning the curves that determine the grades of regularly-enrolled Harvard undergraduates are based on the performance of 16- and 17-year-olds, the vast majority of whom do not end up being admitted to Harvard.
Regardless of whether various concentrations that require Hist A-12 would allow Government S-40 to substitute, it and courses like it can at the very least count as electives on a Harvard transcript as one of the 32 half-courses required for graduation. Which is to say, of course, that these mockeries of classes can affect such things as grade point average and honors calculations.
Particularly when you consider how parsimonious Harvard is about granting credit to its students for work done elsewhere, this is little short of disgraceful.
The faculty should initiate an investigation into the quality of Harvard Summer School courses; they will not, I think, like what they find.
Zachary S. Podolsky ’04 is a classics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.