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The Cult of Mediocrity

Brass Tacks

By Michael W. Hirschorn

LAST WEEK'S New Republic launched a powerful bazooka blast at the heart of Brown University's educational system; the article lampooned the department of semiotics, chortled over a class entitled "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay," and made light of the general superficiality of our neighbor to the south.

All these criticisms are undoubtedly legitimate, but we Cantabrigians should not be too smug about the lack of intellectual rigor at the "hot" university du jour. That is because, for all the hoopla that accompanies the entrance of the Harvard Class of '86 into the company of educated men and women, many of us will graduate today knowing that our Harvard education is in large part a big inside joke.

The joke is that, despite the magical aura that surrounds the Harvard undergraduate four years, education is for many here a quite mundane and even cynical experience. Harvard's undergraduate program may not be as laughably absurd as Brown's but neither is it as wonderful as we would like it to be.

Few even bother to mention the nuts and bolts of the Harvard education because, after four years, we are so accustomed to the limitations and failings of the undergraduate program that we largely take them for granted--much in the same way that we mutely accept the weekly onslaught of ham and "schrod."

Yet, the litany of mundanity is so long that it deserves some mention at a time when the world is supposed to start considering the Class of '86 as "educated." Many of the problems with the undergraduate curriculum are undoubtedly not indigenous to Harvard: unoriginal lectures, large curriculum gaps, irritating requirements, senile professors, arena size classes, badly designed courses. One would be naive to expect a university the size of Harvard to police itself so regularly that every course would be an original and exciting educational experience.

HOWEVER, there are a number of factors that contribute to make an undergraduate education at Harvard especially problematic. The widespread and combined cynicism of faculty members, section leaders, and many students make Harvard an institution dedicated to a cult of mediocrity.

Few professors bother to read student work, and grading is usually left to bored, underpaid (and, in more than one case, unintelligent) graduate and undergraduate section leaders, who rarely give much time or thought to grading papers and exams. A recent 11-page paper I wrote for Albert Craig and Henry Rosovsky's course on Japan was returned weeks later with no comments except this one line at the end: "You did a good job with a complex topic." Because our section leader spoke little English, I and other students in the section found ourselves forced to simplify our language and arguments to avoid confusing our grader.

During four years of paper writing, I have usually found that extra effort is rarely rewarded. Quickly tossed off five-and 10-pagers often receive better grades than complex examinations of issues; this is in large part due to the fact that section leaders rarely can be bothered to read through subtle and complex essays. Exams are usually designed to reward students who can regurgitate facts and buzzwords; a professor last month told section leaders only to give points for "concepts" and "facts" mentioned by him in lecture.

One English professor routinely gives A-minuses to students who do nothing more than attend his class. A history professor allows students to skip midterms, giving A-minuses if final exams are intelligible and B-pluses if they are not. Most professors are unwilling to assign more than two papers--or one paper and a midterm--and a final exam for fear of losing students shopping for courses in an enormous catalogue.

THIS LAZINESS on the part of professors and teaching fellows is compounded by a grading system that effectively ensures that everyone recevies pretty much the same marks; a recent study showed that somewhere around two-thirds of all grades were in the B range. Harvard manages only to take notice of incredible brilliance or pathetic mediocrity, and students adapt their work habits accordingly.

All of this would be excusable if the classes themselves were thought-provoking and challenging. Excepting five or six of the 34 courses I've taken here, they are not. Core Curriculum offerings, ostensibly the proud flagships of a new, improved curriculum, are rarely more than lowest common denominator surveys of broad areas of knowledge.

Given this lack of intellectual and administrative rigor, only the most directed and self-sufficient of students are able to maintain the drive that propelled them into the Yard four years ago. Other students find themselves unwilling to do their best work for courses for fear of rebuff; they know that they will receive largely the same grade in any case.

All these criticisms come with the understanding that, as befits a great institution like Harvard, there are dozens of brilliant, exciting professors who provide students with top-notch educations. I will remember with gratitude those few epiphanic moments of intellectual breakthrough; times when teachers have actually challenged me to think deeper about the subject at hand. A section leader in English who critiqued each of my arguments and wrote a full page of comments at essay's end reminded me of high school, when our ideas were taken seriously and not reduced to a mere checklist of buzzwords and cliches.

I will leave Harvard today full of that nostalgia that annually afflicts graduating seniors, but I will not feel truly educated. Anyone who feels otherwise has either been extremely lucky at Harvard or is just deceiving himself.

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