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Douthat Responds To Crimson Staff Editorial

By Ross G. Douthat

I’d like to thank the editors for their kind attention to my criticisms of Harvard’s curriculum, which appear in the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly. While the editorial is entitled “Doubting Douthat,” (Editorials, Feb. 16) I think that there is actually very little disagreement between us as to the overall state of Harvard academics. The editors concede that “there are major flaws in the current Core Curriculum, the academic advising system, and even the apathy of some professors and teaching fellows,” and they allow that “perhaps there has been a move in the American university system away from fact-based learning—and perhaps Douthat is right that this trend is not a positive one.” Where they claim to part ways with me is on the question of Harvard students’ work ethic—but in point of fact, I never intended to suggest that Harvard undergrads are generally lazy. (Indeed, my classmates are among the least lazy crop of human beings I have ever encountered.) Rather, my argument was that Harvard’s combination of drift, lack of intellectual guidance, and inflated grades encourages a slothful and “creatively lazy” approach to academics—one that fits in neatly with widespread campus attitudes, because it leaves more time for the diligent cultivation of the extracurricular activities, internships, social networks, and general résumé-building that make up, for many people, the dominant part of a Harvard education.

The editors also accuse me of being “Eurocentric” in my complaints about the curriculum—which I am, I suppose, to the extent that I think any education needs to be rooted, to some extent, in a common cultural tradition. But I would be delighted to see a reformed Core Curriculum that included a vast swathe of “foreign cultures” requirements, so long as those requirements were selected out of a concern for “fact-based learning,” rather than the deep silliness of “approaches to knowledge.”

Finally, they note that many of the academic flaws I cite “are pervasive, not unique to Harvard,” which is obviously true. But this hardly excuses Harvard, which of all universities is the best positioned—in terms of wealth, brilliance of faculty and students, and institutional power—to combat the prevailing trends in academia. Harvard is the most famous university in the world, and I hardly think that it’s “cheap journalism” to use its curriculum as an exemplar of flaws in American higher education that need to be corrected.


February 16, 2005

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