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Bain and Suffering

"Success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo"

By Sahil K. Mahtani

By my count, there have been at least 35 op-eds written in recent weeks comparing the United States to the Roman Empire. In case you were wondering, not in a good way.

Then, it goes without saying, there is an entire book devoted to the question. “Are We Rome?” Cullen Murphy asks. In the tradition of excellent scholarship, after much thought and historical insight and copious amounts of notes, his answer is: maybe. Well, don’t let that title scare you.

Anyway, declinism is in and optimism is out; haven’t you heard? The republic is fighting overseas wars and struggling with immigration issues. The housing bubble just burst, and people are getting old fast. To top it off, there arrived, a few weeks ago, an unnecessary film unnecessarily titled “Mr. Woodcock.”

It’s a damn mess is what it is.

A few weeks ago, a former associate professor from Harvard’s government department joined the fray, publishing a near 2000-word op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the state of liberal education at the College. “Our Compassless Colleges,” the piece by Peter Berkowitz was titled, and it proffered a solution to our woes.

The conservative critique of liberal education is not new, but the timing was good. American conservatives, you may have noticed, don’t have much to fight for these days. Can you say “family values” with a straight face? What about “small government”? “Compassionate conservatism”? Moving on, then.

Harvard, Berkowitz goes, ought to have a mandatory, great-books-style curriculum that introduces students to Western civilization. If our kids do not learn the basics, he says, it is because Harvard is letting internationalization and politicization compromise liberal democracy.

We must ask how Berkowitz extrapolates his critique of Harvard to other universities, for it isn’t obvious that there is a correlation. It is also true that his point has been made a good many times before. The charges are of course serious, but then, so are the counterarguments, none of which he responds to. The Journal must have been having a slow news day. Either that, or Rupert was tweaking the newsroom.

Well, it’s time we get grandpa up to speed. The problem is not that internationalists and communists have infiltrated the university, but that, quite simply, everyone has a different opinion on what ought to be required. Say you asked 10 people whether every educated person should know certain things; your answer will in all likelihood be yes, there is a common sensibility. But here’s the catch: Try getting those same 10 people into a room to decide precisely what every educated person ought to know. Try it! There will be no agreement. The trouble is not finding a coherent position, but sorting out other coherent positions with a method that will yield a legitimate result.

Harvard tried this experiment recently. After months of navel-gazing, consultations, focus groups, and faculty meetings, they came to a compromise: Students would have to take courses in certain categories, like history or literature or math or science. But within those categories, there were limited choices, and students were free to make them. That is what the current system of decision-making among Harvard’s faculty came up with, and Berkowitz doesn’t seem to have a better solution—though it is difficult to say, since he is silent on that point.

All this conservative hand-wringing also obscures the fact that however much Harvard twists its requirements, the same types of students would still graduate. We would still turn out to be the mostly nice, libertarian, conformist, intelligent, and morally apathetic generation that we are today. After all, that’s who applied, and that’s who got in. This, actually, is Harvard’s problem, not the focus on ancient Greek history or African history.

Why, for example, do all the Ph.D.’s come from liberal arts bastions like Reed College and Swarthmore, while the best and richest university in all the land is a mere feeder school, to use a familiar term, for the i-banks? In a recent Crimson poll of seniors, precisely 50% were bound for the financial or consulting sectors. That doesn’t even include those going to law school or medical school.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that everyone ought to become an academic. There are not enough jobs to go around, and, in any case, American academics tend to be grossly more careerist than their European counterparts. What I do mean to say, however, is that Harvard has always prided itself on admitting exceptional and interesting people, so it is unclear why four years here should transform us into anxious lemmings.

No, it is not just the money. Certainly some of these jobs are very lucrative, and so people are making economically rational decisions. But many others seem to be driven by a fear of failure and of being left behind. Conan O’Brien ’85, in his now-legendary Class Day speech for the Class of 2000, summed us up perfectly when he said that, “as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed… Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.”

He’s right of course. Now all we must do is find the dry-cleaner.

Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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