A little over a week ago, Harvard junior Alexander B. Heffner ’12 published an opinion piece in the U.S. News and World Report arguing that the Harvard experience is “overrated” and intellectually unsatisfying. This article is just the latest in a series of works by Harvard graduates that market themselves by allegedly exposing the fallacy of Harvard’s superiority—written in the vein of Ross G. Douthat’s ’02 memoir, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class and R. Nick McDonnell’s ’07 fiction work, An Expensive Education.
While the existence of this new genre is not itself disconcerting, the purpose it serves is. Alumni and current students have an obligation to provide honest feedback on their experience to both the College and its prospective students. However, one would hope that this feedback originates with selfless intentions and carries over into a careful and constructive analysis of the situation. Too often, this genre of work falls short in its self-serving and hypocritical presentation and its failure to provide any sort of constructive criticism.
Furthermore, in publishing these works, the authors make use of the same brand-name benefits that they often find to be the greatest fault within the institution. In his work, Heffner laments the College’s “formula for undergraduate prestige” and the distorting effect it has on students’ incentive to attend the school. However, it is doubtful whether Heffner’s piece would have even earned a spot in a national publication without its ostentatious use of the Harvard name. It is telling that Heffner chooses to make his association with the school clear within the title of his piece, “A Harvard Education Isn’t As Advertised.”
In fact, perhaps the strongest case that can be raised against Heffner’s piece and the anti-Harvard genre is that past works have already made the same argument in better ways. Former Yale Professor’s William Deresiewicz’s piece in The American Scholar, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” is an excellent example, making all of the points outlined in Heffner’s op-ed but with more developed arguments and less emphasis on name-dropping. Unlike Heffner, Deresiewicz makes no mention of specific institutions or his association with them until the second paragraph of his piece and then only as a means of validating his argument.
On a rather different note, the recently published “I Am Fine” made a more personal, less institutional criticism of Harvard’s general atmosphere but managed to do so in the most appropriate way. The anonymity of the author was one of the most striking aspects of the piece, conveying a sincere desire to bring forward an issue rather than to push forward an agenda. In addition, the decision to publish “I Am Fine” in a campus publication rather than an outside publication, made the issue relevant to those it actually concerned: the students. Heffner would do well to take lessons from these two pieces regarding intentionality and appropriateness in order to better present his argument.
In fact, if the intention behind Heffner’s piece were to affect the impersonal and anti-intellectual atmosphere of the school, it would have been better carried out through a variety of different methods. There are a number of institutions designed to deal with undergraduate concerns, among them the Undergraduate Council and the individual House Committees.
Similarly, many academic departments and committees at Harvard have some form of student representation for bringing concerns to faculty members and facilitating interaction between the two. The considerable presence of opportunities for voicing dissent on campus makes Heffner’s choice of a national publication to inspire campus-wide changes particularly questionable.
In this same line, although we are among the biggest critics of College academic life, we take issue with Heffner’s characterization of our academic resources. Harvard’s lack of student-faculty interaction is a frequently discussed issue but one that has inspired action in addition to argument. In response, the College has created events like the student-faculty dinners and requirements for all professors teaching undergraduates to hold at least one hour of office hours a week. In fact, one of the mostly widely cited reasons for poor student-faculty relationships is the unwillingness of students to take advantage of such resources. As an academic institution, the most Harvard can do is provide students the opportunity to make use of faculty resources. In many ways, it is the students’ responsibility to take advantage of these resources.
Last but not least, that many readers may perceive Heffner to represent the opinions of all seven thousand Harvard undergraduates through his own individual experience is unfortunate. “As any undergraduate who actually attends the school knows, the Harvard education is overrated,” Heffner writes, at one point. Heffner’s argument is not only weakened by his tendency to resort to personal anecdotes and over-generalizing statements, it is absolutely delegitimized.
The phenomenon of Harvard students complaining about Harvard is nothing new or groundbreaking. In the course of things, Heffner’s piece represents nothing more than another addition to an established genre of works. While well-placed, well-meaning criticism can often have important institutional impacts, this particular piece is neither accurate nor constructive. Those who truly care about this University seek to launch change in different ways.