Tuesday, July 29, 2008

FROM NEW LEFT TO NEW RICH AT HARVARD

John H Summers, Times Higher Education, UK - I joined the staff of the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies at Harvard University in 2000. As tutor, then as lecturer, I advised senior theses, conceived and conducted freshman and junior seminars and taught the year-long sophomore tutorial, Social Studies 10, six times. The fractured nature of my appointment, renewed annually for six successive years while never amounting to more than 65 per cent of a full-time position in any one year, kept me on the margins of prestige and promotion even as it kept me there long enough to serve three chairmen of social studies, two directors of study and three presidents of Harvard.

The post-pubescent children of notables for whom I found myself holding curricular responsibility included the offspring of an important political figure, of a player in the show business world and the son of real-estate developer Charles Kushner.

In the first meeting of my first seminar of my first year, Kushner's son Jared entered my classroom and promptly took the seat across from mine, sharing the room, so to speak. I was drawing an annual salary of $15,500 and borrowing the remainder for survival in Cambridge, in order that he might be given the best possible education. Jared later purchased The New York Observer for $10 million, part of which he made buying and selling real estate while also attending my seminar. As publisher, one of his first moves was to reduce pay for the Observer's stable of book reviewers. I had been writing reviews for the Observer in an effort to pay my debts.

Most of the students I encountered had already embraced the perspectives of the rich, the powerful and the unalienated, and they seemed to have done so with appalling ease. In keeping with the tradition of the American rich they worked exceptionally long hours, they were aggressive in exercising their talents, and on the ideological features of market capitalism they were unanimous. Their written work disclosed the core components of the consensus upheld by their liberal parents: the meaning of liberty lies in the personal choice of consumers; free competition in goods and morals regulates value; technological progress is an unmixed good; war is unfortunate. . .

I asked each of my seminars whether they had so far encountered a teacher they genuinely appreciated. If so, what aspects did they most admire? Invariably they said good teachers made them "feel comfortable". To sense the sterility one had only to listen: "shopping period" was the name of the week they selected their classes. Once, when I proposed to teach a junior seminar entitled "Anarchist cultural criticism in America", I was instructed to go ahead only if I first changed the title to "America and its critics". Here was the same method of cultural hygiene that has transformed Harvard Square from a bohemian enclave into an outdoor mall. . .

The formal scale runs from A to F. The tacit scale runs from A to B. I learnt the latter from students and supervisors, but especially from colleagues, few of whom wish to carry the opprobrium of the low end. This is as it may be. But the presence of two standards of value, one official and one tacit, is always a sign of corruption: the one necessarily dishonours the other. It also abridges the academic freedom of the teacher. Although I never gave a final grade below B minus, I can attest to the petty harassment that teachers attract in such cases. I do not mean merely that the students are never so aggressive and articulate as when they hunt for grades. I mean that they wage political reprisals against the B-minus grader and send gifts to high-placed academic directors. . .

The new student rich have retained the radical energy of the 1960s, only to engage it in more lushly monetized competencies. The New Left occupied universities to protest against the bureaucratic hollowness of examination rituals and grading rationales. Now its children complete the attack on the authority of teachers, who are simply annexed to the management of student careers, drawn into a tacit agreement between corporation and client in which failure is not an option. I had to grade the students, and I had to grade them well. Everyone expected a recommendation letter. . .

Should I say I am grateful for the chance to teach at Harvard? I am. Should I acknowledge the many fine exceptions it was my privilege to instruct? I do, with pleasure. But the sedulous banality of the rich degrades teaching into a service-class preoccupation whose chief duty is preparing clients for monied careers. . . If youth is wasted on the young, is teaching wasted on students?

2 Comments:

At July 29, 2008 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Old Left were the rich kids of privilege, too, which is why the Clintons are such arrogant assholes. The new generation of plutocrat punks are just a little more honest about their real attitudes towards the "worthy poor" ( useful political tools ) and their disdain for the hired help.

 
At July 29, 2008 4:07 PM, Blogger Lars said...

This reputation holds among many in Boston and especially the students at MIT who note that the hardest part of obtaining a Harvard education is getting in. The rest is easy sailing.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home