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Saturday, March 02, 2024

Elite higher education--an undergraduate's view

 I went to college in the late 1960s and to grad school from 1971  to 1976--both at Harvard.  I taught there from 1976 through 1980.  I described all these experiences in great detail in my autobiography,  A Life in History, linked at right.  The great changes that have transformed higher ed began, really, in my senior year in college, and I watched them spread throughout the country during my own teaching career from 1976 through 2013.  I have written a good deal here and elsewhere about those changes, but nothing I have experienced depressed me quite as much as an article in the current Harvard Magazine--the alumni magazine--by a current undergraduate named Aden Barton entitled, "AWOL from Academics."

Let me summarize for the moment the key features, as I see them now, of the undergraduate education that I received.  First, we all had to read and enormous amounts of text.  One of my favorite courses--taught by a visitor from Chicago--was entitled "Dostoevsky, Camus, and Faulkner."  The reading included three of Dostoevsky's four major novels; three novels by Camus; and two long, demanding works by Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August--and some shorter works by Dostoevsky and Faulkner as well.  The Slavic Department also offered a Dostoevsky course which assigned essentially all the works of Dostoevsky. In the same year, I took a course, International Politics, 1919-45, taught by Ernest May, who became my dissertation adviser, and my lifelong friend Sam Williamson.  That reading list included two general works on the diplomacy of that tumultuous period, and major books on the US, Britain, France, Germany, the Far East, and the USSR.  Almost no one did all the reading in all their courses--I certainly didn't--but we still got a lot out of it.  And crucially, grade inflation had not really begun.  Only 9 percent of grades were straight As, another 13 percent were A-s, and 48 percent were some sort of B,  30 percent of grades were C+ or lower.  A B was a good grade that no one was ashamed to get, and many people felt they had gotten a tremendous amount out of courses in which they could manage more than a C+.  Reading Period was another key aspect of the educational experience.  Classes began in late September (a wonderfully civilized time) and continued for twelve weeks, but exams didn't happen until late January.  Reading period, during which classes generally did not meet, took up about three weeks of January, and gave us all a chance to catch up on reading that we had not done.  I learned what I was capable of during my first reading period, and I know many other people felt the same way.

Reading period was nearly abolished about twenty years ago.  According to the administration, Harvard students complained that while all their friends at other institutions had finished their exams before Christmas vacation, they had not.  Faculty who had gone through Harvard College protested that decision but other faculty outvoted them and accused them of being driven by nostalgia.  Now the entire fall term lasts from the day after Labor Day until about December 10, including just four days of reading period, and exams last from December 11 through December 20.  The winter recess lasts a month and the spring term begins on January 20, with a similar calendar.   And something else has changed.  Half a century ago, the three-hour final exam was another critical Harvard ritual, requiring students to display what they had learned over the last four months in cogent essays.  Far fewer courses even give exams today.

And last but hardly least, the role of various disciplines has been dramatically altered. I found writing my autobiography that Harvard and Radcliffe graduated about 270 history majors in 1965, and 45 in 2017.  Humanities majors (which do not include history at Harvard, where it counts as a social science)  were just 12.5 percent of graduates last year, compared to 22.1 percent in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (a relatively new innovation), 28 percent in other science majors, and 37.2 percent in the social sciences.  

Let me now turn to this article, "AWOL from Academics," by an undergraduate named Aden Barton, that just appeared in Harvard Magazine.  The average college student, she reports, spent about 25 hours a week studying in 1960, but only 15 hours a week in 2015.  Many students, she says, now treat academics as a very secondary preoccupation. "This fall, one of my friends did not attend a single lecture or class section until more than a month into the semester. Another spent 40 to 80 hours a week on her preprofessional club, leaving barely any time for school. A third launched a startup while enrolled, leaving studying by the wayside."  Data from a Crimson senior survey, she says, "indicates [sic] that students devote nearly as much time collectively to extracurriculars, athletics, and employment as to their classes."

Grade inflation is another big, fateful change.  In academic year 2020-21, the most recent for which I can find data, 79 percent of grades awarded were As or A-s--compared to 22 percent in 1965.   Aden Barton provides an example of the results of this practice.

"Indeed, three of my friends and I took a high-level seminar one semester, and, although we knew hundreds of pages of readings would be assigned each week, we were excited about the prospect of engaging with the material. As time went on, the percentage of readings each of us did went from nearly 100 to nearly 0.

"In the final class, each student was asked to cite their favorite readings, and the professor was surprised that so many chose readings from the first few units. That wasn’t because the students happened to be most interested in those classes’ material; rather, that was the brief period of the course when everyone actually did some of the readings.

"Despite having barely engaged with the course material, we all received A’s. I don’t mean to blame the professors for our poor work ethic, but we certainly would have read more had our grades been at risk. At the time, we bemoaned our own lack of effort. By that point in the semester, though, many other commitments had started requiring more of us, so prioritizing curiosity for its own sake became difficult.

"And therein lies the second reinforcing effect of grade inflation, which not only fails to punish substandard schoolwork but actively incentivizes it, as students often rely on extracurriculars to get ahead. Amanda Claybaugh, dean of undergraduate education, made this point in a recent New York Times interview, saying that 'Students feel the need to distinguish themselves outside the classroom because they are essentially indistinguishable inside the classroom.'”

Barton works at the Crimson, and in fact some students in every generation have made that their first priority, but this kind of thing is much more common now.  One new innovation is pre-professional clubs, which apparently get students thinking about what they are gong to do after college instead of what they  might be doing while they were there.  Their attitude towards courses becomes purely instrumental.  A Russian Studies professor named Terry Martin put it this way.

"Professor Martin, for example, wrote to me in an email that 'students today…want to please, they want to understand what is expected of them in the course and to fulfill those expectations (as a general rule).' But that approach “comes at the cost of intellectual curiosity for its own sake and intellectual originality and even boldness.'

"Martin told me that he used to get more essays 'where the student was trying to ‘jerk your chain,’ i.e., write something that completely contradicts what you’ve been teaching,' but this is no longer as common. That certainly resonates with my own experiences. When approaching essays, I often automatically start by thinking about what my professor or teaching assistant wants to hear, rather than what I want to argue or what I have authentically learned.

"Instead of becoming wholly careless towards classes, then, students are often incredibly intentional about earning the (easy) A, at the cost of true or genuine curiosity. One of my classmates last semester, who is one of the more academically oriented people I know, told me that to get the best grade on an important essay, he simply 'regurgitated the readings' without thinking critically about the material."

There is, I think, a simple reason why nearly every faculty member has given into grade inflation.  The dirty secret of higher ed nowadays is that both the faculty and the administration are terrified of student opinion.  They are now charging 3-4 times as much as they did in the 1960s--adjusting for inflation--and they want to give kids their money's worth in terms of credentials.  As numerous incidents in various campuses show, they take their students' feelings incredibly seriously.  I was recently on a zoom with a well-known academic, a believer in the humanities, who inadvertently made that clear too. Yes, he told us, he told his students that Thomas Jefferson was a great thinker and founder of democracy, but also a "noxious racist."  Challenged on that term in the Q & A by a listener who agreed that every slaveowner was evidently a racist but questioned the term "noxious racist," he replied that he had to put it that way because that was what students expected to hear.  I do not think educators can do their job properly if they are afraid of their students.

There is much more in the article, and I recommend that you all read it in full.  Harvard has given up the mission that drew me and my contemporaries to it:  the cultivation of our minds and our exposure to the great worlds of the ancient an dmodern worlds. These problems are hardly unique either to Harvard or to elite institutions, either.  The humanities are nearing extinction in many schools, and only a few small colleges such as the St. John's colleges and Hillsdale are offering a distinct product focused on the humanities.  This means that the intellectual traditions I learned from are dead.  New institutions like the University of Austin might revive them, but finding faculty who could actually return to traditional approaches would be extremely difficult.  I realize that I have drawn enormous emotional sustenance from participating in those traditions all my life, and their disappearance is as painful as the loss of a dear friend.  Eventually I do believe new generations will rebuild them, but that may take a very long time.



Jeff said...

Dr. Kaiser

As I read your introductory remarks, I could not but notice how similar our young adulthood was. I attended college and graduated in the 1960s, April of 1968, from the University of Michigan. I, too, attended graduate school, entering in the Fall semester of 1968, into Michigan's Business School. However, at the end of my initial semester, the similarities begin to diverge. I received a draft notice and would be interupting my education for two years, including a year in Viet Nam. Ultimately, I completed my degree work in April of 1972.

Your observations on the decline of academic discipline over the past several years have resonated with me. The lack of academic rigor that you have observed is troubling. The young woman whose article you included in your post essentially confirmed all of the concerns you have been articulating. I found her essay unsettling. Grade inflation was something I didn't really grasp until both she and you laid out the evidence. I cannot imagine, in any instance, that a grade along the curve would result in a 79% assignment of an "A" grade in any classroom in which I was a student.

Have we degraded our educational system to such a degree? Do our young adults even have the ability to think critically about the problems facing both our country and civiliation at large? Since when does participation in an extra curricular activity replace the ability to learn, interogate and analyze our past, our instituions and our beliefs?

I grow increasingly uncomfortable.

erik f storlie said...

What happened at Harvard was mirrored in my inner-city community college, established for first in their family poor kids from "diverse" backgrounds. Forty years ago I assigned in Freshman English (as it was then called), lengthy novels like Ellison's Invisible Man and DeFoe's Moll Flanders. And in the second semester Hamlet.
After retirement I taught grad classes at the local state University and assigned far less reading.

David Kaiser said...

Thank you, Jeff. I too had to interrupt my education to serve in the military--I joined the Army Reserve in 1970 and served for six years.
There are several reasons for what happened. First of all, even in my day, professors looked down on their colleagues who took teaching really seriously. They were encouraged to spend as little time on it as possible. Some of us always did, because that is who we were, but we remained exceptions. The second reason was just the massive expansion of higher ed that was going on. It diluted the quality of faculty. And lastly--and I have put this in the post now--with tuitions going up and applications beginning to fall off (even at Harvard, now, it seems), the schools became focused on pleasing their students and not making their lives too difficult. You can't provide excellent education that way.

Energyflow said...

My college education was almost entirely STEM in the 80s so this grade inflation was not an issue. Real learning was mandatory. My Philosophy 101 course provided a missing part of the puzzle between childhood bible reading and modern lit and sciences of high school where I got modern works, shakespeare, greek tragedies.

Think of the blowout airplane door or the Fani Willis, Kamala Harris type D.A.s moving up the ladder. How do you sort out low i.q. people before they get past certain stages and destroy the nation? Require homework and critical thinking. If engineers must do difficult thinking to build a bridge then philosophy, history are all areas where critical, original thinking is necessary. Extracurricular activities at Harvard? WTF? Why not just buy the degree? Only chosen few get to go anyway. I am actually surprised as I saw a youtube video by a pretty smart Asian American guy who happened to get in to Harvard and was not up to the study stress plus extracurriculars. He was no slouch but thought it very difficult and extremely competitive atmosphere. Your picture of modern Harvard is therefore incomplete. I understand that it is cutthroat and brutal there. Of course pure academics may have suffered significantly in our purely capitalistic system where grades are not important as who you know and how you interact( as in being in congress or a big company office atmosphere) is much more important. I would have to see a deeper background from people who move in these circles so I reserve judgement. This however explains the censorship and lack of tolerance in press and media if everything is about getting ahead in the broup and actual thinking, historical analysis is frowned upon.