A review of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, by Ross Gregory Douthat
God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America, by Naomi Schaefer Riley
Ross Gregory Douthat and Naomi Schaefer Riley have a lot in commonthey both recently graduated from Harvard; were editors of Harvard's conservative paper, The Salient; were Publius Fellows at the Claremont Institute; and are both professional features journalists. And now these two new authors offer a student's take on the circus of higher education.
Whatever grander notions the subtitle's "education of the ruling class" might conjure up, Ross Douthat's Privilege is a memoir of sortsa readable, amusing narrative tracking the author's adventures as a young undergraduate at Harvard. From academics to affairs of the heart, there is little in Harvard's culture that escapes his scorn. And aside from a regrettable self-debate about what "privilege" means at Harvard today, and a few belated caveats describing Harvard as a largely decent creature (presumably added when the author realized he'd created something resoundingly negative), the book offers an insightful if troubling glimpse inside an institution whose name has, for more than two centuries, captivated the respect, or at least attention, of many.
Some of Douthat's descriptions, however true, are tedious. The phrase, "Harvard students are either decadent social climbers or envy those who are," for instance, could summarize pages 53 through 111. But Douthat redeems himself with often hilarious anecdotes that fill the book. Consider the distinctly non-academic advice offered Douthat by one of the college's myriad student advisors: "Well, you know, if you want to be a consultant or investment banker, a degree in History and Literature won't stand in your way." This is fitting for a college that long ago stopped caring about the personal choices its wards make.
By contrast, Naomi Riley's God on the Quad consists of interviews with admissions officers, tutors, professors, resident advisers, and students at several religious colleges. It is a more subdued book, with Riley only occasionally inserting any cheekinessan aside concerning a BYU student's poise, or a Bob Jones administrator's meek conversion effort of the author, who is Jewish. The title notwithstanding, Riley's book is thankfully less a sociology thesis and more of an informative tour of an array of under-explored college campuses. It would certainly be of interest to parents determined to send their kids somewhere wholesome. The first six chapters are individual accounts of religious universities the author visitedBrigham Young (Mormon), Bob Jones (fundamentalist), Notre Dame (Catholic), Thomas Aquinas (Catholic with added unction), Yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish), and Baylor (Baptist)while the subsequent six chapters cover a range of topics, from student life to feminism's effect on religious higher education.
Both Privilege and God on the Quad are at their best, and most relevant, in their discussion of the schools' disparate takes on their curricula. Appropriately, a solid amount of Douthat's attention is directed towards "the Core." Meant to be the unifying aspect of Harvard's curriculum, the Core is divided into 11 subjects, ranging from physical and life science to visual, musical, and literary art. To graduate, a student must take one course in the seven fields least related to their concentration. The scheme "sounds suitably comprehensive," says Douthat, but Harvard's goal is not to dictate a compendium of subject matter which all students must know to graduate, but rather, to offer students a glimpse at various subjects' "approaches to knowledge."
Thus History becomes Historical Study, whose "courses illustrate the way in which historical study helps make sense of some of the great issuesoften problematic policy issuesof our own world," as Harvard's pedagogical doctors put it. This de-emphasis on real knowledge has a preposterous effect: a student can just as easily satisfy that Historical Study requirement with "The Cuban Revolution: 1956-1971," as he can with "Western Civilization from Antiquity to 1650." Elsewhere, in the "Quantitative Reasoning" category, the notorious "Magic of Numbers" is weighted equally against "Calculus 1a." Thus, "an intellectual corpus that most Harvard graduates can claim to have in common" is missing, unless it is to be found in those Core courses with the largest enrollment, which have in recent years included such hits as "The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice" and "Fairy Tales, Children's Literature, and the Construction of Childhood." Even students with a concentration in history are only required to take only one semester of pre-modern history.
Other departments, especially degree-conferring committees like Women's Studies or History and Literature (in which Douthat has his Bachelor's degree) are even faster and looser with requirementsmost anything will count so long as you write a five-line paragraph asserting a connection to the "interdisciplinary" field. The wealth of courses means that offerings are routinely peripheral, some absurdly so. My all-time favorite is "Australian Indigenous Autobiography"; Douthat's is "Constructing the Samurai," which laughably fulfills a Literature and Arts Core requirement.
Even when the courses themselves aren't downright preposterous, the coursework often is. One of Douthat's best stories concerns the last paper he wrote at Harvard, for "The American West, 1780-1930." The professor assigned the students to write a "material history" comparing two circa 1800s artifacts, found in Harvard's Peabody Museum. To ensure they focused only on those objects, the students were instructed to limit their sources to a general text and a couple essays on historiography. What Douthat penned, reproduced at some length in his book, is hilarious"Running Antelope's war club is less a weapon than a talisman of supernatural power...the 'H.A. Brigham' inscription reinforces the revolver's connection to a capitalist order in which weapons are mass-produced." The paper tellingly culminates with, "The gun is displayed by not being displayed." For this, Douthat received an A.
Once Harvard backed away from the Great Books in the 1970s, there wasn't (and likely never will be) any going back. Douthat, however, neglects to mention the one shred of hope that remains. So long as a student is ambitious enough to build a curriculum for himself, there are the makings of a traditional liberal arts education amidst the multitudes of Harvard courses. Douthat also misses an opportunity to comment on Harvard's ongoing Curricular Review, which when first announced, portended foundation-shaking changes, especially to the Core (see Harvey C. Mansfield, "A More Demanding Curriculum,"). Alas, the buzz surrounding the Curricular Review now seems reduced to a whimper: Harvard implicitly acknowledges its shoddy pedagogy but stubbornly and resiliently plugs on.
If Harvard leaves "every student for himself," as Douthat argues, religious colleges are largely the opposite, championing a "simple, unchanging truth," resulting in a traditional, liberal arts curriculum. The postmodern "modes of inquiry" and its offspringWomen's Studies, African-American Studies, and so ondon't enjoy any focus at the schools Riley visited. Of course, religious colleges do have significant differences over the content of that simple, unchanging truth. Papal encyclicals are required reading in Magdalen and Thomas Aquinas tutorials, while Brigham Young offers its own rendering of Christianity in compulsory theology classes. But all of the colleges do rely heavily on the Great Books, Riley reports. In this respect, Harvard can't compete with Bob Jones, Magdalen, or Yeshiva.
Beyond a curriculum that unites all students in reading, writing, and remarking on the same texts, the schools also offer additional overarching structure to students' lives through a greater network of campus rules. Indeed, it's surprising just how many religious schools restrict what at Harvard are considered the necessities and cornerstones of student life. Televisions and radios are forbidden in many of the schools Riley surveys. And many schools do their best to govern students' love lives: in some instances, dating is banned outright; in others, it's allowed, so long as it's not consummated by anything more than holding hands. (Until recently, Bob Jones University had an infamous ban on interracial dating.)
Of course it is a particular school's religious orientation that provides the most fundamental common bond. For smaller schools, like Magdalen or Thomas Aquinas, all the students huddle together in a chapel for a daily Latin mass. BYU, a larger institution, assigns each of its students to a ward of the Mormon church, and every student is tasked with individual religious duties by the ward's bishop. At Bob Jones, applicants are required to sign a profession of faith which doubles as the BJU creed; when they matriculate, students gather four times a week in chapel to recite it aloud.
At Harvard Yard's Memorial Church, on the other hand, school-sanctioned "morning prayers" draw less than 50 people a day out of a campus population of 10,000. Harvard provides its students with a chaplain's office, but more to showcase diversity than to sponsor religious ceremonies, catechesis, or anything of the sort. The office's many "chaplaincies" cover nearly all of Christianity's bases; as well as Orthodox, Reformed, and Reconstructionist Judaism; two brands of Buddhism; Islam (whose faithful are granted access to the Yard's loudspeakers for one week every year to loudly announce calls to prayer); Hinduism; Humanism (don't ask); and lastly (but only because it's in alphabetical order) Zoroastrianism. Anyone who goes to an event blessed with the involvement of Harvard's rainbow of chaplainsas I did while attending the memorial ceremony on the first anniversary of 9/11will witness a bloated spectacle of multicultural buffoonery.
Let me paint a typical scene: two men, one in saffron robes and the other with Orthodox braids and a beard, begin the proceedings by making obscene noises with rams' horns. The Christiansometimes a Presbyterian, at others a Unitarian, maybe even the "Catholic" chaplain (a woman referred to as "Father Jackie")will read a prayer that, as they invariably do, avoids mention of Christ. Muslims will ululate, and an imam will read a Koranic passage that never steers clear of Mohammedusually on the much discussed topic of how the prophet loved peace. In short, religion at Harvard now suffers from the same disease as the school's curriculum does
However, religion on campus can be a challenge in other ways, too. Riley notes that the upstart Patrick Henry College was denied provisional accreditation until it stopped insisting that faculty teach only Biblical creationism. And at evangelical Gordon College, Riley finds one math teacher, doubling as director of the Center for Christian Studies, who waxes grandiloquent on the divinity of mathematical proofs. Beyond a rhetorical level, it's hard to see how God is involved in math, but it's no more contrived than the thesis, "Math/Theory: Constructing a Feminist Epistemology of Mathematics," which earned one Women's Studies major a Harvard diploma with honors some years ago.
Despite some bizarre intersections of religion and the secular disciplines, more restrictions on student life (corresponding to lower levels of anxiety about love and material possessions) make for the "more motivated environment" Riley routinely encounters on religious campuses. And yet the sad, enduring coda to any story involving Harvard and its manifold problems is that Harvard always winsHarvard students are a tremendously bright, if routinely misguided, crowd, many of whom fit the definition of genius to a tee. At least some will take what Harvard gives them and make it into the world-class education the public hears about.
Moreover, Harvard is obscenely wealthy. For religious colleges, the question of money always looms large. When Domino's founder Tom Monaghan pledged $200 million to endow the traditional Catholic Ave Maria College, it was hailed as a monumental gift, which it is. But it is a pittance compared to Harvard's monstrous $22.6 billion endowment, an investment that returned $600 million just last year. With that kind of cash, Harvard does what it wants, when it wants, and on its own terms. So long as nothing reverses the tide of alumni giving and the school's consistent ranking as the most well-known, well-respected university in America, Harvard is a stable Leviathan.
As for religious colleges, publicity like Riley's will surely help them. But today, there's a division between those colleges that take religion seriously and those colleges that are nominally religious or treat faith as an element of their school's history (e.g., Georgetown, Fordham, Boston College, even Notre Dame). These schools have reputations that trump their usually newer, more fervent alternatives, but Riley doesn't go into thisshe prefers to focus on what's happening on the ground and usually eschews confronting the public stereotypes. But these days, there's still something odd about sending a freshman to a place that will punish him for kissing a girl or sneaking in a hand-held television. The "strong in-loco-parentis bent," as Riley coyly puts it, often overwhelms whatever academic reputation some of these schools deserve in the public eye. It's unfortunate that schools trying earnestly to reinvigorate the noble tradition of entwining faith and reason in a modest way are segregated by this one attribute in U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review. Only time will tell whether a more traditional curriculum can produce the kind of God-fearing citizens who will no longer be ruled by Harvard's ruling class.