August 17, 2010
Harvard: Where All the Children Are Above Average

From the Associated Press:

Harvard pulled ahead of Ivy League rival Princeton in the latest edition of the influential U.S. News & World Report university rankings, while a stronger emphasis on graduation rates drove other changes in the Top 10…

How did Harvard edge Princeton by 1 point on an 100-point scale? Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News & World Report, credited Harvard's higher scores on graduation rates, and financial and faculty resources…

Most notably, graduation rate performance was given greater weight, accounting for 7.5 percent of the final score for national universities and liberal arts colleges, up from 5 percent last year. The variable is the difference between a school's actual graduation rate and one predicted by U.S. News based on test scores and schools' resources.

Why am I not surprised? Because I taught at Harvard for five years, and four of my sons are Harvard graduates. Consequently I know that it takes a long and determined effort not to graduate from Harvard once you’re admitted. You have to cut classes and flunk tests for months or even years. Even then you are generally not expelled but “rusticated,” Harvard’s term for telling you to take a year or two off and then reapply.

I required three papers from my students in order to pass. A girl in one of my first classes had produced none by the end of the semester, in spite of numerous warnings and extensions. So I filed the considerable paper work necessary to flunk a student.

In midsummer I got a call from the dean’s office, asking if I could see my way to passing the girl if she coughed up the papers over the summer. Whatever, I said. It’s your university. The student eventually sent me three C- papers (meaning, on Harvard’s grade scale, total crap). Three years later, presumably, she made her tiny contribution to the university’s “graduation rate performance.”


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at August 17, 2010 01:39 PM
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At my little community college in Fall River, Massachusetts, I am now enrolled in a six-week condensed English 12 Writing About Literature class where I am required to produce three critical papers in that time. So far, I've scored an A and a B on my first two, with one to go. So, thank you for making me feel quite smug about my community college education and what I have accomplished through them!

Posted by: Pat on August 18, 2010 6:46 AM

When I first went to work at Harvard, I considered writing courses to be a form of consumer fraud, Pat. But then I found that it was actually possible to improve the writing of very poor writers and very good ones. The poor ones had usually been spoiled by poor teachers at high school. They suffered from what you might call the William F. Buckley, Jr. syndrome: they confused good writing with the use of long words and a style heavy on rodomontade. (Look it up, then Google an old Buckley column and you'll see what I mean.) Once these students realized that there was a new sheriff in town, they stopped showing off and their writing improved overnight.

The other category — the very good writers — needed only a nudge or two to see where their arguments had contradicted themselves or their sentences had wandered into incoherence. They immediately grasped my point that the object of good writing was not to get their ideas down on paper, but to get them off the paper and into the reader's mind.

From your grades, I imagine that you would fall into good writer group. Congratulations. But remember that the only sure way to learn good writing is to read. Incessantly. Obsessively. For the next ten or twenty years. Everything from Ann Rice to John Stuart Mill.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on August 18, 2010 1:19 PM

Hey!! As one of the a4mentioned sons, I strongly resemble that remark.

Posted by: ted on August 19, 2010 2:31 AM

I graduated from Harvard in 1959 and can attest to the fact that it is very difficult school. Difficult to get kicked out of, that is. Harvard, the home of unearned arrogance, is loath to admit any mistakes, so it protects its admission decisions with vengeance. And they take such good care of their students. I wrote an exam one time and the grad assistant (the real teachers at Harvard) used a rubber stamp for comments They included "awk," "silly," "boring," and so forth. He had stamps for the grades, too. A friend from Williams College showed me a paper on which the professor took the time to write a full page of comments. Harvard is the most overrated, and needlessly expensive university in the country. Myself, and many of my friends, frequently have found it necessary to deny graduating from Harvard for fear of being rejected for a job in so called Middle America.

Posted by: William Doolittle on August 19, 2010 9:15 AM
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