Blog Post

The Trouble with Pinker's Argument about 'The Trouble With Harvard'

According to Steven Pinker in his recent New Republic article about"The Trouble with Harvard," the most read article in the history of that magazine is a previous article also mostly about the trouble with Harvard, William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.”    Like all the things we most covet and scorn, Harvard is the object of our national fascination, even obsession.  Because it costs so much for middle class people to send their kids to college and because Harvard is the glittering symbol of all the goods and glamor that would accrue to your child if only you could afford it, there are sour grapes to be consumed in the literature about how bad Harvard is and how “robotic” are Harvard students. Writing about “The Trouble with Harvard” puts one roughly in the position of the paparazzi publishing photos of celebs that expose their cellulite or zits. 

I personally have no “trouble with Harvard” because I’m not particularly obsessed with Harvard one way or another.  But I am obsessed with our refusal, as a society, to support higher education adequately for the seventy percent of U.S. students who are educated at public institutions.

Most Americans don’t realize that the U.S. has one of the most expensive systems of higher education in the world.  As much as we like to believe we have class mobility, higher education is now so expensive that it exacerbates rather than ameliorates income inequality:  that is, you need to be affluent to afford to go to college to, in your life time, earn more money than those who could not afford college.  This is a vicious generational cycle that has been escalated by the fifty-year defunding of higher education.  This process began, for all intents and purposes, with Governor Ronald Reagan systematically cutting state subsidies to the California system of higher education institutions.  More and more of the U.S. tuition burden has passed from society at large to the individual student, ensuring that the most affluent American students (not necessarily the most talented) have a much higher chance of going to college. This is not very forward-thinking in an era of high change, when we need the smartest students to learn to be inventors, creators, innovators in all fields.

Only a small percentage of the nation’s students go to the kind of elite institution that Pinker describes. For Pinker, that elitism is not really a problem in itself but he does note that it leads to a kind of a bland excellence that is not as stimulating as it should be.  I'll leave aside his pretty silly argument that we need more standardized testing to ensure more diversity and zest Harvard (the research shows a very high correlation between standardized testing and the wealth of one's school district or one's parents; standardized tests will in no way solve "the trouble with Harvard" but will replicate it).   Still, the testing silliness aside, Pinker's main argument is that, if your child can get in, Harvard is a bargain because of how much attention the university dedicates to student success:   "The economist Caroline Hoxby has shown that selective universities spend twenty times more on student instruction, support, and facilities than less selective ones . . . Holding qualifications constant, graduates of a selective university are more likely to graduate on time, will tend to find a more desirable spouse, and will earn 20 percent more than those of less selective universities—every year for the rest of their working lives.” 

Twenty times!  All that to make sure students who have already had every educational benefit succeed at the nation's wealthiest university?  That is a stunning figure and deserves some thinking about.   Perhaps the significant issue here is not that Harvard gives so much value to its students but that, as a society and as future employers, we over-value the intrinsic merit, worth, and potential of a student who has an elite degree. In recent polls, private universities fill every single slot in the "Top Ten" of great American universities.  Is it because they devote so many resources to the success of their students in every way?  I'm sure it is--and that's wonderful.  But how does that kind of attending to student success correspond with Pinker's and Deresiewicz's lament about "the trouble with Harvard" (certainly a First World Problem if ever there was one)?

What if the issue isn't what Harvard can and does do brilliantly but what, for the students who do not go to elite schools, they must do for themselves:  ensure their own success.   If they can succed on 1/20th of the resources, what does that say about their character, stamina, native intelligence, aptitude, and fighting can-do spirit?  When one hears that Google and Apple have HR algorithms set only for the Ivies plus MIT and CalTech, does that mean they are automating the selection of the very best minds--or automating the selection of those who are accustomed to having twenty times the support to succeed?

I taught at a wonderful elite institution for much of my career, until this July in fact, and I remain a visiting professor at Duke to this day.  I admire all that these institutions offer to their students.  What I do not admire is a status system that says students who attend elite private institutions are de facto "better" than students who toil through public institutions without such support systems.   Excellence should not equate with income.  Hiring algorithms set to the Ivies perpetuates a system already far too ingrained in American culture of scaling educational assets to financial ones.

What qualities are we after in new hires?  Employers say they are looking for new hires with grit, ingenuity, creativity, originality, and tenacity. If you can succeed in getting a college degree with 1/20th of the support systems in place, you have grit.  If you can succeed with 1/20th of the academic support services AND you are working one or two jobs, maybe have family responsibilities, possibly living at home where the environment has not been engineered to ensure your scholastic success, then you have grit and more.  You are a Super Hero!

Why are we not heralding those students who manage to succeed at public institutions where they have 1/20th of the support of their Harvard peers?  And, as a society, why aren’t we doing everything we can to close the gap?  If it takes twenty times more resources even to help the Harvard student, who presumably comes to college with all the advantages of excellent preparation, shouldn’t we maybe try to help other students a bit more too to succeed at the task of gaining a college education?

In most countries around the world, higher education is a public good.  As with our idolizing of celebrity, America’s blurring of “best” with “most expensive” is part of our capitalist bias, so deeply ingrained in our social, economic, and educational system that we don’t even see the cultural bias.  We tend to confuse talent with fame, worth with price tag, value with cost. 

If we paid less attention to the trouble with our most expensive schools, we might focus instead on fixing the problem of underfunding that besets most of public higher education. Right now nearly a dozen states have budget surpluses.   Maybe we can’t support a twenty-fold increase in support for our kids’s future—but even two or three times seems like a worthy investment in all our futures.



1 comment

With the media and information delivery systems of today, college should take less time and cost less money. That is both obvious and completely ignored.

That also requires thinking about what college should do. Your Future of Higher Education models are primarily institutional, rather than personal, yet the foundation of - particularly - American higher education was in how a college experience could offer a young adult a laboratory of many experiences to help students discover and then clarify which or how many of those experiences might help in later life. Big ideas like the Great Books, or "Liberal Education," or teaching creativity - or models like Black Mountain, St. Johns, Reed, Hampshire, or, more recently, Olin and even College for America at SNHU, all involve people-with-people, and are far less concerned with content than process. Yet the testing mania of this - and previous - administrations has ignored this critical foundation.

Finally, my favorite story about Harvard (who accepted me, and who I then turned down to go to UMass, after serious work and degrees from Brown and Columbia) is that it's the fourth branch of the Massachusetts Government, built into the state's constitution, yet it's endowment of over $30,000,000,000 is inaccessible to the citizens of the Commonwealth. While it's fairly easy to see how the foundational traditions of higher education have been ignored in the daily curricula of most public, private, and religious colleges, it's even more evil to ignore that Harvard is hardly the private college it pretends.

If there were ever a good reason to go elsewhere, it's that multi-level betrayal. Particularly at and through an institution whose core principle is to free the mind to create new ideas.