Ross Douthat on Harvard Gone Wild

I seem to be have interview on my brain lately. To keep that spirit going here is another interview from National Review Online. This time it is Ross Douthat, author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, and contributor to one of my favorite blogs The American Scene. Here are a few snippets:

Lopez: So there’s a lot about sex in your book — or at least the Harvard student’s frustrations over it and often pathetic attempts (no offense) to get some, as they say. How big a role does sex actually play in Harvard life?

Douthat: Less of a role than it does at a typical American college, I imagine, in part because the student body contains more than its fair share of dorky and socially awkward kids (of which I was certainly one), and in part because the spirit of the place emphasizes the pursuit of a successful career over the pursuit of the opposite (or the same) sex. Everyone — or at least every male student — spends a lot of time talking about sex and thinking about sex, but this has more to do with the smog of sexual frustration hanging over campus than it does with any real licentiousness. I think that most Harvard students come to college with great expectations for either debauchery, or romance, or both — consequence-free sex and true love, the great promise of the sexual revolution — and for the most part, they’re disappointed by what they find. But this doesn’t mean that anyone’s rethinking the sexual revolution itself; it just means that everyone complains a lot about how little sex they’re having. I’d like to agree with, say, Wendy Shalit of Return to Modesty fame, that we’re poised for a large-scale backlash against the oversexualization of American culture. But I’m not holding my breath.

Oh, and this is a good part too:

Lopez: Is there, uh, actually learning going on in, like, classrooms at Harvard? You say that’s the easy part?

Douthat: There’s plenty of actual learning going on — but all too often, it feels optional, both because the environment of the place is career-focused rather than learning-focused, and because the curriculum makes it easy to skate through without being challenged. So it’s possible to get a great education at Harvard (the professors and students are, as you might expect, brilliant), but you have to go out looking for it, and you have to seal yourself off from all the other pressures that the place presents. And the number of people who make resist these pressures, and make academics the center of their Harvard experience, is far smaller than it should be.

Some of this is the students’ own fault, admittedly, but a greater portion of the blame belongs to the people running the university, who have let undergraduate education flounder for decades, with terrible-to-nonexistent advising, a disastrous Core Curriculum, and a general sense of academic drift. The prevailing attitude seems to be that “if you’re smart enough to get into Harvard, you’re smart enough to get what you want out of it” — which sounds swell, until you consider that however smart Harvard students may be, they’re also just teenagers away from home for the first time, with all the confusion that entails.

And depriving them of any kind of guidance — because guidance might require actually asserting that some forms of knowledge are more important than others, and nobody’s willing to do that anymore — turns out to be good way to ensure that they aren’t as well educated as they should be, given everything that a school like Harvard has to offer.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).