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In policy circles and the rarified world of higher education, there’s a common refrain when it comes to students who attend Harvard and its elite peers: “They’ll be fine. We’re not worried about them.”
The presumption is that these colleges can be trusted to launch their anointed brood and that our attention should be focused on other (read: lesser) colleges and students.
But what if that’s not so? What if the Harvards are failing in ways that matter profoundly for our nation but the nature and scope of this failure has been obscured by the brand leverage, self-serving networks and elite groupthink that bolster these institutions and their graduates.
It’s long been difficult to get observers to consider this possibility. But it’s become easier in the wake of Hamas’ assault on Israel, and the spotlight it cast on the moral decay at Harvard.
When student organizations endorsed Hamas’ murderous rampage, when Harvard president Claudine Gay needed multiple statements in order to make clear that she wasn’t indifferent to this act of terrorism, when Gay told Jewish students at a shabbat service that “Harvard has your back” only to remain mute when a viral video showed a Jewish student being bullied by pro-Hamas protesters on Harvard’s campus… well, it raised hard questions about just who’s being admitted to Harvard and what these students are learning.
After all, while Harvard and its peers educate only the tiniest fraction of our nation’s students, they educate an enormously outsized share of its leaders. The White House, Supreme Court, U.S. Senate and the executive suites of Fortune 500 companies are stuffed with graduates from places like Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
Which raises the question of how our nation’s future leaders are being chosen, and just what they’re learning while they’re there. When it comes to such questions, it turns out it’s better not to look too closely. Otherwise, the mantra “they’ll be fine” starts to look increasingly tenuous – with grave consequences for all of us.
While it’s often presumed that single-digit acceptance rates mean that a place like Harvard can’t help but comprise the best and the brightest, plenty of skepticism is in order. Recent affirmative-action litigation has documented the massive preferences enjoyed by the connected, ideological agendas, and the reductionist caricatures that dot admissions files.
At Harvard, nearly half of students are there due to some preference, such as being a “legacy” or the child of a wealthy donor. An analysis of 160,000 Harvard admissions files found that Asian American applicants outscored every other racial group on metrics like test scores, grades and extracurriculars but were kneecapped by Harvard staff consistently giving them dismal ratings on subjective traits like personality and kindness.
The assumption that Harvard students are uniquely talented has served to excuse the collapse of rigor and expectations. The average grade point average at Harvard today is 3.8 and the university brags about its 96% graduation rate. The lesson here is that once students get into Harvard, they get A’s and they graduate. Period.
More than two decades ago, Harvard philosopher Harvey Mansfield developed the practice of issuing students two sets of grades: One that reflected an honest assessment of their performance and another designed to mesh with “Harvard’s inflated grades.”
It’s long been presumed that it’s valuable for colleges like Harvard to curate “diverse” communities of future leaders. While recent events have made clear that this isn’t yielding the kinds of tolerant, responsible thinkers we’ve been promised, none of that should be surprising.
In practice, the promised curation has been less about merit or diversity than institutional convenience. Indeed, the New York Times has found that five of eight Ivy League schools admitted more students “from the top 1% of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60%.”
These “curated” student bodies don’t reflect the nation intellectually any more than they do socioeconomically. Indeed, Ivy League student bodies are, on average, 68% Democrat and just 12% Republican.
Meanwhile, Harvard has decimated required distribution requirements, embraced postmodern dogmas, hired agenda-driven scholars and waded into all manner of political debates. Faculty barely teach and students barely learn.
Harvard sells seats to the connected, allows the anointed to spend their college years basking in a rigor-free environment of ideological groupthink, and then issues its self-assured alums fast-passes to positions of import.
It’s odd. In most of life, success predicated on insider dealings is suspect. When it comes to Wall Street or golf clubs, deck-stacking is seen as an affront to American ideals.
Yet colleges trade on precisely that kind of self-dealing in attracting students and then launching them to professional success. And they get celebrated for it.
So, no, Harvard’s students are not “all right.” And that matters greatly, for all of us.