Who Needs Harvard?

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So what, really, are the benefits of going to a really, really selective college? Do you actually learn a whole lot more? According to a piece by Alexander Heffner in U.S. News and World Report, this is all a little overrated. As he writes:

For nearly the past three years, I have been a student at Harvard, a university whose formula for undergraduate prestige has created an international reputation far beyond that of even its closest competitors. But as any undergraduate who actually attends the school knows, the Harvard education is overrated. Harvard’s traditional emblem of Veritas, in practice, is a one-dimensional search for truth that weds students more to cold facts than to their teachers or classmates.

I often feel obliged to tell people, even if they don’t ask, that it was Andover (not Harvard) that taught to me to think and write critically.

Heffner, who also writes for us, explains that “faculty here are inaccessible, students are unengaged interpersonally,” and there isn’t enough interaction between professors and students.

It’s probably worth pointing out here that Andover is one of the fancier high schools in the world. Note that his position might be a little less credible if he attended secondary school at, say, Centerpoint High School in Amity, Arkansas but it is a valid point.

Why do we think that college is so transformative? What do we mean by that? What, specifically, are the benefits that colleges confer upon us? And why are some colleges supposed to be better than others? We don’t after all, really know. An education and a symbol of that education are not the same thing, after all.

But none of this indicates that Harvard‘s doing anything wrong, really. People are supposed to learn to think and write critically in high school. In college people learn to think about different things and learn to write better critically, that’s the point.

The central point of Heffner’s piece (“If you receive a notice of acceptance from the Harvard admissions office next month, enjoy the moment, but consider how disappointed you may be three years from now”) is that Harvard ain’t worth it. Maybe not, but what is?

The criticisms of Harvard that Heffner’s sharing (too impersonal, too little interaction between members of the community, the “intellectual pulse is invariably from the top-down and never from the bottom-up”) are legitimate, but they aren’t really Harvard specific; that’s just American higher education. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer