February 25, 2006

"Suppose people picked hotels based on how intelligent they expected the other guests to be."

They'd be acting like someone who chooses to go to Harvard as an undergraduate, writes John Tierney -- TimesSelect link -- in his column about Lawrence Summers:
In most industries, a company would cater to customers paying $41,000 per year, but Harvard has been able to take its undergraduates for granted. (It was a radical innovation when Summers called attention to surveys measuring students' dissatisfaction.) Harvard has long known that the best students will keep coming, not for its classes but simply for its reputation. Smart students want to go where the other smart students go.
Tierney puts his finger on the real complaint against Summers:
He dared to suggest that professors teach survey courses geared to undergraduates' needs — an onerous idea to academics accustomed to teaching whatever's in their latest book....

Senior professors can shunt off the more tedious jobs, like teaching freshmen or grading papers, to low-caste graduate students or visiting lecturers. Or they just neglect the jobs that don't appeal to them....

You might expect the Harvard history department to devote a course or two to the American Revolution or the Constitution, but those topics are too mundane. Instead, there's a course on the diaries of ordinary citizens during the Revolution, and another, "American Revolutions," that considers the American and Haitian Revolutions as "a continuous sequence of radical challenges to established authority."

Summers had some allies in his reform efforts, especially in the professional schools. The professors in the business, law and medical schools know their schools' reputations depend on properly training students for jobs in the outside world. The opposition to Summers was concentrated among the college professors who aren't accustomed to being judged by anyone except fellow academics.
Interesting. I had a reporter call me for comments the other day when Summers resigned. But I really hadn't followed the Summers story, other than the very conspicuous controversy over what he said last year about women and science. I never went to Harvard, so I'm normally content to let the old institution -- which the NYT can't stop talking about -- stew in its own juices. The reporter had to prod me with questions about how professors behave, how perhaps they disregard the interests of students and seek only to teach highly specialized courses focused on their own scholarly interests and narrow perspectives. I found myself saying, repeatedly, but I'm in the law school. You couldn't run a law school like that!


Sean said...

There's a fair amount of evidence that elite colleges like Harvard don't add much value, i.e., that graduates do about as well in life as they were going to do anyway, given their intellectual and social backgrounds. Thus the college functions, basically, as the personnel screening and intake office for the corporate world, selling a credential for which people are happy to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars. No news there.

What's interesting to me is Prof. Althouse's apparent suggestion that law schools are different. Is there any reason think that the curriculum design, quality of teaching etc. at a law school might make a difference, i.e., that one law school might add more value than another? Or are the differences between the graduates of one school and another entirely the result of the inputs (e.g., Columbia starts with brighter, better focused students than Touro)?

Ann Althouse said...

Sean: It's more than a suggestion, and I'm reinforcing material in the article. See the last paragraph I quoted, which says that lawprofs supported Summers. Law schools are very focused on teaching well. I lot of effort is put into the classroom experience and we all teach fundamental courses (and not just seminars). The students express strong satisfaction with the teaching, and if they didn't we would do something about it. Teaching is not sloughed off in law school at all.

Dave said...

"In most industries, a company would cater to customers paying $41,000 per year, but Harvard has been able to take its undergraduates for granted."

All schools take advantage of their students by charging such exorbitant rates.

That a school with tens of billions of dollars in endowment still gets away with charging its students $40,000 per year shows only the fools that Harvard gets to attend its schools.

Aspasia M. said...

You might expect the Harvard history department to devote a course or two to the American Revolution or the Constitution, but those topics are too mundane.

I call bulls#@t on this.

According to Harvard's history department webside a student can take both David Armitage's course "Declarations of Independence: The Political Philosphy of the American Revolution" or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's course on "Witness to Revolution: Two Eighteenth Century Diaries."

As if taking a class with David Armitage on the political philosphy of the American Revolution wouldn't be a fantastic opportunity!?!

Oh, wait, he has a problem with Ulrich's course:

Instead, there's a course on the diaries of ordinary citizens during the Revolution

Whatever. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a fantastic teacher and a real nice person to boot.

Gratuitious Book Recommendaton:

I gave Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize winning book _A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812_ to my grandmother for a present. My grandmother loved the book.

tjl said...


Your comment doesn't take into account the difference in purpose between an undergraduate liberal arts college and a professional school. I graduated from Harvard with a degree in English, and went to law school at Boston University.
Other than constant practice in writing, very little of my undergraduate course work had any use in the real world. Law school, on the other hand, was as Prof. Althouse notes, tightly focused on subject matter and methods of analysis that have led to a reasonably satisfying career.
That said, there is no comparing the two experiences. BU Law was a grey concrete monolith which offered nothing but a set of professional tools to its students. Harvard College on the other hand was an unbelieveably rich formative experience. Its value could never be calculated in monetary terms.
Summers' departure suggests that this may not always be so in the future, if PC succeeds in stamping out free inquiry even here.

Dave said...

"Harvard College on the other hand was an unbelieveably rich formative experience. Its value could never be calculated in monetary terms."

You're equivocating with the word "rich" here. Of course the value of a college education can be calculated in monetary terms; anything can be monetized. One can calculate its value with a cost-benefit analysis (what opportunities do I give up by going to college for four years?), a predictor of lifetime earnings (How will my predicted lifetime earnings vary if I forgo college?), etc., etc., etc.

To assert that a college education cannot be valued is to misunderstand elementary finance.

Jim-mny said...

Larry Summers has a history predating Harvard of stepping on toes hard enough to ruffle feathers.

2 points:

For me a line that stood out in his resignation letter was:
"At a time when the median age of our tenured professoriate is approaching 60, the renewal of the faculty has to be a central concern."
Sounds pretty old to me.
median = half are above the number and half below.
Of course most untenured faculty will be younger and we don't know the overall median.
I wonder what the median is at other schools.

Daniel Drezner (U Chicago)highlights another aspect of Larry that may have some bearing on his status at Harvard. Legal and ethics issues appear to be present.

Worth a read.

AlaskaJack said...

Ann, there are exceptions to your comments on law school teaching.

I remember taking contracts from a professor who realy belonged in the sociology or anthropology departments. His main interest seemed to be how different social groups bargained with each other. He spent the first two weeks talking about how a tribe on some island traded fish for crops grown by another tribe in the interior. He marveled at how this was done without any written agreements.

Things went downhill from there.

There was never any serious discussion on how ambiguities in contracts are to be resolved except for learning that all the answers can be found in Corbin. As for contract breaches,except for a few caes, we learned a great deal about how bartering societies in the Third World resolved such problems.

The guy that got the best grade was an anthropology major who answered each question on the final by explaining how the dispute would have been resolved in a society that didn't use written agreements.

To this day, I can't imagine this prof handling even the simplest contract litigation.

Hopefully, things have changed.

Goatwhacker said...

To assert that a college education cannot be valued is to misunderstand elementary finance.

If you are speaking in strictly monetary terms you are correct, but I have to agree with tjl that there is a component to undergrad education that can not be expressed in monetary terms. I did not go to Harvard, but being surrounded by intelligent people in college was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. My career now is in the sciences, but I don't regret for a minute taking classes in English, Religion, Economics, etc. as they have made me a more complete and knowledgable person, something that has significant value but that I can not quantify.

stealthlawprof said...

I am not sure my experiences are as far afield as Alaska Jack's contracts class, but I am not sure the notion that the law school is different is quite as persuasive as it may once have been. I remember when the standard course load was four courses, and the expectation was that one course might be for the school (an area of no interest to the professor) and one would likely reflect the professor's specific interests; the other two presumably landed in between -- reflecting school need and professorial interest to some degree.

Now, the load is often reduced, but what gets lost in the process? It is not the professorial interest course. Furthermore, what qualifies as a course reflecting professorial interest seems to be an ever-broadening world.

Law schools may be far from having a curriculum driven solely by idiosyncratic faculty interests, but the negative impact of idiosyncrasy on the curriculum is still an issue law schools face. Many solid courses that are not required are being squeezed out to make room for the proverbial "Law and the Banana".

PatCA said...

All higher education is facing Harvard's problem, which I think is largely generational. The old lefty profs have been coasting, and the new generation of students knows it. Administrators are looking for new blood and new consumer oriented curriculum. Ward Churchill struck terror into their hearts. But, as an exasperated VP concerned about replacing the old guard once told me, they won't leave.

With high school graduation rates down and college tuition up, administrators know that parents and kids are shopping wisely--they do not want to spend thousands to have their kids inculcated in only postmodernism.

Marghlar said...

I've seen both in law school -- I've had, or my friends have had, profs so theory focused that they couldn't communicate basic concepts to their students (including an Israeli law and econ prof teaching torts when he seemed not to remember even the elements of many of the torts he was teaching). I've also had classes taught both by practicioners and professionals which focused wonderfully on the utility of the subject matter for practicioners. It's just always a mixed bag, and you learn to tell the difference.

My guide to telling the difference (other than asking around): a practicioner is almost always an excellent prof. They are in it for the teaching, they are focused on the practical, and they sure aren't in it for the money. All the most instructive courses I have taken in law school have been from practicing adjuncts.

Profs who are law-centric in their scholarship (as opposed to interdisciplinary) are often relatively good teachers, although if they are a star, they are unlikely to be very focused on teaching their classes (but the digressions will be fasincating if you are willing to teach yourself the material).

As a whole, I'd say 70 percent of my classes were well-taught. That's substantially better than the liberal arts side of my undergrad education. It's about the same as the technical side of undergrad.

Dave: just because you can map a monetary value onto an experience, doesn't make it clear that that dollar value is an accurate reflection of the true value of an experience. I might pay X dollars for an experience, which will largely be constrained by my sense of ability to pay/repay. I might gain Y future value in a monetary sense. However, I might be unwilling to give up the experience even for Z, a sum astronomically larger than X or Y.

A great example would be my marriage. If I had to buy in, there would be a dollar value I couldn't reasonably exceed. I'm sure that I get some monetary value out of the relationship, in terms of saved effort, shared resources, sex I don't have to look for, etc. However, there are other types of utility involving that relationship, such that you could not pay me enough money to leave my spouse. That's not irrationality -- that's just that I place a higher utility value in my loving relationship than in any amount of tradeable assets.

So your criticism of tjl may be off the mark. If tjl was meaning to suggest that he would not have foregone his Harvard experience for any quantity of tradeable assets (i.e. he wouldn't have gone to Princeton + a billion dollars), then indeed it was beyond value for him. Was that true --probably not, if he actually thought about it. But you are being a bit of a robot, because it was clear from the linguistic context that what tjl actually meant was "really, really valuable" such that it would be very hard for him to calculate it.

tjl said...

Dave: Goatwhacker and Marghlar are absolutely correct.

You cannot put a cash value on an undergraduate experience that exposes you to such an array of knowledge, cultural options, and intelligent personalities. It is possible to name a cash amount that you would be willing to pay for this, but whatever the sum you choose, it would not be adequate to describe the enrichment of your life that such an education produces.

sonicfrog said...

The opposition to Summers was concentrated among the college professors who aren't accustomed to being judged by anyone except fellow academics.

How 'bout substituting Summers with bloggers, and college professors and academics with journalists. I think it works.

PS. Finished my last day of school today... for now. Now I just have to sell the business, register to sub, start and complete student teaching... blah, blah, blah...

Edgehopper said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Edgehopper said...

Second the difference between undergrad and law school teaching. Granted, I've only been at NYU 1 year now, but out of 6 professors (1 prof is for a year long course, and my Torts prof is also now my Corps prof), 4 have been excellent, 1 is as good as my typical undergrad prof, and 1 is atrociously bad (but is leaving NYU next year). And I went to Princeton, where they're completely focused on undergrads.