Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Gautam Hans

on criticizing the culture of criticism in the Columbia Spectator. Gautam is a very regular reader and commenter here, a well-read Columbia senior who has interned at the Village Voice and Soft Skull, two institutions (can I call Soft Skull an institution?) dear to my heart; expect great literary things from him in the future. (Thanks to the Literary Saloon for the link.)


  1. I'm curious: when you were at Harvard, upon getting in, did you feel an air of one-up-manship among your fellows? That is, that once you got in, you needed to prove you were a cut above, some how even better than the creme of the crop, the elite of the elite; and did you notice - I've been reading about this change in the school in recent years - a slow lessening of requisite intellectuality, that during the four years you were there, from the late 80s to the beginning of the 90s, academic standards underwent a democratization, rather than a meritocratization, and that more and more of your peers were not exactly 'smart' in the strictest sense nor were they 'academics'. I've come to know quite a few Ivy leaguers in my day, and Harvard seems to stand most egregious in its absence of intellectual discourse among its students, one would suspect, ironically, for fear of coming off as too smart - or show-offy, smarty-pantsy, artsy-fartsy -- however you want to put it, there's an authentic dread among students of overdoing qualities which in high school were encouraged. It's almost a pathology and those who aren't afflicted by it tend to be of the upper-crust, people who got in because their parents were extremely moneyed and therefore implicitly promising much munificience to the school if acceptance was granted, and it was. They tend to be beautiful, beyond filthy rich, incredibly elitist, are members of impossibly exclusive successors to the "gentlemans'" clubs of eighty years ago, many cheat on tests, get kids to write their papers for them, never work, don't care about books in the least bit, and display none of the humility, none of the gratitute, only the entitlement - this, the world is indebted to me, attitude - which seems to be their only warrant for being there. I actually have knowledge of someone who very openly admitted to me of having people write all their papers for them, resulting in their 4.0 gpa and subsequent addmission into Yale Law School. I was rather chagrinned and deeply offended that someone so smug, so invincible, so above the system, had played it so expertly, using his power, his prestige and whatever else he wielded in his world of manipulations to get exactly what he wanted, exploiting everything around him. He's not alone either. If I had kept the evidence I had against him, the papers he got written for him, his own admission through e-mails, taped conversations, and the admissions of others around him of their complicity in his scheme, it could've resulted in a revoking of his degree, his ejection from Yale School, and, one would hope, ultimate barring from ever entering any insitution of higher learning again. I had wanted to pull him down from his mountain but romantic concerns involving one of his prior 'assistants' gave me pause. I think I could've helped expose the circle or ring of cheating, deeply entrenched, which now exists at Harvard. There is no real cure for this social circumstance, except as I see it, and for a school that has such a large endowment - admittedly tied up in various departments, never aggregate, and full of committes and bureacracies and earmarkings until doom's day - it certainly could justify the expenditure of the necessary money, time and man-power, to exhaustively backround check every applicant, giving them ethics tests, lie detector tests, double-blind apparently anonymous tests of character, perhaps even covert interviews in disguise, everything and anything, however unseemly, to get through the pieties of humanitarism and corny political lip-services to see what they're really like. This would have to be unofficial and kept under close wraps/on the down-low to prevent people from just "being on good behavior" for a month or two leading up to their admission decision. There's also the concern that universities shouldn't purport to ennoble or debase their student body, intellectually, personally, socially -- in no way should they be assigned the charter of engineering sites for character development, a care bear land, with feelies and sensitivies and enforced PC sympathies, and group sing-alongs and no factionizing and ostracism and no real-world enmities and animosities. A Mr. Roger's Paraise. In other words, it's perfectly fine to have assholes who just want to gain power and use the school as some cachet of merit; they too have a right to an education, and maybe they require it the most of all to undo their prejudices, to unlock their potential to be good people; or perhaps act as moral signposts or actual adversaries, grist for the dogfights that the do-gooders will have to be prepared for in the real world. In any event, Harvard, in its illustrious history, has never been a place for only 'smart' people; it's been many things, but now, its continued aura of being a place for only the brilliant, and the resultant conferral of that aura upon all those who get in, seems even less substantied by reality than it was 50 years ago. Granted, just by probability alone there's no way to expect that at any time 6000 geniuses are promenating the campus, riffing on Kant and Kierkaggard and Nietzsche, expounding upon political strife in Guatamala, and expatiating long-windedly about Derrida's deconstructionist hypotheses. But there is almost none of that at all anymore, which is a definite problem --- a huge problem, since Harvard is seen as a model or standard for many in the academic world, the one place completely protected from cronyism, nepotism, favortism, commercialism, corporatism, the whole racket of corrupting isms, where ideals are held strong, people care, the best research is conducted and the brightest and most curious among us flock to for edification. This entire concept is such a fraud, such a peddled sham of shopworn romanticism, outdated, outmoded, flimsy and bare, that for the school to ring out every year under the auspices of veritas in cermonial graduation fashion, triumphant regalia and all, is a painful travesty to observe, and probably the most self-congratulatory, ego-stroking love-fest I've ever seen, with nearly every speaker saying something lavish about how cool it is to be a Harvard alum, sprinkled of course with plenty of de rigeur "we will rule the world" cant along with other orgies of self-directed superlatives.

    ps I don't mean to editorialize here with my rantings but you seem to be the only person I know of with enough intimacy with the institution and enough adult perspective to shed light or give commiseration.

  2. Well, I guess I'd say I'm dismayed but not surprised by the account you give here. You've raised a huge set of issues, and I can't do justice to anywhere near all of them here, but a few thoughts.

    A friend of mine on the Harvard faculty speaks with great distress of the anti-intellectual undergraduate culture today. I would like to think it was different when I was there (roughly 88-93ish), I really loved so many things about it & was passionately reading Dickens and Deleuze and a million other things and acting in plays (again, everything from Shakespeare to Ionesco) and behaving rather disreputably otherwise but also by the end working 30 hours a week at an off-campus temp job to pay the rent (I had very generous financial aid, it paid all of tuition & some more than that, but of course Cambridge was an expensive place even then). And I made amazing friends who are still some of my favorite people in the world. But I would say that even then there was not really a pervasive culture of intellectual life, and I suspect there is a bit less now. (And there is no doubt that you feel slightly outside the mainstream when you are on financial aid, many of my friends were too and I certainly had no embarrassment about it but the assumption is that you're not and various things become more difficult once you are, especially when you are--as I was--in the state of chaos and disarray that often accompanies adolescence. Like never having even the five dollars for quarters to do laundry! There was a famous cash machine, the Cambridge Trust one by Au Bon Pain, that would give $5 even after all the others had gone up to $10 increments, so that you could get money out of your account even when there was only $7.10 or something....)

    I know I feel very, very lucky to teach at Columbia in part because so many people there (both undergraduate and graduate students, in my experience) are really passionate about the arts and intellectual matters and politics in a relatively unselfconscious way. (But then we shouldn't knock Harvard thoughtlessly either; I know that there are lots of fantastic students and faculty doing very appealing and ethical things there and not so much falling for the line of thought you lay out here. Perhaps they're quieter about their work than some of the others?!?)

    I am completely out of sympathy with the path-to-privilege aspect of Harvard; in that respect I was very naive going in, I had no idea of what the associations with Harvard were supposed to mean and thought of it solely in terms of (I am ashamed to confess) my beloved boyfriend who was going to go there--we broke up the week after I decided on Harvard, of course, as these things always seem to go--and the amazing intellectual life I was sure I could have there. This prove-yourself-a-cut-above/cream-of-the-crop mentality is horrible. I was brought up (I don't think I'm breaching any family confidences here) in the school of modesty, which is to say the only thing that wrung an ounce of praise was some kind of self-sacrificing behavior that actually cost something to yourself. It was plain to all concerned (except myself, of course, I only saw it later on) that since all things academic came incredibly easily to me it would be a very bad thing for me to get in the habit of thinking that made me any better than anybody else; I expected myself to work twice as hard as the others and to make any advantages I had useful to the group, like if I knew how to do geometry without having to do any homework I had better put my time to use making sure my classmates all understood it as well. (I have often jokingly said that my mother would be more proud of me if I was a nun under fire in El Salvador than an Ivy League professor, or that she would rather have me be brain-damaged and going in a van to an adult day care center to do arts and crafts than become arrogant and thoughtless of others. And really this is true, and these are the values I share as well.)

    I don't know where that leaves us. Inconclusive, I expect. But I am certainly an optimist or even starry-eyed in that I think worthwhile things are going on at Harvard and in other places of extreme and sometimes obnoxious privilege despite all of the bad stuff you diagnose. From my point of view, the most important thing is to make sure that the faculty understand these values so that students are in no (well, less) danger of picking up this kind of idea from their teachers. I fear that some of the pressures in the academy--my more cynical colleagues would say MANY of the pressures in the academy--reward the self-seeking and self-promoting and ethically shabby over the person whose ethics are integrally part of their teaching. But I really, really hope and believe that this is far from generally the case. We are teaching our graduate students nothing if we're not teaching them that--even if sometimes that teaching happens by negative example.

    All right, I must stop. I try not to write about academia here, I find the privacy and discretion issues too problematic, but I realize it can come to seem an artificial split, and I'm glad you've raised this set of issues.

  3. It's quite kind of you to tag my column. If I had known the CR would blog it I might have spent a little longer on it, oh well. I suppose this should teach me to be more contemplative of what I write, since who knows who's reading it?

    On this academic issue - I went to a prep school and there were (and still are, I'm sure) plenty of ethically wrong and ethically dubious stories, especially in regards to college admissions, which have gotten completely crazy in the last ten years. I will say that I had a sort of similar naive experience that you write about when I got to CU - which is to say that I immediately thought that everyone would sit around in discussion groups talking about Oliver Sacks or Thomas Pynchon or James Watson or whatever, which clearly is not the case. Which isn't to say that you can't find those things and there aren't people who love to discuss intellectual matters in really smart ways, but it's something that I had to actively *look* for (and the CJLC has been a great way to do that). So in the end I suppose the only difference from my HS, in terms of people interested in raw, idealistic intellecualism is that there are *more* of them - but it's not as though that's everyone's MO. You have to go looking for it, or create it for yourself, I think.


  4. First, thanks for the original post. But I'd also like to weigh in on the additional comment about Harvard and (in general) elitism in institutions of higher ed.

    As an undergrad I attended a small, liberal arts college in Maryland. My classmates included children of Putlitzer Prize winners, notable business exectutives and other well-known people. As a senior, I sat on the academic honesty board and the amount of plagiarism and cheating was pretty high for a college of just under 1,000 students. I do feel that there is a certain arrogance when it comes to students who have been handed everything on a silver platter, but I wouldn't say that about everyone who comes from money.

    In regards to the intellectual atmosphere, I found that you did have to seek it out. My alma mater was know for creative writing and those involved in that area were amazing, thoughtful, intelligent people. And most of them were on financial aid. It sucks, but sometimes you need to realize that there are some people in college who just want to pass their classes and graduate.

    I am currently a graduate student in Harvard's Extension School. While it is not the proper Graduate School, I find that most of the students are really into their programs and incredibly smart. However, they are mostly adults who are past the point of really wanting to prove themselves to their peers. But I think you'd be surprised at the amount of academic dishonesty in the Extension School. A professor of mine sits on the academic honesty board and said that within the Extension School there were eight cases brought in front of the board last semester. Most of them were students who downloaded papers off the Internet. I really think that one of the problems is that universities are so worried about making money that they just don't follow-up on these situtations when a red flag is raised, especially if the student isn't on financial aid. I knew quite a few students in my undergraduate institution who were only given a slap on the wrist because the administration knew that they would lose big bucks if the student was kicked out.

    Sorry for the long post.


  5. Plagiarism is basically a total nightmare from the professor's point of view, if I can speak personally here. I feel it as a personal betrayal when a student in one of my classes plagiarizes--I am so excited about the material I teach, I simply hate the idea that someone could cheat themselves and me in this way. But it is also very difficult to work out how to punish it (especially in cases where you have a very strong suspicion but no proof). Expulsion for a single act of plagiarism seems to me out of proportion; and yet I think on the whole plagiarism is under-punished, my own strong suspicion in these cases is that a student who has plagiarized so blatantly that I noticed it and/or found the thing plagiarized from with a simple Google search must have done it many other times without ever having been caught. And I am alarmed by the personality traits that I believe go along with responding to pressure by resorting to plagiarism rather than by, say, throwing yourself on the mercy of the professor, explaining that you are incapable of writing the assignment (for whatever reason) and asking for help working out a solution. After some experience with this, my current practice is that I will give an F in the course to a student who has definitely plagiarized written work. I was softer in the beginning of my teaching career, but I realized it didn't really answer. I think that colleges are not always clear at the dean-and-administration level about what to do about these cases, though.