A Controversial Critique of Teaching and Learning at Harvard

A recent essay by John H. Summers, now a visiting scholar at Boston College's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, has prompted sharp comment among academic readers...

recent essay by John H. Summers, now a visiting scholar at Boston College's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, has prompted sharp comment among academic readers.

Writing in Times Higher Education (a London-based magazine), Summers discusses the six years he spent teaching and advising Harvard undergraduates in the social studies concentration, and the picture he paints is not favorable.

He casts his students as "the post-pubescent children of notables," and writes that they "had already embraced the perspectives of the rich, the powerful and the unalienated, and they seemed to have done so with appalling ease."

Summers writes that he learned soon after arriving at Harvard that although the formal grading scale runs from A to F, "the tacit scale runs from A to B." He describes parents who lobbied to change a grade he had given on a senior oral exam and students who "send gifts to high-placed academic directors." And he asks: "When intellectuals act as clerks and students act as clients, how do college teachers differ from corporate accountants?"

The essay, All the Privileged Must Have Prizes, ran on July 10, but a contentious discussion is still ongoing in the "comments" section at the bottom of the page. Contributors include people who have taught and learned at Harvard (or at least claim to have done so).

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