I put quotation marks in the headline to describe my summer at Harvard, lest I be guilty of the same clickbait practice for which I condemn so many of today’s hacks that pose as actual journalists. You see, I didn’t physically spend any time at Harvard University. However, I did spend much of the summer enrolled in an online teaching certificate program there. That’s the important part, as the experience was pleasant insofar as the continuing journey of my own lifelong learning, and also the path of reaffirming my faith in arguably the world’s most prestigious university. Accordingly, I am now decidedly less opposed to my children enrolling there someday than I was, say, six months ago.
Growing up, I always thought Harvard was “the best of the best” – no disrespect to students and alumni of Yale, Princeton, Brown, my father’s alma mater Columbia, any of the other Ivies, or for world-class institutions abroad, such as Oxford or Cambridge. But the comparisons to Harvard (“our university is ranked higher for astrophysics than Harvard”) remind me of comparisons to New York City (“we’ve got more French restaurants [in our city] than New York does”): when you’re number one, everyone is perpetually trying to outdo you.
I was part of an accelerated program that resulted in my graduating high school at 17, a year earlier than most, but I spent most of my waking hours during my teen years playing basketball and football rather than hitting the books, and I didn’t think I had the grades for Harvard. So, I never even bothered applying. After earning a bachelor’s degree and a juris doctorate, I entered the workforce full-time, and it wasn’t until another ten years went by that I got the itch to go back to school again, this time for a Master’s degree and then a PhD (both in history). None of that was at Harvard, and I always wondered what an educational experience there must be like. But over time, I had become disillusioned by schools that were lauded by the same establishment that held the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN in high regard, because just as those media outlets sadly deteriorated over the years, so had America’s top universities. They became breeding grounds of thought control indoctrination. (Don’t believe me? Try wearing a MAGA hat on most college campuses. Better yet, don’t try. I wouldn’t want it on my conscience that you received a serious beating because of my advice.) Just as the overwhelming majority of the press veers comfortably left of center, so do the vast number of professors. A good friend of mine, also left of center and otherwise quite intelligent, once told me: “they’re smart, and so of course they know which side to be on.” I guess that explains it – even if he does say so himself.
Actually, the problem is not political preference, it’s professionalism. Like journalists relaying the evening news, college professors should not even emit the slightest hint as to their ideology, and surely should not spew support or condemnation for any particular candidate.
As a parent, the prospect of sending my children to a propaganda boot camp clothed as a fine university would’ve been disturbing even if they landed full scholarships, let alone considering the astronomical fortunes such an experience would cost. “I wouldn’t send my kids to Harvard” became my mantra in my rant against contemporary illiberal education.
My decision to apply to Harvard for the post-graduate teaching certificate this summer was fivefold: first, the virus social distancing restrictions put a damper on my usually active life, and so I figured if I had to be holed up indoors for weeks on end, I might as well do something more productive than binge-watch my favorite TV shows. Second, no matter what I thought of what Harvard had become, I still had a fascination with it and wanted to experience it. Third, even though I ‘ve been long established in my professional fields, I figured that from a practical aspect, a credential from Harvard certainly couldn’t hurt. Fourth, I am addicted to lifelong learning, and so I can’t help myself to continue to pile on more education (and I’m probably not done yet!). And in the process, I figured I could teach my fellow learners a thing or two as well. Finally – and this is the basis for this week’s column – I wanted to see firsthand whether Harvard was still worthy of its illustrious reputation, or if it had devolved into a hack institution.
Happily, I report to you that through the entire process, there wasn’t even a hint of politically charged nonsense. We had access to several of Harvard’s heralded professors, and not one of them used the opportunity to make a mockery of the experience. Shameful, ridiculous phrases I expected to hear, such as “the survival of democratic institutions in the Trump era,” or “how today’s immigrants grapple with America’s institutional racism” were surprisingly nonexistent. When I explained my lifelong passion for evenhandedness in the classroom when teaching hot-button topics, I was not booted from the discussion. And when I raised the hypothetical that a proverbial African-American transgender may choose to identify with neither of those demographic components, and instead relate far more to being a jazz lover and Knicks fan, I received praiseful comments from my peers and instructors alike.
I have seen thought-control indoctrination at colleges and universities, and I kid you not when I say it’s scary. That’s why I rejoice in sounding the clarion call for the Crimson: at least from my limited experience, there’s a case to be made that Harvard is still a “safe space” for true intellectual growth in the marketplace of ideas. Yes, I’d send my kids there … I think. They’re still young so it’s going to be a while. Maybe just to make sure, I’ll enroll in another certificate program there in a year or two.