Criticism of student attitude at Harvard sparks outcry

John Gill reports on a debate in cyberspace about the culture at America's privileged seat of learning

August 14, 2008

When a former lecturer lifted the lid on life in Harvard University's faculty of social science, a picture emerged of grade inflation, insecure working conditions and students bloated by a sense of "entitlement".

John H. Summers, writing in Times Higher Education, said the majority of the "post-pubescent children of notables" he taught for six years "embraced the perspectives of the rich, the powerful and the unalienated... with appalling ease".

His comments provoked a reaction little short of international outrage, with Harvard students, graduates, faculty and others debating his points across cyber-space.

As the debate spread as far as The Boston Globe, blog website Gawker and online gossip sites such as, it seemed that hell hath no fury like a Harvard student scorned.

"He obviously has an axe to grind," rages one recent graduate of Harvard on Times Higher Education's website. "Shame on you, Summers, for not caring enough about your students to get to know more than half of an amazing group of people."

In fact, Mr Summers had been careful to acknowledge the "many fine exceptions" to the criticisms made in his original article, although that caveat passed many posters by.

Nevertheless, his piece did offer a blistering assessment of the culture at Harvard, which is consistently rated the best university in the world.

"I am sorry that there are rich, spoiled kids at Harvard, I am sorry that you have, or had, no money. I don't have any money either," another of the many to take offence writes.

"I am sure you are slightly richer for writing this incredibly irresponsible piece, and I suppose you sleep at night thinking your former students deserve this kind of critique.

"No, not all Harvard students are great, or moral, or hardworking. But that's not because we're Harvard students, it's because we're students, and we like to have fun, too.

"We're not all responsible yet, but we will be, and you blaming us for capitalism, greed, the anti-intellectualism of the world beyond Harvard - those are the sins of the father."

Mr Summers responds in another post on the Times Higher Education website by insisting that he was aiming a blow against "intellectual laziness", a point he says he stands by.

Denying the suggestion that he was bitter or resentful towards his former employer, he says such accusations are a "cheap method of slapping down dissent... practised by irresponsible gossips who know nothing about me, yet find it more convenient to imagine my personal faults than to grapple with my argument."

So far, Harvard itself has been silent on the matter, not responding to Times Higher Education's invitation to respond in full to the debate.

For more on the debate, see:

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