Blast from the Past: What Does a Degree from Harvard Get You?

Back when I was fairly new to homeschooling, a California family whose homeschooled son was accepted to Harvard made it big in the news (see links for their books below). Homeschooling was pretty much unknown at that time, so the idea that a child who did not attend school could get into a university, much less Harvard, created quite a stir.

Since that time, some homeschooling parents made it their goal to raise children who could gain acceptance into the best colleges, and they’ve done quite a job of achieving that goal. Many homeschooled kids have since graduated from college with honors, including one of mine.

But that wasn’t the reason we homeschooled him. His academic achievements were spurred by his own motivation. Our goal was to raise Christian kids who had a good basic education, could think for themselves, and who had developed the ability to teach themselves whatever they might need to know.

There’s nothing wrong with homeschooling children so that they can get into Harvard, but I hope it’s not the only reason a parent chooses to homeschool, because a degree from Harvard doesn’t guarantee learning as much as it does “a good student,” as college professor Joseph Epstein describes here:

I have come to distrust the type I think of as “the good student”–that is, the student who sails through school and is easily admitted into the top colleges and professional schools. The good student is the kid who works hard in high school, piles up lots of activities, and scores high on his SATs, and for his efforts gets into one of the 20 or so schools in the country that ring the gong of success. While there he gets a preponderance of A’s. This allows him to move on to the next good, or even slightly better, graduate, business, or professional school, where he will get more A’s still, and move onward and ever upward. His perfect résumé in hand, he runs only one risk–that of catching cold from the draft created by all the doors opening for him wherever he goes, as he piles up scads of money, honors, and finally ends up being offered a job at a high level of government. He has, in a sense Spike Lee never intended, done the right thing.

What’s wrong with this? Am I describing anything worse than effort and virtue richly rewarded? I believe I am. My sense of the good student is that, while in class, he really has only one pertinent question, which is, What does this guy, his professor at the moment, want? Whatever it is–a good dose of liberalism, libertarianism, feminism, conservatism–he gives it to him, in exchange for another A to slip into his backpack alongside all the others on his long trudge to the Harvard, Yale, Stanford law or business schools, and thence into the empyrean.

Just what the world needs…another Yes Man (or Woman), someone who goes with the party line in order to gain approval. In his essay, Epstein points out that there are some students who are willing to stick with their beliefs, no matter what belief system their professor professes. His own son is one of them. But they know they may be punished at grade time.

Epstein also suggests that those who do not attend high-brow colleges and universities like Harvard have a better chance of real success in the world:

Universities are of course the last bastion of snobbery in America. The problem is that the snobbery works. Nor is this snobbery likely to be seriously eroded in our lifetime. No parent whose child has the choice of going to Princeton or Arizona State is likely to advise the kid to become a Sun Devil. Go to one of the supposedly better schools and your chances for success in the great world increase, flat-out, no doubt about it. To have been accepted at one of the top schools means that a child has done what he was told, followed instructions, kept his eye on the prize, played the game, and won. But does it mean much more?

Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan were two of the greatest presidents of the twentieth century. Truman didn’t go to college at all, and Reagan, one strains to remember, went to Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. Each was his own man, each, in his different way, without the least trace of conformity or hostage to received opinion or conventional wisdom. Schooling, even what passes for the best schooling, would, one feels, have made either man less himself and thereby probably worse.

Epstein taught at Northwestern University for over thirty years, so he’s had some time to develop this theory. What do you think?

(Originally posted 12/8/08.)