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Thursday, November 21, 2013

"An institution...that is so synonymous with excellence in everything it does"

Harvard worries that maybe Harvard's athletics program has begun to aggrandize itself at the expense of Harvard's non-athletics program, whatever program that might be. The problem with this concern is of course that Harvard is just so excellent at everything, and so excellent at being excellent, that it's hard to discern any reasonable limit to the "domains" it ought to colonize with its excellence. Surely it must play sports. But how many sports, and how intensively? Other schools play dozens of sports, and very intensively. Then Harvard must do the same, but better! Like a light unto nations, Harvard redeems all that it touches, so that clearly, it ought to grope everything in sight. 

One professor explains that expanding athletics is necessary for Harvard to successfully condescend to the cretins outside Harvard:
Lewis adds that eliminating Division I sports would change the way Harvard is viewed in some communities. “It would be even harder for people who are from rural America to think of Harvard as being a real university and not some elite place where people don’t do the things that college students really do,” says Lewis, who throughout his tenure as dean of the College was an active supporter of athletics. “We would sort of drop out a piece of American culture.....And we’d lose a lot of people who come from subcultures of America where sports is one of the ways that you show your ambition.”
Now, we sophisticated urbanites may see the problems with turning colleges into sports stadiums, but the vast American cornfields are inhabited by cavemen who believe that a college ought to be a football stadium, and they ain't gonna wanna send their kids to no fancy-pants school that purports to be all about book-learnin' instead of drinking and brawling, the primary activities of this "subculture." Forget whether there aren't some people living in these forsaken places who might get it in their heads that the purpose of college is academic. Surely their numbers would be infinitesimal, if any exist at all. But, if these "communities" are really so primitive, then why would Harvard want to recruit from them in the first place? This is less clear. Perhaps it hopes to rescue the few hopeful progeny of these benighted masses, but must first convince their parents to hand them over with promises of bread and circuses. But to do that, it wouldn't really need to expand its athletics program in fact, only in appearance - enough to convince these distant savages that it shares their, uh, values. A Division I women's rugby team would seem to be unnecessary to that goal.

But Lewis isn't advocating a bait-and-switch after all. He seems altogether pleased with the prospect of Harvard's actually conforming to the noble vision of education that he attributes to these cretins. "We want to be able to show ourselves persuasively as representing the best of America in the terms that America recognizes," and if "America" recognizes football as best, it's Harvard's job to represent it to itself accordingly. Whatever the people like, Harvard provides. But why should we stop at sports? I can think of a few other things that "America" also recognizes as "best," at least as determined by popular enthusiasm for them - for example: reality TV, pornography, recreational drug use. Every vulgar activity by definition has many patrons, so why shouldn't one of these patrons be Harvard, an institution whose purpose is apparently to reflect America's vulgar interests, whatever they may be? Lewis agrees:
“I think Harvard still values athletics because people who have displayed success in athletics have shown a capacity to achieve a level of excellence in a particular domain, and the domains in which we try to achieve and represent excellence are not only academic ones, because very few, in the long run, of our undergraduates are going to go on to academic careers,” says Lewis.
Well, never mind that even fewer of them will go on to athletic careers. Lewis is right - most students aren't going to be professors. So why, we might wonder, is Harvard imposing academics on all its undergraduates in the first place? The domains of excellence are many and varied, and none is clearly better or more valuable than any other, so why should everyone be forced to jump through all these irrelevant academic hoops to have their excellence certified when they could instead focus on "displaying success" in other domains? Is Harvard even achieving and representing excellence in enough domains? I'm not sure. Beauty is a domain. Why hasn't Harvard yet organized an effort to excel in beauty pageants? Agriculture is a domain, but I don't see a lot of Harvard investment in training farmers.

Now, to be fair, no one seems to know quite what Harvard's non-athletics program is, or is for, so confusion about whether the athletics program has encroached on it is inevitable. Even the athletics detractors quoted don't offer any clear boundaries for athletics, except to say that students should be recruited for academics. Non-athletics is presumably academics, but academics must then be defined quite broadly. Entrepreneurship is academic, extracurriculars are academic, social life is academic. Nap space is academic! Almost everything in this article is a reflection of how unwilling Harvard is to give any reason for its existence, since to define itself would imply a limitation on what it might someday become, and God forbid that Harvard impose limits on Harvard! Today, it's a university. But tomorrow, the situation may be ripe for it to become a country, or a spaceship, or a subterranean egg hatchery. Who can know what the future holds? Well, technically, Harvard can know, because it's on the cutting edge of everything, but for the purposes of future institutional adaptation, no one knows

7 comments:

Steve White said...

I can think of a few other things that "America" also recognizes as "best," at least as determined by popular enthusiasm for them - for example: reality TV, pornography, recreational drug use. Every vulgar activity by definition has many patrons, so why shouldn't one of these patrons be Harvard, an institution whose purpose is apparently to reflect America's vulgar interests, whatever they may be?

Clearly you haven't seen their gender studies program...

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, haven't seen it in person, no. But I hear it's *not* the best. Major lapse!

Anonymous said...

Well, my view is that Harvard is a large and successful hedge fund with an essentially cosmetic educational enterprise attached. dave.s.

Miss Self-Important said...

That's a meh view. Who'd invest in the hedge fund if the educational enterprise were severed from it?

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Think of the College as lipstick and rouge on the trollop hedge fund. AND because it's a 'nonprofit endowment' the hedge fund has very little in the way of nasty buzzing investors to complain as they pay huge wages to their managers. What's not to like? dave.s

Anonymous said...

Lipstick and rouge: http://www.volokh.com/2013/12/05/university-endowment-returns/

dave.s.

Miss Self-Important said...

This is all fine, but what does it have to do with whether the lipstick decides to expand or diminish its investment in athletics?