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Aesthetic Relativism at Harvard

 by Jeff Baldwin

Ready for some less-than-shocking news? Harvard University does not provide a particularly rigorous education.

What you’ve suspected for a long time has been confirmed, and not by someone preaching sour grapes because they couldn’t get into an ivy league school. The Atlantic Monthly recently featured an article entitled “The Truth About Harvard” written by alumnus Ross Douthat. Douthat cheerfully describes “the overall ease and lack of seriousness in Harvard’s undergraduate academic culture.”

He begins by relating an older story about grade inflation (90% of the class of 2001 had a grade-point average of B- or higher). One of Harvard’s more conservative professors—I have no idea what Harvard considers “conservative”—caused quite a stir in 2001 when he announced that each student who enrolled in his course would receive two grades: one measuring the actual quality of his work, and then an “ironic” grade that was turned in to the administration. Only the student would know whether or not he deserved the grade that showed up on his report card!

After making his point, this professor backed down on his policy—but the horse was out of the barn. Though it presumably takes academic excellence to get accepted by Harvard, academic excellence is not necessarily expected once you’re in.

How has such an august institution fallen so far? The answer, Douthat hints, has to do with relativism.

To use the phrase “great books” is to suggest that there is a standard by which all books may be measured. Christians do not feel particularly nervous when they hear this—they are accustomed to measuring moral actions against the unchanging standard of the character of God. Christians believe in absolutes, recognizing that moral relativism will always be untenable because God reveals part of His moral law to all men through their consciences (Romans 2:14-15). Everyone knows that murder is wrong, and will be wrong 500 years from now. No amount of relativist rhetoric can change that.

But campuses that have embraced moral relativism have necessarily embraced aesthetic relativism as well. If God is not the Source and Standard of truth or goodness, then neither is He the Source and Standard of beauty. When judging the beauty or the skillfulness of a particular work, we are left only with changeable humans holding up different yardsticks. “Beauty,” as the cliché goes, “is in the eye of the beholder.”

The Christian should respond by pointing out that “beholder” ought to be capitalized. There is only one Beholder Who matters: God. Throw out God, and you can no longer know whether or not a roadkill possum is more beautiful than Mount Harvard (the highest mountain in Colorado, as if you didn’t know).

This is precisely Harvard University’s problem today. “As in a great library ravaged by a hurricane,” writes Douthat, “the essential elements of a liberal arts education lie scattered everywhere at Harvard, waiting to be picked up. But little guidance is given on how to proceed with that task.” To suggest what books are worthy of your contemplation implies certain knowledge about the standard for excellence in literature—something the Harvard professor abandoned a long time ago.

Thus, Douthat says, Harvard rejected the idea of a “Great Books” program and instead in 1978 created the Core Curriculum, which was designed to help undergraduates receive a liberal arts education. Unfortunately, the Core is largely viewed as a failure; it was described in the student newspaper as a “stifling and stagnant attempt” at education.

The reason for this failure, and the failure of Harvard’s undergraduate programs in general, is the simple fact that Harvard forgot that an excellent education is a discriminating education. A history class could, in theory, spend a semester examining the history of the Pet Rock—but if there is a fixed standard (if you can discriminate), then you know that there are more important events in history. Likewise, a literature professor might choose to teach an entire course about Archie and Jughead, but the discriminating professor should admit that some books are better written and more profound.

Absent a belief in a fixed standard grounded in the character of God, Harvard provides Core classes that would be better described as “fringe.” To wit: “Tel Aviv: Urban Culture in Another Zion,” or “Women Writers in Imperial China: How to Escape from the Feminine Voice,” or “The Cuban Revolution: 1956-71: A Self Debate.”

Some of those titles may sound interesting to you. But none of them deal with the Great Conversation—the most eloquent, most profound dialogue pitting great mind against great mind. The Great Conversation is the soul of a liberal arts education.

Those last two sentences would make the Harvard professor bristle. How do you know what is most profound? How can you measure eloquence or excellence?

In a relativist world, those questions are unanswerable. But if Christianity is true, then the Christian knows—like a brother—the Fount of all wisdom and all knowledge, Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:2-3). Christians may always pursue excellence in academics. The world is quickly talking itself out of the possibility of excellence.