There’s been a lot of gratuitous Harvard-bashing lately, lately being defined as, oh, the last two hundred years or so. The latest plot to embarrass Harvard, my alma mater, came from the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. This also isn’t a new development: I often found the Crimson embarrassing to Harvard back when I was student, when its staff was as often as not on a picket line chanting “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
It’s latest effort was to send a roving reporter out with a video camera to show how ignorant Harvard students are. The question featured: “What is the capital of Canada?” Here is the video:
Sure enough, none of the students shown could answer the question, except a Canadian. How humiliating! I can only imagine how many people will be flush with pride because they know that the capital city is Ottawa, and Harvard students don’t.
Of course, the video is meaningless. One Crimson reader, a student, wrote in to point out that he was interviewed for the stunt, gave the right answer, and turned up on the cutting room floor. He theorizes that there were others like him, and I wouldn’t be surprised: “Only six out of 19 Harvard students know the capital of Canada” isn’t much of a headline, is it? “Lame” was this student’s verdict for the Crimson’s rigged version of “Jaywalking.” I agree.
Nor do we know what other questions may have been asked that some of the students did know. Who invented the safety pin? What was the so-called “curse” that afflicted U.S. Presidents from 1840 to 1963? What is the final verse of “The Highwayman”? What was Grover Cleveland’s real name? When did the Alamo fall? Who invented baseball? When was the last murder committed by Jack the Ripper, and what was the victim’s name? How did Rick get the letters of transit? What was Kristallnacht? Whose vote kept President Andrew Johnson from being impeached by the Senate? Who was the model for the character of Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience”? What was “Hellzapoppin,” why was it unusual, and what famous TV show was inspired by it? ..and so on. As it happens, as an undergrad I knew the answers to all of those questions, and every single one of them proved useful to me in college or later, whereas the identity of Canada’s capital, which I did not know, would not have, and isn’t likely to, either.
Frankly, I don’t care what the capital city of Canada is, and there is no special reason for a Harvard student to care either. If he or she pays attention, she’ll pick up that factoid along the way to senility, as I did. In college? Knowing that information is not the mark of literacy, a good mind, intellectual curiosity or worldliness. Why don’t you know that Bunthorne was based on James Whistler and Oscar Wilde, that they were both key figures in the Aesthetic movement in 19th Century England, and that Wilde’s famous tour of the U.S. was set up by Gilbert and Sullivan’s producer explicitly to make sure that Americans would understand what the operetta was spoofing when he sent a touring company to the states? I knew that in college. I bet those student mocked in the video knew a lot of things neither you nor I know too. How is it fair to make them out to be dolts because they aren’t up on the Canadian government—not that it wouldn’t be more pleasant to consider than ours. (Except in Toronto, of course.)
I don’t blame William Jacobson, the astute political commentator who is also a Cornell law professor for publicizing the Crimson video on one of his blogs. After all, Cornell has always had this Ivy League inferiority complex—I get it, Professor. But other, mostly conservative blogs are posting the video as one more example of the worthlessness of higher education in 2013. It may indeed be worthless, but the video doesn’t prove it, or even faintly indicate it. The video shows that out of the millions of things a college student might have learned to that early point in life, the capital of a nearby foreign country missed the cut.