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The Truth about the Colleges’

In response to:

The Truth About the Colleges from the November 3, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

Andrew Hacker’s review of my recent book I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom is inaccurate and misleading. Readers of his article “The Truth About the Colleges” [NYR, November 3, 2005] could not possibly get any sense of what the book is about on the basis of his remarks.

He writes, “At no point does Allitt wonder how he might have stimulated students to take more interest in the subjects he taught.” Actually, the whole book is devoted to answering that question, as its preface and every subsequent page make clear. The book describes not only what I taught but also how I taught it, the variety of methods I tried, the help I gave students who found certain aspects of it difficult, and my search for suitable analogies and comparisons to help them understand awkward historical problems. It is a long meditation on the question of how to stimulate students to take more interest in history and how to teach it effectively. It explains a wide variety of activities in and out of class, designed to help them understand and enjoy historical studies. I don’t claim to have succeeded with every student, as I admit near the end. Mr. Hacker takes this admission as a sign that I didn’t even try.

His description of the final exam gives the impression that I’m interested solely in having students memorize names, dates, places, and other bits of trivia. It’s true that the exam was a test of detailed empirical knowledge, but it came at the end of a semester dedicated to the writing of analytical papers and including fifteen hour-long classes of interpretive discussion, each of which was based on the students’ reading of a different book. Students who did not read carefully and think critically about the extensive course materials could not do well in the course, but neither could those who did not know the necessary basic information about who did what, where, when, and why.

Mr. Hacker boils down a chapter-length discussion of the grade inflation dilemma faced by all college professors today into the false assertion that I gave everyone in the class a grade of B or better. A chart on page 229 that anyone who reads the book is sure to see shows the actual final grades, nine of which (out of thirty-nine) were lower than B.

Patrick Allitt

Professor of US History

Emory University

Atlanta, Georgia

To the Editors:

There were factual errors about Harvard in Andrew Hacker’s “The Truth About the Colleges.” He asserts that Harvard (and ten other colleges) “…expect that the full tuition amount be paid by at least half [his italics] of the applicants they enroll. The result is that students whose parents can pay the full amount will have an extra edge.” The facts:

Harvard has no policy limiting financial aid students to 50 percent of the class or any other proportion. Indeed, a new initiative that waives tuition for students whose family incomes are less than $40,000 and greatly reduces tuition for those with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000 led to a 22 percent decrease in such students in the freshman class.

Students whose families can pay the full amount do not have an “extra edge.” Harvard admits the best applicants regardless of whether their families can meet the tuition costs.

We hope this correction is helpful to your readers.

William R. Fitzsimmons

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for Harvard College

Marilyn McGrath Lewis

Director of Admissions for Harvard College

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Andrew Hacker replies:

First, my apologies to Professor Allitt. He awarded As or Bs to thirty-four of his thirty-nine students; four received Cs and one got an F.

I didn’t say that Harvard set a fixed proportion for students who would receive financial aid. But here are the figures it gave the Princeton Review for freshmen who received need-based aid between 2002 and 2005: 46 percent, 47 percent, 48 percent, 47 percent. This would seem to confirm my statement that over half the members of each class pay the full tuition, which is currently $32,097.

Regarding Princeton’s mathematics faculty, I wrote that “some professors will not enter a classroom in a typical semester.” In a letter that came directly to me, I was told that “every tenured professor in the department is required to teach both a graduate and an undergraduate course every semester.” Even so, its Web site shows that while thirty-two tenured professors are listed, only thirteen of them were on the undergraduate “offering schedule” for the fall semester.

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