It is sometimes hard to explain to people why the education that a student gets at Williams is, for almost everyone, much better than the education that that same student would have gotten at Harvard, Yale or (insert your favorite reearch university). Other times, a simple anecdote tells the whole tale. Harvard awards a prize for excellence in teaching to one senior professor, one junior professor and one teaching fellow each year in May. This year, the winning senior professor was Benjamin Friedman, a professor of economics. Professor Friedman is a perfectly nice guy (I knew him a little) who genuinely cares about undergraduate education. But the article notes that:

Students who nominated Friedman, many of them in his Economics 1480: “Moral Consequences of Economics” course, cited his teaching and his personal attention as distinct and outstanding. He reads all the papers himself and writes pages of responses, one student wrote.

“Reads all the papers himself?” To any Williams student, this must seem a strange compliment. After all, if Professor Friedman doesn’t read the papers, who would? Aren’t having one’s papers read by a professor and having the professor write comments part of the whole process at Harvard? Isn’t undergraduate education at Harvard more or less like undergraduate education at Williams

The sad truth is that it is not. One reason that his students think so highly of Professor Friedman is that their experience with him is very different from their experiences with other professors. Most Harvard classes are lectures. Almost all papers are graded by teaching fellows, poorly paid graduate students (I was one) who are under a lot of pressure to spend time on their research rather than on their teaching. Most Harvard students, especially those in big departments, graduate without ever having more than one or two tenured professors look at all seriously at their written work. Many graduate without a single professor knowing their names.

Whenever I think about the disparity between Williams and Harvard, I always go back to the end of graduation, to that final walk through the clapping faculty members. Shaking hands with the professors (like Alan White and Mike McPherson) who had meant so much to my education is a moment that will never leave me.

At Harvard, the vast majority of professors don’t even attend graduation.

I firmly believe that if more high school seniors had an accurate picture of the real differences between Williams and its larger competitors, more would choose to become Ephs.

But that is enough of a rant for today.

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