Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Moral Lessons

From a study on libertarianism:
We introduced Study 2 with [Ayn] Rand's claim that Western culture can only be reborn when it can be founded on “a rational ethics.” Consistent with Rand's writing and psychological research concerning the intuitive origins of moral reasoning [8], we found that libertarians were indeed less emotional (less disgust sensitivity, empathic concern, and neuroticism) than liberals and conservatives. This lack of emotional reactivity may underlie an indifference towards common moral norms, and an attraction to an ideology where these moral codes are absent, libertarianism. The only emotional reaction on which libertarians were not lowest was reactance – the angry reaction to infringements upon one's autonomy – for which libertarians scored higher than both liberals and conservatives. This disposition toward reactance may lead to the moralization of liberty and an attraction to an ideology that exalts liberty above other moral principles – namely, libertarianism.

Megan McArdle tells food writers to stop telling her what she should eat:

A food writer who is telling other people how they could eat, if they wanted to, is doing a great public service. A food writer who is telling other people how they should eat (just like me, except without my access to ingredients) is just obnoxious. You can't possibly know how they should eat, unless you have spent some time living their lives. 
And her friends could really wipe those smirks off their faces and stop telling her what to drink.

 And if I may insert a personal plea: could the bittermongers please knock it off with the sneers? Somehow, in the collective cocktail consciousness of America's hipsters, "bitter" has become synonymous with "sophisticated". Bitter beer is good beer, bitter cocktails are good cocktails, and the louts who like things thin or sweet deserve what they get, which is everyone else at the bar struggling to conceal their bemused smile. Yet there are many of us who hate, hate, hate bitter flavors not because we haven't been exposed to them, nor because we're unadventurous slobs who would really rather be hooked up to a glucose IV. Personally, I find bitter flavors like Campari so strong that even a sip is on the verge of being physically aversive, as if you were punching me in the tongue. That's not a matter of sophistication, but a matter of personal chemistry.

Or how much to eat. (Not that she is fat!)

It's not quite fair to say that most of the public health experts I've seen talking about obesity are thin people brightly telling fat people that "Everything would be fine if you'd just be more like me!" But it's not really that far off the mark, either. In the words of another friend who struggled with his weight, and got quite testy when I suggested weight loss was easy, "You've hit the pick six in the genetic lottery, and you think you earned it."

McArdle doesn't care if you want someone to change for his own good-his health, wealth or pleasure. You just mind your own business and she'll mind hers. You have no idea how other people should live until you have spent some time living their lives.

Unless you are poor.

Somehow, Americans used to manage to get and stay married despite much more limited financial resources; how did they perform this seemingly impossible feat? Virtually any answer you give is going to come back to some version of "norms."

[... A] systematic difference between the way the affluent and the poor form families is going to mean systematic differences in the outcomes for affluent and poor kids.
Trying to explain this all with a bad labor market or insufficient government benefits won't wash, either. It doesn't explain why people in 1930, who were much poorer in every sense than people today and had virtually nothing in the way of a government safety net, managed to get and stay married. As David Brooks notes, to explain the problem -- and to fix it -- you also need to talk about community norms.

In 1930 it was much more difficult to get a divorce and very soon after divorces plummeted because nobody could afford to leave. Divorces increased when it became easier to get one, when the Depression ended, or when wars ended. More marriages lead to more divorces, and most especially the younger the couple, the more likely they were to divorce. Conservative states marry and divorce more and marry younger than liberal states. Very religious people divorce less, moderately or non-religious people are much more likely to divorce. Conservative people, from colonial times to now, try to reduce the ability to divorce and liberals try to increase it.

But one thing cannot be disputed: two incomes are greater than one and parents with one income are at a great disadvantage. Which is why Megan McArdle has definitively proven that women should never stay home with their children and that a polygamous family is preferable to a two-parent family.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are -- in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents -- is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent. Children will spend less time with their noncustodial parent, especially if that parent has other offspring. Add in conflict between the parents over money and time, and it can infect relationships with the children. As one researcher told me when I wrote an article on the state of modern marriage, you frequently see fathers investing time and money with the kids whose mother they get along with the best, while the other children struggle along on crumbs.
People often argue that extended families can substitute, but of course, two-parent families also have extended families -- two of them -- so single-parent families remain at a disadvantage, especially because other members of the extended family are often themselves struggling with the challenges of single parenthood. Extended families just can't substitute for the benefits of a two-parent family. Government can't, either; universal preschool is not going to make up for an uninvolved parent, or one stretched too thin to give their kids enough time. Government can sand the rough edges off the economic hardship, of course, but even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home.
Women who work are forced to spend far less time and energy on their children, which is always bad for the children, as McArdle has proven. Several mothers looking after the children in one household will save money rather than several independent households and give more attention to the children. Some of the mothers can work, adding all-important income to the family. Surely if two incomes are good, four or five are even better. Any household with one woman and one man, especially if the woman stays home to tend her children, is cheating society and will lead to its ruin.  Megan McArdle said so.

Fortunately McArdle already has a solution to this problem. The social norms that say a woman or man should be able to leave a bad marriage if necessary could be changed somehow and she knows just how to do it. "Hollywoood" can simply show married people in movies and tv, and then marriage will be the norm among poor people, instead of divorce.

Entertainment is a surprisingly powerful venue for articulating social norms, and if Hollywood decided that it had a social responsibility to promote stable families and changed its story lines accordingly, that might actually do some good.
I'm not talking about sticking a few propaganda story lines into Very Special Episodes of some sitcom, which wouldn't do a darn thing. Rather, I'm saying that if Hollywood actually believed that married two-parent families were overwhelmingly optimal, that would naturally shape what they wrote, in a way that would in turn probably shape what Americans believe, and do.
To check McArdle's theory, let's look at the most popular movies of 1930, which surely led to the strong state of marriage at that time.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front Universal / $3,000,000 Lew Ayres
2. Whoopee! United Artists / $2,600,000 Eddie Cantor
3. Hell's Angels United Artists / $8,000,000 Jean Harlow, Ben Lyon and James Hall
4. Animal Crackers Paramount / $1,500,000 Marx Brothers
5. Feet First Paramount / $1,300,000 Harold Lloyd
6. The Rogue Song MGM Lawrence Tibbett
7. The Life of the Party Warner Bros. Winnie Lightner
8. Hold Everything Warner Bros. Winnie Lightner, Joe E. Brown
9. Sunny MGM Marilyn Miller
10. The Vagabond King Paramount Dennis King, Jeanette MacDonald
11. Song of the Flame Warner Bros. Noah Beery, Bernice Claire
12. The Green Goddess

I am embarrassed to note that I have seen only one of these movies. Let's check Mr. Wikipedia to see how strongly these movies encouraged marriage.

Hell's Angels-"Roy (James Hall) and Monte Rutledge (Ben Lyon) are very different British brothers. Strait-laced Roy loves and idealizes the apparently demure Helen (Jean Harlow). Monte, on the other hand, is a womanizer. Their German friend and fellow Oxford student Karl (John Darrow) is against the idea of having to fight England when World War I breaks out. Meanwhile, the oblivious Monte is caught in the arms of a woman by her German officer husband (Lucien Prival), who insists upon a duel the next day. Monte flees that night. When Roy is mistaken for his brother, he goes ahead with the duel and is shot in the arm. Karl is conscripted into the German Air Force, and the two British brothers enlist in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Monte only to get a kiss from a girl at the recruiting station. When Roy finally introduces Monte to Helen, she invites Monte to her flat. Monte tries to rebuff her advances for his brother's sake, but gives in. The next morning, however, he is for once ashamed of himself."

Yikes! Not that moral, is it? Perhaps others are better.

The Green Goddess-"A small plane carrying three British citizens — Major Crespin, his estranged wife Lucilla, and pilot Dr. Traherne — becomes lost and is forced to crash land in the tiny realm of Rukh, somewhere near the Himalaya Mountains. The Raja who rules the land welcomes them. However, as his three brothers are soon to be executed for murder by the British, his subjects believe that their Green Goddess has delivered into their hands three victims for their revenge. The three are to be killed once the brothers are dead. The Raja professes to his guests no great love for his brothers, as they had posed a danger to the succession of his own children, but sees no reason to anger his people. However, he becomes attracted to Lucilla and offers to spare her life if she will become his wife. She refuses."

That must be the moral bit. How about The Rogue Song? "The story takes place in Russia in the year 1910. Yegor (Lawrence Tibbett), a dashing (as well as singing) bandit leader meets Princess Vera (Catherine Dale Owen) at a mountain inn. They fall in love, but the relationship is shattered when Yegor kills Vera's brother, Prince Serge, for raping his sister, Nadja, and driving her to suicide. Yegor kidnaps Vera, forcing her to live a life of lowly servitude among the bandits. Vera manages to outwit Yegor, who is captured by soldiers and flogged. Vera begs Yegor's forgiveness. Although still in love with each other, they realize they cannot be together, at least for the time being."

How immoral! What a terrible example for American young personhood, Mr. Hollywood!

The Life of the Party-"Winnie Lightner and Irene Delroy work in a Broadway music shop. Lightner sings while Delroy plays the piano. Eddie Kane, their employer, complains to them that they are selling as much sheet music as they should be and that they will have to change their technique. After Lightner sings a song for a customer, after which, one of Delroy's admirers, Monsieur LeMaire (Charles Judels), an eccentric Frenchman who owns a modiste shop, enters the shop. He begins annoying Kane when he stars chatting with Delroy and asking her out and when Kane tells him to come back after they finish working Judels flies into a rage. LeMaire throws sheet music all over the store and then throw a phonograph out the front store window.

Because of this, Kane immediately fires both Delroy and Lightner. The scene moves to the apartment where Lightner and Delroy live. Delroy is reading the newspaper and finds out that her boyfriend has eloped with a rich elderly widow. She is so angry that she accepts Lightner's proposal that they be gold-diggers. Lightner suggests that their first victim be Judels and so the next day they begin to work for him. Judels soon asks Delroy and Lightner to a private party. Lightner tells Judels that they would love to attend but that they have no clothes. Judels tells them that they can borrow all the clothes they want from his modiste shop. Lightner and Delroy agree to attend the party and then pack off all the clothes they can carry with them. They head off to the train station with their luggage of expensive clothes and decide to go to Havana to make some real money.

Once Lightner and Delroy arrive in Havana they find that a millionaire named Smith, who invented a famous soft drink, is staying at the hotel. They assume that a mean spirited, and snobby acting man, played by John Davidson, is the millionaire but the true millionaire is a young, pleasant and down to earth man played by Jack Whiting. Delroy falls in love with Whiting, much to the chagrin of Lightner who forces her to try to get Davidson. Davidson, unbeknownst to Lightner and Delroy, is actually a gigolo looking for a rich woman to pay his meal ticket. Just as Delroy is to marry Davidson, Judels arrives and exposes Lightner and Delroy. In spite of this, Whiting, who has fallen in love with Delroy, writes a check to Judels to cover the amount he lost, and he ends up winning Delroy as his future wife."

Well, at least it ended with marriage, right? That's good!

How about Sunny? "Marylin Miller plays the part of an American circus performer, doing her act in a British circus, who is engaged to a man she does not love. A former boyfriend, played by Lawrence Gray, stops by to see her before taking boat back to the United States. Miller realizing that she loves Gray, decides to run away. She embarks on the same boat that Lawrence takes. Her father, who realizes what his daughter has done, reaches the boat just as it is about to leave and manages to board it. While on board, Gray becomes engaged to be married to a wealthy socialite (Barbara Bedford). Miller learns that she will not be allowed to disembark in the United States without a passport. In order to land, Miller marries an American friend, intending to divorce him as soon as she is safely inside the United States. After arrive in the states, Miller tells Gray about her love for him. Bedford overhears them and tells Gray that she will announce their engagement at a party that very night. Disappointed, Miller decides to return to England, but Gray proposes to her just as she is about to leave."

Hmmm. It seems that the media didn't encourage marriage very much at all, unless everyone was singing and dancing or hanging off the side of a building first. Perhaps we should all sing and dance more and marriages will bloom like the cherry tree in spring. Megan McArdle says it will work and that's good enough for me.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Karma is a Bitch And She Wants Your House

It seems that nobody can do anything about gentrification, which is a great shame. Housing and land are too expensive for the poor and the rich don't want them there anyway.

But-here's the funny thing. Megan McArdle is accustomed to thinking of herself as la crème de la crème but the wealthy have become so very wealthy that she is now middle class in comparison. One day she, too, will be pushed out of her neighborhood by her bête noir, the trust fund class. They will buy up her row of little Victorian brownstones and tear them all down and build a mansion with park-like gardens for themselves and their little darlings Pierpont, Hunt and Caroline Eugenie.

No doubt McArdle will be very very happy to be pushed out to the suburbs like every other schlub since the land and mansions will be far, far too expensive for poorer people like her. And what can one do when the Free Market Fairy decides that market forces are immovable? Absolutely nothing.

Monday, March 9, 2015

In Which The Big Thinker Thinks Little Thoughts

Friday Food Post: An Easier Way To Brown Meat--Megan McArdle foodsplains stew and tells us that Cooks, Illustrated's stew recipe is a time saver. She does not tell us why she has to brown meat when she has a Thermomix, the greatest time-saving invention in the history of cooking.

Virtual Reality's Vomit Problem: I am a special snowflake.

Fewer Tax Refunds, Fewer Scams: We can't solve the problem of tax return fraud because everyone wants their refund money right now. So we should stop paying taxes but politicians will never let that happen.

You have a tax refund check but she needs cash now!
Call Megan McArdle!
877 Cash Now!
She's shafted thousands, she'll shaft you, too.
One lump of coal she will give to you.
You get tax deductions but she needs cash now!
Call Megan McArdle!
877 Cash Now!

Obamacare Case Is Not Life Or Death: My Moops defense is not ridiculous, you're ridiculous. And my healthcare-kills defense is not ridiculous either! How would you like it if we said Roe vs. Wade was ridiculous, huh? Burn!

There's more nobody-can-do-anything-ever that is not worth discussion. McArdle seems to be much occupied with her book appearances and mentions the book very often. It is perfectly natural that she would have less time for her little blog.

Monday, March 2, 2015

It's All About Me

Due to circumstances outside my control I have even less time to post than in the past but I will do what I can.

So let's take a quick peek at the literary crimes against humanity committed by that little libertarian scamp named McMegan McArdle.

Ah, the blogosphere has been buzzing with trivia and trivial minds leap to add their two cents. (Or tuppence, as McArdle no doubt wishes she could get away with saying.)  There is a photo that might be this or might be that and everyone has an opinion. Little did you know, however,  that the real subject of universal interest is Megan McArdle. Don't believe me? Just listen.

My most trafficked post ever was this quickie, which I wrote while traveling, squatting on the floor of an airport with my laptop balanced on my knees. I think it took me 15 minutes, most of which was spent searching Google Books for evidence that Martin Luther King had actually given voice to a quotation that was, at that moment, going viral on Twitter and Facebook. He hadn’t, but the fake quote got millions of posts and retweets -- and every time someone posted or tweeted it, someone else replied with my skeptical take. Hello, Internet fame.

Needless to say, if you had asked me while I was sitting in the airport if you thought this post had a shot at being the most-trafficked thing I would ever write, I would have laughed. I have an interest in fake quotations, and I had a few minutes between flights, so I thought of it as a fun squib to share with my readers, not as a potential megahit. Also needless to say, I was wrong.

Needless to say! Although McArdle actually does seem eager to admit error, since the error exposed her enormous popularity and humility not her innumeracy, mendacity, avidity, or insensitivity, her usual "errors" in service of the class war her masters hired her to fight.

McArdle trots out a sociology study that validates her need for an authoritarian hierarchy.

We can theorize that there is some quality threshold, but beyond that, social effects take over: Knowing that someone else likes something makes you more interested in it, and so some combination of early rankings and random variation among the groups creates a unique outcome in each social network. It’s our old friend path dependence in viral form.

Knowing that someone else likes something might make you more interested in taking a look at something but it doesn't necessarily mean you are more interested in it than before, when the thing was less popular. It's our old friend herd mentality, slavishly followed by people who are terrified of going over their tribe's boundaries. Or, in McArdle's case, eager to lead the tribal elite as a elegant and erudite arbitrator of popular taste.

Post-hoc, of course, we construct all sorts of reasons that popular things are popular. But as Watts points out, what we’re often doing is not so much explaining the popularity as describing the attributes of the popular thing: The Mona Lisa is popular because it’s so, well, Mona Lisa-esque. And those explanations tend to leave out the more random elements -- like the fact that the Mona Lisa wasn’t that popular until it was stolen in a famous museum robbery.

It's so interesting when conservatives have thinky thoughts. The Mona Lisa is popular because the Mona Lisa is popular. Everyone knows that. But did you know this tidbit I heard on NPR that is contrary to popular thought?

Maybe there’s no particular reason that millions of us wanted to spend our Thursday evening playing with a wedding-themed optical illusion, except that we all ended up doing just that. And most of us enjoyed it, so maybe randomness is not the right word. Maybe we should call it “serendipity” and leave it at that.

 You can have your Mona Lisa smile. The McArdle word salad is a masterpiece in its own way.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Peanut Brains

Megan McArdle wants you to know that you are much too protective of your children. It seems that early exposure to foods helps prevent allergies, not cause them, and that means your children should be allowed to roam your city at will.
It's yet another example of what I talk about in my book: how apparent safety is often more dangerous than well-managed risk. Our instincts to protect ourselves and our children are laudable. But they are also often wrong. It's time for a serious rethink of how we manage this threat -- and many other, formerly normal risks from which we are shielding children, to their detriment.

Considering McArdle also wants you to teach your children to rush a gunman rather than regulate guns, it might not be wise to take her advice regarding your children. She's just a little bit cavalier with their lives. Although I doubt she would be as careless with her own child's life. That hypothetical child would have probably had an underpaid au pair taking her to the park and The Little Preschool Of Galt's Gulch.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Two Peas In A Pod

Once again the Koch-fed veal "journalist" is supporting the Koch candidate. No doubt there will be many more posts of this ilk. Scott Walker's lack of university degree is under discussion and Megan McArdle rushes to bolster his authority.

To do this, McArdle compares Walker to herself. She was a lazy student and now just look at how hard she works, and how successful and skilled she has become! No doubt Walker has improved every bit as much as Megan McArdle over the past decade or so!

However, Walker wants to be president, not Megan McArdle's coworker. We compare him to Obama  (Columbia, Harvard Law), Bush (Yale, Harvard),  Clinton (Georgetown, Oxford, Yale). even Jimmy Carter (US Naval Academy).

Like Ross Douthat, McArdle sees the purpose of an education as a stepping-stone to bigger things. If you are already moving up, who needs an education?

There's a lot of debate among economists over what education really does for us. I mean, we know what it does for us -- helps us get better jobs -- but economists are split over why this is the case. Some think it is mostly a signal that you're conformist, intelligent and responsible enough to sit through four years of classes without flunking. Others think it mostly functions by imparting valuable skills that make people better workers.
But in either case, that's irrelevant to Walker's candidacy. College genuinely may give you important skills -- but that doesn't mean it's the only way to acquire those skills. I mean, Abraham Lincoln did manage to struggle along somehow. 
Or college completion may be a signal of your character. But we have other, better signals about Scott Walker's abilities -- namely, his time as governor. 
The fact that we seem so fixated on events decades past is its own dire signal -- of the way that America's Mandarin class is starting to think about college education not merely as the basic credential required for many of the best-paying jobs, but also the basic credential required for being a worthy, capable person. This is not merely untrue, but also a giant middle finger raised to the majority of upstanding American citizens who also didn't graduate from college. 
Of course, if Scott Walker does become president, it would be nice if he spoke better French. But on the scale of things that will matter for his presidency, that probably ranks only slightly above his bowling score.
Yes, discussing Walker's decision to not finish college is like discussing Obama's bowling score-- utterly trivial and meaningless. It's insulting to every good red-blooded American who was never able to finish college to even bring it up. Look at Abraham Lincoln--Walker is just like him!

Like Megan McArdle, the proof of his excellence is in the quality of his work, and Walker's work in Wisconsin is every bit as good as Megan McArdle's.

At Least She's Consistent

Megan McArdle to gentrifiers who want to preserve her quiet Victorian neighborhood of row houses from condo converters:  You don't own a neighborhood. You had it for four years and did nothing with it!

McArdle is for the conversions although she figures she'll win either way. She didn't buy the house for its history, architecture, neighborhood ambiance, or sense of community. Like everything else in life its purpose is to make her richer.

I hope P. Suderman, boy wingnut-welfare recipient,  never loses his job.


At Down With Tyranny, a post on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Civil rights are important but poor people can't even use the rights they have. Money is power.

(at Hullaballoo as well.)

Corporations Are Your Friends

Megan McArdle asks why can't corporations and labor units just get along?
We don't get a lot of feel-good stories around these parts. So here's your daily smile: In the St. Louis area, a group of folks started an urban farm on land owned by someone else. It was a win-win for the nearby airport, which owned the land at the time: It didn't have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year mowing, and the farmers got some exercise and affordable healthy food. Then the new owner decided it was going to use that land to expand its office park.

[yip yip yip]

This is civil society at its best. Cooperative, instead of adversarial. Respectful of property rights, while also respectful of people who have come together to build something great with their own labor. Win-win, instead of zero-sum.

Of course, that's not always possible.... But we can also make it worse than it needs to be. The company could have stood on its legal rights and said it didn't owe the gardeners a damn thing. The gardeners could have declared they were needier than the company and tried to claim squatter's rights.

Instead, everyone respected each other and did the right thing. You can't mandate that -- indeed, mandates would destroy that respect and create more conflict. When you try to reduce everything to a matter of law, you create hard borders that must be fought over. It is in the space between the laws, where people have the freedom to do what is best rather than what is legal, that we have the opportunity to come to amicable agreements.

Now the community has more office space and a better community garden. If we started more conversations with that kind of mutual respect, I wonder if we wouldn't have more of these kinds of mutual wins.
McArdle wants to know we can't all just hold hands with Monsanto or Georgia-Pacific and sing kum-by-yah?

This is why.
About 40,000 residents in the towns of Igualada and Odena [Spain] were ordered to stay indoors and keep their windows shut after an explosion at a nearby chemical company sent a massive orange cloud of potentially toxic fumes into the sky.
We do not yet know if this particular incident was an accident that could not have been prevented or if it occurred due to lax regulation. Both situations occur. But when the consequences are potentially so severe the last thing we need is a "journalist" who vacuously chirps that those silly rules set up to regulate corporations aren't even necessary.

Someone donated a community garden so we don't really need to hold corporations to the laws that regulate them, do we? Of course not! So glad you agree with me. Now off I go to eat lunch in an open-air café. Just not in Spain, tee-hee!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Education of the Douthat

Please join me as I read Ross Douthat's 2005 account of the failure of Harvard University to turn him into an elite.
The Truth About Harvard
Dirt (Of Dubious Merit) on Harvard That Will Create Controversy So People Will Talk About Me
It may be hard to get into Harvard, but it's easy to get out without learning much of enduring value at all. A recent graduate's report
How I managed to get away with not learning much of enduring value at Harvard despite the fact that my parents spent enough to buy a vacation house on my education.
By Ross Douthat
By Crusader Rabbit
At the beginning of every term Harvard students enjoy a one-week "shopping period," during which they can sample as many courses as they like and thus—or so the theory goes—concoct the most appropriate schedule for their semesters. There is a boisterous quality to this stretch, a sense of intellectual possibility, as people pop in and out of lecture halls, grabbing syllabi and listening for twenty minutes or so before darting away to other classes.
At first Harvard was exciting. We rushed around and didn't have to work or stay in lectures and we talked a lost about devising the schedule most appropriate for our needs.
The enthusiasm evaporates quickly once the shopping period ends. Empty seats in the various halls and auditoriums multiply as the semester rattles along, until rooms that were full for the opening lecture resemble the stadium of a losing baseball team during a meaningless late-August game. There are pockets of diehards in the front rows, avidly taking notes, and scattered observers elsewhere—students who overcame the urge to hit the snooze button and hauled themselves to class, only to realize that they've missed so many lectures and fallen so far behind that taking notes is a futile exercise. Better to wait for the semester's end, when they can take exhaustive notes at the review sessions that are always helpfully provided—or simply go to the course's Web site, where the professor has uploaded his lecture notes, understanding all too well the character and study habits of his seldom-glimpsed students.
Soon, however, I grew bored. Like every other college campus in our fair land, fewer people went to class as the term wore on. Some people worked hard. I was not one of those people. When I didn't sleep drunkenly through the alarm and actually went to class, I found that I was too far behind. So I took the lazy way out, which was totally the fault of my professor for not forcing me, a young adult smart enough to get into Harvard and paying through the nose for the privilege, to work.
But during the shopping period the campus bubbles with academic energy. And so Harvard Hall 101 was packed on the February day in 2001, midway through my junior year, when Harvey Mansfield gave the semester's first lecture in "The History of Modern Political Philosophy." Every seat was filled; the overflow jammed the aisles and windowsills and spilled out the door. It was a good setting for an act of political theater.
After two years of this I finally got to see a famous conservative. He was sooooo popular unlike all those other liberal professors who couldn't even force kids to go to class.
Mansfield cuts a distinctive figure on campus, both physically and intellectually. Short and trim, tanned and handsome, with an angular face, bright eyes, and a wide, sharklike grin, he is dapper in an age of professorial slovenliness, favoring fedoras, pastel shirts, and unusual ties. He is famously conservative, well known for his opposition to affirmative action and gay rights and for his (sometimes cryptic) critiques of feminism and political correctness.
He was a well-dressed dick, just like I wanted to be.
"Before I begin the lecture, I have a brief announcement concerning the class's grading policy," he said that day. "As many of you know, I have often been, ah, outspoken concerning the upward creep of Harvard grades over the last few decades. Some say that this climb—in which what were once Cs have become Bs, and those Bs are now fast becoming As—is a result of meritocracy, which has ensured that Harvard students today are, ah, smarter than their forebears. This may be true, but I must tell you that I see little evidence of it."
He insulted us a little and then complained that we young whippersnappers had it too easy.
He paused, flashed his grin, and went on. "Nevertheless, I have recently decided that hewing to the older standard is fruitless when no one else does, because all I succeed in doing is punishing students for taking classes with me. Therefore I have decided that this semester I will issue two grades to each of you. The first will be the grade that you actually deserve—a C for mediocre work, a B for good work, and an A for excellence. This one will be issued to you alone, for every paper and exam that you complete. The second grade, computed only at semester's end, will be your, ah, ironic grade—'ironic' in this case being a word used to mean lying—and it will be computed on a scale that takes as its mean the average Harvard grade, the B-plus. This higher grade will be sent to the registrar's office, and will appear on your transcript. It will be your public grade, you might say, and it will ensure, as I have said, that you will not be penalized for taking a class with me." Another shark's grin. "And of course, only you will know whether you actually deserve it."
He told us that he was going to grade like all the other professors but he would make sure we knew what he really thought of us.
Mansfield had been fighting this battle for years, long enough to have earned the sobriquet "C-minus" from his students, and long enough that his frequent complaints about waning academic standards were routinely dismissed by Harvard's higher-ups as the out-of-touch crankiness of a conservative fogey. But the ironic-grade announcement changed all that. Soon afterward his photo appeared on the front page of The Boston Globe, alongside a story about the decline of academic standards. Suddenly Harvard found itself mocked as the academic equivalent of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.
Mansfield's grandstanding did the trick. Everyone in the elite milieu loves talking about Harvard so his little lecture spread far and wide, well, around the elite circle. Meanwhile all of us conservatives studiously avoided talking about past generations of national leaders and their Gentlemen's Cs, including George W. Bush.
This was somewhat unfair—if only because, as the article made clear, Harvard was hardly alone. Still, its numbers were particularly staggering. More than 90 percent of the class of 2001 had earned grade-point averages of B-minus or higher. Half of all the grades given the year before were As or A-minuses; only six percent were C-pluses or lower. By way of comparison, in 1940 C-minus was the most common GPA at Harvard, and in 1955 just 15 percent of undergraduates had a GPA of B-plus or higher.
I knew I had finally learned something at Harvard when I quickly realized that insulting my Alma Mater would get me a lot of attention, just like Mansfield. Harvard paid him to work there, other people paid him in part because of the prestige of being a professor at Harvard, and now he was increasing him potential income by increasing his visibility in the media. I, too, could make money by leveraging Harvard's prestige into a job at The Atlantic and then turn around and denigrate and undermine Harvard for the attention it would give me and the increase in earning potential that the fame might get me.
What lay behind this trend? Writing in the college newspaper, the Crimson, Mansfield posited some historical factors. "Grade inflation got started … when professors raised the grades of students protesting the war in Vietnam," he argued. "At that time, too, white professors, imbibing the spirit of the new policies of affirmative action, stopped giving low grades to black students, and to justify or conceal this, also stopped giving low grades to white students." (As you might imagine, this theory was hotly contested.) But the main culprit now was simply this: "The prevalence in American education of the notion of self-esteem." Mansfield wrote, "According to that therapeutic notion, the purpose of education is to make students feel capable and 'empowered,' and professors should hesitate to pass judgment on what students have learned."
Mansfield showed me that I didn't need to be clever or wise, I just needed to round up the usual suspects and blame them. What could be easier than giving the people what they want and expect? Professor McDreamy blamed affirmative action, which got him the kind of attention I did not want, but he also blamed self-esteem, which I knew I could work with. Conservatives hate self-esteem because you are never supposed to feel good about yourself and I am a very, very good conservative.

And there is something about Harvard that I really hated. I though Harvard would transform me from an awkward, chunky nerd into William F. Buckley.  Conservatives belong to a group, a tradition, a way of life. You don't have to figure any of those things out for yourself. You just dress like Harvey Mansfield and Buckley and everyone else since they all dress alike. You quote the same philosophers and authors, you tell the same jokes, you figure out what everyone else believes, thinks and wants and you limit your own life accordingly. You fit in. You belong. Liberals say they abhor people who hurt others but conservatives abhor people who are Other.  Harvard would transform me from an Other into a Someone Who Belonged.

But I never felt I belonged, no matter how conservative I was. I did everything I was supposed to do--well, almost everything. And yet I still didn't feel good about myself. I felt different and that upset me tremendously.  I wasn't supposed to have self-esteem: to see my value as a unique individual, accept myself with all my flaws, accept responsibility for living up to my claims of being a good person by doing good things.  My self-esteem came from being born into a high position on the conservative hierarchy. I was a superior creature, a Leader Among Men, an intellectual, an elite. Yet I felt like none of those things.  Harvard was supposed me make me cool.
This may be partly true, but I think that the roots of grade inflation—and, by extension, the overall ease and lack of seriousness in Harvard's undergraduate academic culture—run deeper. Understanding grade inflation requires understanding the nature of modern Harvard and of elite education in general—particularly the ambitions of its students and professors. The students' ambitions are those of a well-trained meritocratic elite. In the semi-aristocracy that Harvard once was, students could accept Cs, because they knew their prospects in life had more to do with family fortunes and connections than with GPAs. In today's meritocracy this situation no longer obtains. Even if you could live off your parents' wealth, the ethos of the meritocracy holds that you shouldn't, because your worth as a person is determined not by clan or class but by what you do and whether you succeed at it. What you do, in turn, hinges in no small part on what is on your résumé, including your GPA. Thus the professor is not just a disinterested pedagogue. As a dispenser of grades he is a gatekeeper to worldly success. And in that capacity professors face upward pressure from students ("I can't afford a B if I want to get into law school"); horizontal pressure from their colleagues, to which even Mansfield gave way; downward pressure from the administration ("If you want to fail someone, you have to be prepared for a very long, painful battle with the higher echelons," one professor told the Crimson); and perhaps pressure from within, from the part of them that sympathizes with students' careerism. (Academics, after all, have ambitions of their own, and are well aware of the vicissitudes of the marketplace.)
It is true that I just said Harvard was lowering standards but there is no reason why I cannot also say that I achieved all my goals due to my superiority. After all, my position is superior and I am in this position so I am superior. If I am superior then I know I didn't get to Harvard because my father was a successful lawyer in Connecticut and sent me to an exclusive prep school although not exclusive enough to suit me--Choate was just down the road, people!--and paid for my Harvard misadventure. Therefore it is the fault of the school that I do not feel like I belong. They failed in their job. Why? Because I know everyone else had to be just like me at Harvard. They all just wanted to leverage their current advantages into bigger advantages.
It doesn't help that Harvard students are creatively lazy, gifted at working smarter rather than harder. Most of my classmates were studious primarily in our avoidance of academic work, and brilliant largely in our maneuverings to achieve a maximal GPA in return for minimal effort. It was easy to see the classroom as just another résumé-padding opportunity, a place to collect the grade (and recommendation) necessary to get to the next station in life. If that grade could be obtained while reading a tenth of the books on the syllabus, so much the better.
 Sure, I was lazy at Harvard. Wasn't everyone except a few swots?
Sometimes you didn't have to do even that much. One of the last papers I wrote in college was assigned in "The American West, 1780—1930." The professor handed out two journal articles on the theory and practice of "material history"—essentially, historical research based on the careful analysis of objects. We were told to go to the Peabody, Harvard's museum of archaeology and ethnology, where the professor had set out three pairs of objects from the frontier era. One object in each pair had been made by Indians, one by Europeans, and we were to write a ten-page paper that compared the objects in a given pair. Aside from the articles on material history and a general text, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, we were to use no sources.  
I picked a Sioux war club and an American revolver with its carrying case. As I stood in the museum taking notes, the assignment seemed impossible. How could I eke out ten pages when I knew nothing about the provenance of the weapons or the significance of their markings? Sitting at my desk two weeks later, I realized I had been wrong. The paper was pathetically easy to write—not despite the dearth of information but because of it. Knowing nothing meant I could write anything. I didn't need to do any reading, absorb any history, or learn anything at all.
How could I do my assignment without knowing what to think? Usually I pull some philosopher or historian out of my books and repeat what he said only with more God and Country. Or regurgitate what the professor said or what I think he wants to hear. This professor expected me to look at the objects and come up with my own opinion based on what I had learned so far in the course. What a maroon!
Some excerpts give the flavor of what I came up with. Chief Running Antelope's war club is less a weapon than a talisman of supernatural power … The club's red paint and eagle feather link the weapon and its holder to sacred, invisible worlds; the "H. A. Brigham" inscription, a 19th century version of the modern logo, reinforces the revolver's connection to a capitalist order in which weapons are mass-produced, rather than individually crafted … The case is clearly an impractical method of carrying the gun … it is, rather, an eminently practical method of displaying a gun, with the paradoxical corollary that the gun is displayed by not being displayed … The book-like case, with its gold leaf and intricate images, transforms the gun by containing its potential for violence …  
By the time I had finished, I almost believed it. My professor must have too: the paper got an A.
I looked at the club and remember that Indians believed in a lot of heathen gods and all their stuff had meanings, that important objects had spiritual meaning. I looked and saw a feather, an eagle feather, and red paint, war paint. The club looked hand-made, by someone who imbued it with personal and tribal meaning. I looked at the pistol. It was mass-produced, commercialized death in a box, for a people who massacred a nation. Industrialized death, made pretty to hide its ugliness. I was forced to look beyond the surface to imagine the lives and motivations of people in the past, people whose actions affected my life today.

What baloney! The purpose of an education is to make you feel educated. Universities are supposed to teach you stuff, not how to think about stuff. They tell you what you are supposed to know to fit into the world you expected to enter. You had to know lots of stuff to be elite and if you didn't the elite would laugh at you and refuse to invite you into their clubs and parties. Sure, I chose the easiest classes, concentrating in English and History the better to be well-read and not do math, and tended to skip class and skate on assignments, but whose fault was that? Right. The liberal professors.
Not every class was so easy. Those that were tended to be in history and English, classics and foreign languages, art and philosophy—in other words, in those departments that provide what used to be considered the meat of a liberal arts education. Humanities students generally did the least work, got the highest grades, and cruised academically, letting their studies slide in favor of time-sucking extracurriculars, while their science- and math-minded classmates sometimes had to struggle to reach the B-plus plateau. The theory is often advanced that grade inflation is worst in the humanities because grading English essays and history papers is more subjective than marking problem sets and lab reports, and thus more vulnerable to student pressure and professorial weakness. There is a teaspoon of truth to that claim, I suppose. But I think the problem in the humanities, as with grade inflation in general, can be traced to the roots of elite America—and specifically to the influence of the free market.
When you attack an institution it's often best to attack its lest-powerful members so I attacked the professors. Everyone knows that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. Everyone knows that people are wicked and envy the rich and powerful. Our dear Lord and Savior knows I do. Everyone knows that the poor are so envious of the rich that they want to tear down the rich. Some professors don't envy the rich because they are in the maths and sciences, which are conservative, and can become rich themselves. But the people who work in my chosen fields can only ape their betters by while abandoning their real job: forcing me to study the right facts and figures that will advance me to the next level.
Attempting to explain the left-wing biases of his Harvard colleagues, the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick once hypothesized that most professors oppose capitalism because they consider themselves far smarter than boobish businessmen, and therefore resent the economic system that rewards practical intelligence over their own gifts. I'm inclined to think that such resentment—at least in money-drunk America—increasingly coexists with a deep inferiority complex regarding modern capitalism, and a need, however unconscious, to justify academic life in the face of the fantastic accumulation of wealth that takes place outside the ivory tower. If I am right, some areas of academic life aren't vulnerable to this crisis of confidence in the importance of one's work. Scientists can rest secure in the knowledge that their labors will help shove along the modern project of advancing health—and wealth. Abstruse genomic work could one day yield in utero engineering; mucking around with chemicals could produce a cure for AIDS, or the next Viagra.  
Then there is economics, the new queen of the sciences—a discipline perfectly tailored to the modern market-driven university, and not coincidentally the most popular concentration during my four years of college. It's also no coincidence that economics was the only department at Harvard in which the faculty tilted to the right, at least on issues of regulation and taxation. (Martin Feldstein, who taught Economics 10, Harvard's most popular class, was an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan.) To tilt to the right is in some sense to assert a belief in absolute truth; and the only absolute truth that the upper class accepts these days is the truth of the market. The humanities have no such reservoirs of confidence. And attempts by humanities professors to ape the rigor of their scientific colleagues have led to a decades-long wade in the marshes of postmodern academic theory, where canons are scorned, books exist only as texts to be deconstructed, and willfully obscure writing is championed over accessible prose. All this has merely reinforced capitalism's insistence that the sciences are the only important academic pursuits, because only they provide tangible, quantifiable (and potentially profitable) results. Far from making the humanities scientific, postmodernism has made them irrelevant.
My need for order, an outward source of self-esteem, a sense of belonging, a guidebook to life, all made me turn to conservatism. The same needs made me turn to God. When I turned to Harvard it failed me and unlike attacks on God or Mom or conservatism, attacking Harvard sells books.
The retreat into irrelevance is visible all across the humanities curriculum. Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists; history departments emphasize exhaustive primary research and micro-history. In the field of English there is little pretense that literature is valuable in itself and should be part of every educated person's life, rather than serving as grist for endless academic debates in which every mention of truth is placed in sneering quotation marks. Sure, historians believe in their primary sources, English scholars in their textual debates, philosophers in their logic games. But many of them seem to believe that they have nothing to offer students who don't plan to be historians, or literary theorists, or philosophers. They make no effort to apply their work to what should be the most pressing task of undergraduate education: to provide a general education, a liberal arts education, to future doctors and bankers and lawyers and diplomats.
It's not the professors' jobs to be scholars, if you want to glorify what they do with that name. Their job is to tell me what to know. They didn't. Therefore they failed me, I did not fail them. They failed me to prepare to fit into an upper class of professionals and other important people. Sure, I said class had nothing to do with anything but I lied. Because it's not really their fault, they don't belong in the right group and they don't know how to prepare a gentleman like me to fit in to the right group.
In this environment who can blame professors if, when it comes time to grade their students, they sometimes take the path of least resistance—the path of the gentleman's B-plus?  
One might expect Harvard's Core Curriculum to step into the breach. But the Core is a late-1970s version of a traditional liberal arts curriculum, and it's even worse than that description makes it sound. It has long been an object of derision among students (during my junior year the Crimson called it a "stifling and stagnant attempt" at a liberal arts education), and a curricular-review committee recently joined the chorus, observing dryly that the Core "may serve to constrain intellectual development" and recommending that it be replaced with "a new system of general education." (Harvard's faculty will begin voting on the committee's recommendations this spring.) At its inception, in 1978, the Core was seen as a less elitist alternative to the Great Books programs offered at Columbia and other universities. It has no universally required courses, mandating instead that students take, at some point before graduation, at least one class in seven of eleven areas—areas whose titles and subject matter sound suitably comprehensive. They include Literature and Arts, Historical Study, Science, Foreign Cultures, Quantitative Reasoning, Moral Reasoning, and Social Analysis.  
But although these subject areas are theoretically general, the dozen or so classes offered annually in each of them (nearly all Core courses are designed for the Core) tend to be maddeningly specific and often defiantly obscure. The Core makes no attempt to distinguish between "Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies" and "Tel Aviv: Urban Culture in Another Zion" in terms of importance; either will satisfy the Foreign Cultures requirement. For Science a student might choose "Human Evolution"—or he might choose "The Biology of Trees and Forests" or "Dinosaurs and Their Relatives." For his Social Analysis requirement he might decide to study basic economic principles in Martin Feldstein's Ec 10—or he might take "Food and Culture" or "Psychological Trauma" or "Urban Revolutions: Archaeology and the Investigation of Early States." And for Literature and Arts he might decide to take Helen Vendler's wide-ranging course "Poems, Poets, Poetry"—but then again, he might be drawn to "Women Writers in Imperial China: How to Escape From the Feminine Voice."  
This is not to denigrate the more whimsical and esoteric choices that fill out a course catalogue. A computer-science major, his head spinning with lines of code, might be well served by dipping into "The Cuban Revolution: 1956—71: A Self-Debate." But under Harvard's system that might easily turn out to be the only history class he takes. It seems deeply disingenuous, at best, to suggest that in the development of a broadly educated student body the study of Castro's regime carries the same weight as, say, knowledge of the two world wars, or the French Revolution, or the founding of America. (During my four years at Harvard the history department didn't offer a single course focusing on the American Revolution.)  
As if in reply to this complaint, the Core's mission statement asserts, with a touch of smugness, that "the Core differs from other programs of general education. It does not define intellectual breadth as the mastery of a set of Great Books, or the digestion of a specific quantum of information … rather, the Core seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education."  
These words, which appear in the course catalogue each year, are the closest that Harvard comes to articulating an undergraduate educational philosophy. They suggest that the difference in importance between, say, "Democracy, Development, and Equality in Mexico" and "Reason and Faith in the West" (both offerings in Historical Study) does not matter. As the introduction to the history courses puts it, both courses offer a "historical" approach to knowledge that is presumably more valuable than mere "facts" about the past. Comprehending history "as a form of inquiry and understanding" trumps learning about actual events. The catalogue contains similarly pat introductions to the other disciplines. In each case the emphasis is squarely on methodology, not material.
Sure, I chose to go to Harvard knowing the way they were structured but that is irrelevant. Harvard was a necessary stepping-stone to The New York Times.  Nonetheless, the purpose of history (and English and Philosophy and Arts) is to teach you what you need to know to be an elite, a winner. You do not understand history. You do not use history to understand the present. You do not study history to image the future. You memorize a bunch of facts. You use it to attack your enemies, justify your support for wars of aggression, give you authority in discussions and arguments, confuse and intimidate the enemy, win the cocktail party, ace the job interview. Everyone would agree with me.

My experience of the Core was probably typical. I set out with the intention of picking a comprehensive roster of classes that would lead me in directions at once interesting and essential, providing perspectives that were unavailable in my concentration: American history and literature. The first Core course I wandered into—"Concepts of the Hero in Greek Civilization"—proved to be spectacular, notwithstanding its nickname, "Heroes for Zeroes." It was a survey course with a twist, in which an enthusiastic professor took an initially reluctant crowd of students on a whirlwind tour of the classics, with assists from contemporary films such as Blade Runner and When We Were Kings.

The first thing I did while studying in the humanities department was to try to avoid the perspective of the humanities department. I was able to find one professor who worked very hard at entertaining me and forcing me to learn about Greek heroes. Sure, I had already studied mythology at my prep school but this was the sort of thing I was looking for; easy, quick, fun, and lots of men in gladiator outfits, just like Russell Crowe in the Gladiator poster on my dorm wall.
During the next three years I sought other courses that offered what this one had: Great Books and great teaching. What I found were unengaged professors and overburdened teaching assistants who seemed to be marking time until they could return to the parochial safety of their departmental classes. Indeed, parochialism often overtook even the broadest-sounding Core classes. "Understanding Islam" involved only cursory analysis of the Koran, the history of Islamic civilization, and the rise of radical Islam, but devoted weeks to Muslim diaspora communities in London and Muslim-animistic syncretism in Africa. I chose another class, "The Portrait," because it seemed likely to offer something of a crash course in art history. And for the first few weeks it did, focusing on E. H. Gombrich's comprehensive The Story of Art. The rest of the time, however, was devoted to police photography in nineteenth-century France, sexual fetishism in Victorian daguerreotypes, aboriginal head-shrinking … The list goes on, but I didn't: by the middle of the semester I had stopped going to the lectures.
I took a course in understanding Islam but instead of teaching me of its evil it made me look at all its facets. I took a quickie course--one of those fluff courses that Harvard offers to lazy students instead of a comprehensive survey of the Old Masters, they should be ashamed--but instead of being given good taste and the ability to spot a Cezanne on the walls of Wm. F. Buckley's study I had to listen to everyone else's idea of art, as if they mattered.
The few Core classes that are well taught are swamped each year, no matter how obscure the subject matter. The closest thing to a Harvard education—that is, to an intellectual corpus that most Harvard graduates have in common—is probably obtained in such oversubscribed courses as "The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice," "First Nights: Five Performance Premieres," and "Fairy Tales, Children's Literature, and the Construction of Childhood." A Harvard graduate may have read no Shakespeare or Proust; he may be unable to distinguish Justinian the Great from Julian the Apostate, or to tell you the first ten elements in the periodic table (God knows I can't). But one need only mention "Mass Culture in Nazi Germany" or "Constructing the Samurai" and his eyes will light up with fond memories. As in a great library ravaged by a hurricane, 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.
Harvard gave me too much freedom and not enough structure. I need structure. My home life was weird. School was a relief. It had rules and laws and mores. I could deal with that. I couldn't deal with making my own rules or purpose or mores. I didn't want to find new things and go down accidental pathways that opened new doors, to learn how to think or to learn how other people thought. I wanted to be elite.
I remember vividly the moment late in my high school senior year when Harvard's course catalogue arrived in the mail. It was a doorstop of a book, filled with descriptions of hundreds, maybe thousands, of classes. I pored over it, asking myself how I could choose just thirty-two classes, four years' worth, from the sea of fascinating choices. Harvard never attempted to answer that question—perhaps the most important question facing any incoming freshman. I chose my classes as much by accident as by design. There were times when some of them mattered to me, and even moments when I was intoxicated. But achieving those moments required pulling myself away from Harvard's other demands, whether social, extracurricular, or pre-professional, which took far more discipline than I was usually able to exert.
I was too lazy and undisciplined to take full advantage of my education at Harvard, which is the school's fault for not making it easier on me.
Mostly I logged the necessary hours in the library and exam rooms, earned my solid (if inflated) GPA and my diploma, and used the rest of the time to keep up with my classmates in our ongoing race to the top of America (and the world). It was only afterward, when the perpetual motion of undergraduate life was behind me, that I looked back and felt cheated.
Harvard cheated me out of my golden opportunity to feel special.
Afterward, too, I began chuckling inwardly when some older person, upon discovering my Harvard affiliation, would nod gravely and ask, But wasn't it such hard work? It was—but not in the way the questioner meant. It was hard work to get into Harvard, and then it was hard work competing for offices and honors and extracurriculars with thousands of brilliant and driven young people; hard work keeping our heads in the swirling social world; hard work fighting for law-school slots and investment-banking jobs as college wound to a close … yes, all of that was heavy sledding. But the academics—the academics were another story.
Using Harvard as a stepping-stone to better things rather than a chance to learn and grow was very difficult. Coasting through their curriculum, something I learned long ago, was easy.
Whatever nostalgists think, there was never a golden age when students did all their work and attended every lecture. When Aquinas held forth in Paris, and Heidegger in Freiburg, lazy undergraduates were doubtless squirreled away in their rooms, frantically skimming other people's notes to prep for the final exam. What makes our age different is the moment that happened over and over again at Harvard, when we said This is going to be hard and then realized No, this is easy. Maybe it came when we boiled down a three-page syllabus to a hundred pages of exam-time reading, or saw that a paper could be turned in late without the frazzled teaching fellow's docking us, or handed in C-quality work and got a gleaming B-plus. Whenever the moment came, we learned that it wasn't our sloth alone, or our constant pushing for higher grades, that made Harvard easy. No, Harvard was easy because almost no one was pushing back.
Not only did I get away with doing the minimum, I get to get paid to brag about my laziness. Conservatism is the greatest thing ever.