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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Big questions

I like them. You like them. So let’s ask some.

Well, for now, let’s start with just one. It’s a question that’s been preoccupying some Harvardians lately; a question that most of us continue to largely ignore; and a question that all of us should consider on a regular basis: what is the meaning and function of education, and how does it interact with morality and privilege here at Harvard? (more in expanded post)

If you haven’t already, check out the recently-published Student Essays on the Purpose and Structure of a Harvard Education for some moderately diverse perspectives on curricular reform. In addition to gleaning some insight, it’s entertaining to compare the authors’ concentrations with the approaches they took in composing their submissions (the mathematician’s essay is particularly well-structured with a compelling logical flow, while the classics concentrator’s is…pretty much boring and narrow). One of my favorites is Christopher Catizone’s “Enter to Grow in Wisdom,” in which he argues for a CORE curriculum that not only teaches students to engage in truth-seeking through various major methodologies and outlooks, but helps them to link those versions of truth in an attempt to answer the fundamental question, ‘how am I to live?’ Harvard students are often so focused on proving our merit and measuring up that we neglect the vital practice of formulating our own definitions of worthiness. We become so intent on performing well that we forget the importance of living well.

Maybe that hierarchical tunnel-vision partly explains the Lamont phenomenon that the Crimson staff recently lamented: students will show up when it suits their stomachs, or to revel in a provincial library protest, but ask us to commit to a real cause and suddenly problem sets and Beirut take priority.

Contrary to Professor Mankiw’s assertion in a Crimson article on the SLAM living wage campaign, Harvard’s main priority is not education—not in the best sense of the word (if "benefactors"--alums--care so much about it, why do so few of them become non-professorial educators?). Harvard’s business currently, as Crimson columnist Henry Seton pointed out a few weeks ago, is providing an education, a commodity that students can parlay into higher social status and more prestigious, powerful careers. An education is marketed as an individualized product (ours comes with a hefty price tag), glorified as a lovely abstraction, or stripped down to a cold skeleton of preprofessional training. Education as activism, on the other hand (to borrow another of Seton’s concepts), is a deeply social process of empowerment.

Last year, Golis tried to get this conversation started here, to no avail. So I’m asking these big questions again: is Harvard providing the kind of intellectual and moral education to warrant its reputation as the best institution of learning? What kind of (an) education do we want, and how can we get Harvard to provide it?


At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't really understand the idea that "education as activism" is really something to be aspired too. Harvard isn't supposed to have an agenda, it's supposed to TEACH PEOPLE on their own terms. Activism requires an agenda.


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