“True-blue American Yalie George Bush versus pinko-Crimson Harvard Mike Dukakis.” That‘s what some Republicans were saying back in 1988 when George H.W. Bush was running against Michael Dukakis. The color prejudices are understandable, and maybe even the college prejudices, but the notion that Dukakis is a Harvard man is just plain wrong. He’s a Swarthmore alum, not a Harvard alum! (Yes, his law degree is from Harvard Law School, and he taught at the Kennedy School, but those don’t count! Only Harvard College counts.)
What does all this have to do with my reunion? Only that we are about to discuss “Reflections on our education: What mattered and how?” This symposium was all about what a Harvard education meant to us — a “Harvard education” being an undergraduate education at Harvard College. Got it? Probably not, since you’re not one of those Harvard snobs to whom that distinction really matters.
Following what is now a familiar plan, this symposium consists of a panel of six, each of whom gave a five-minute talk, followed by a spirited interactive discussion among the audience — classmates from the class of 1969. Needless to say, each of the initial five-minute talks actually lasted longer than minutes, but what else is new?
First panelist was Craig Lambert, who made that observation about Dukakis and Bush. He offered two particularly interesting points. One was that the Harvard house system works so well because (in part) it fosters long conversations over meals, conversations that lead to a lot of informal education distinct from the classroom (though often flowing from the classroom). I wonder if that is still true in this age of the ubiquitous smart phone, but more on that later. His second point was the “key distinction between knowledge and skills”; Harvard education of course stresses the former. “We are not a vocational school,” as I heard often whenever anyone asked why we couldn’t take courses in architecture, education, business, etc., as undergraduates. Even the music department made statements like that, explaining why they teach only theory and history, not actual performance. Maybe that has changed today. In any case, Lambert said that the balance is wrong, and we need more teaching of useful skills. Perhaps, but I doubt it.
Then came Dean Currie — with an unfortunate first name to have as a college student, as he pointed out himself. He talked primarily about online learning, which (he claims) doesn’t work for high school students and undergraduates: “You have to know how to learn before you can learn from an online course!” He also made interesting points about a liberal arts education, which requires vigorous debate. “How do you have a liberal education when everyone on the faculty agrees?” Currie observed that we have now made controversial topics unsafe in the current college climate, although he pointed out that the class of 1969 has managed to keep the debate alive. (Maybe so, but if you read all these reports, you don’t see a whole lot of controversy.)
Third was someone whose name I didn’t catch. (BTW, if you’re wondering why there were so many people I didn’t know from my own class, it’s not merely because I’m not very sociable — it’s also that it has been 50 years and I had 1500 classmates!) She observed that part of her education occurred right after college, when she was a Congressional intern: “From a very limited perspective” she learned about government works. SImilarly, she learned from being an organizer of Vietnam Summer in Watertown. As an undergrad she gained various tangible and intangible benefits, such as not to accept everything anyone says. (As an aside, this was something I learned from APUSH in high school, where we had to read conflicting accounts of various historical events and conflicting opinions about various Supreme Court decisions.) She learned to respect facts, to have a “love of facts” since she is “not an abstract thinker” — an interesting admission for someone who graduated from Harvard.
Fourth came Bill Cody, who “learned to speak truth to power.” (Yay!) He observed that yesterday’s conversations at the reunion included a lot of indirect self-congratulations; maybe we should be more humble. (But humility is not the Harvard way!) Nevertheless, the reunion made coming all the way from Thailand worth it.
Fifth was Rutgers Law professor Richard Hyland, who is currently working on a book about Harvard education in the ’60s. “I myself got no education at Harvard at all,” he claimed. For the book he conducted 500 interviews, so I will have to read it when it comes out! He says that most of his interviewees wouldn’t answer when asked whether they got a good education at Harvard. (This statement made me start thinking about I learned at Phillips Academy that others didn’t learn until they came to Harvard.) Hyland said that students at other colleges gained insights from their close contact with instructors and therefore got a lot out of their college education, but we didn’t. (That struck me as a gross over-generalization; I Iearned a tremendous amount not only from out-of-class conversations but also from one large lecture course, a number of small discussion courses, and writing my thesis, which involved many one-to-one meetings with my two advisors.)
Finally came Temple Law professor Muriel Morrissey, who began by saying “I’m going to go ahead and offend some people.” (Yay again! We need more of that.) She looked around and observed that apparently she was the only person of color in the room. She had spent a lifetime in predominantly white settings, but it took her all that time to understand the depth of white privilege and to understand that her Harvard credential also bought her some privilege; a Harvard degree buys you credibility. (I learned this early on, when student-teaching in Salem.) With regard to white privilege, “people don’t ever give me the benefit of the doubt,” she observed.
And then came the audience discussion portion. Here are some highlights:
- “80% of what I learned came from my classmates, not my courses.”
- “Most students today don’t learn for knowledge. College isn’t a vocational school; it shouldn’t be to develop a skill! (Once again, we should read David Kaiser’s autobiography.)
- We had a lot of very challenging courses taught by great scholars, like Social Sciences 2 (the best course I took, Western Thought and Institutions, taught by Sam Beer) and Natural Sciences 5 (taught by George Wald).
- We read lots in each course [as I did at Phillips Academy, BTW]. Many people got C’s and couldn’t have cared less.
- One classmate in the audience actually admitted to being a Republican! Since he had learned to argue from his philosophy courses, he didn’t mind disagreement.
- “I arrived looking for mastery and came away learning about inquiry, learning to respect the power of confusion: you know, you never know.” (Yay for the third time!)
- “I learned how to think, how to organize my thoughts, how to write.” (Once again, that was a large part of my high-school experience, Academically speaking, Phillips Academy was college.)
- “What was most important to me? Large lectures? They were good entertainment, Small classes? Senior thesis?”
- “My best experience was dinner with Leonard Bernstein at Quincy House, with Master Charles Dunn and a dozen students. 95% of what I learned was from personal interactions, 5% from classes.
OK, you get the idea. Certainly not unanimity, but a clear picture emerges. Once again a stimulating and rewarding symposium, but once again an exhausting one.