The `Hunter-Gatherer' Theory of Classes
As I sat in the first class I would take in the English Department, I listened to the professor pose a question to her students. It was one of those questions that seemed to beg for the flexing we've all become so accustomed to watching. I expected that, in response, a student would pose as the model of Harvardness and craft a tangentially relevant reply around a series of allusions and suggestions geared at strutting his or her intellectual feathers. In this class however, the professor was met by the unimaginable--silence first, and then the apprehensive raising of a hand or two. Was there no one here who felt that his ideas were positively vital to the evolution of an educated discussion of the subject matter? Was there no one who felt that she could enlighten us all in the glow of her magnificent mind? The English department is a part of Harvard University, isn't it?
I was trained in the Government Department, Harvard's breeding ground for those who love the sound of their own voices and who love to have others hear the sound of their voices. I fit in well. However, as I sat in this unfamiliar and laid-back world of the 19th-century novel, a cleft in the crimson student body became apparent.
There are basically two kinds of classes at this University, "talking classes" and "listening classes" (I am sure there are some hybrids, but for the purposes of this editorial, two groupings will suffice). Government classes tend to fall into the former category. The essential skill required for these courses and the primary ability for which reward is distributed is articulation--oral and written. In talking classes, flexing is a necessary evil for some and a way of life and success, glory and narcissism for others. I have seen students in these classes engage concurrently in monologues masquerading as a conversation.
The time during which others speak is not used for listening; it is for thinking and for fleshing out the ideas which are developing in one's mind. This inattentiveness to others tends to yield a comical and sorry dialogue; people do not respond to each other but talk at each other. Communication is supplanted by a thinly veiled conversational chaos. These classes foster the creation of an openly competitive, potentially intimidating environment in which only the talkers survive, and only the articulate excel.
The "listening classes" category is populated chiefly by English department courses and by courses with music, art or film content. These classes demand attention to professors, teaching fellows, peers and most important, to primary sources. The quickest path to understanding lies in careful and patient absorption of information, not in spitting it back out. This is not to say that students in these classes do not talk. They do. However, in these classes (as opposed to those which occupy the other category,) discussion is an accurate term to describe that which transpires, not a blatant misnomer. Rapid and remarkable articulation is helpful but not essential. Those who listen with a trained ear, an ear which knows how to filter out the garbage and maintain the pearls, are rewarded not only with success but also with knowledge.
In light of the description above, I would like to present my "Hunter-Gatherer Theory" of Harvard classes. In talking classes, the students are hunters. The object of the class is to use one's ideas, words and oratory skills to hunt down and "kill" the ideas and words of others. There is a free-market competition of ideas at play in these classes which is directed and perpetuated by a kind of intellectually Darwinist atmosphere. Those equipped with the most extensive verbal weaponry, the thickest rebuttal armor, and the necessary obsession with intellectual combat are most likely to win. Aggressiveness and at times even aggression pay large dividends. At the end of the class, one or two hunters emerge triumphant, and his or her ideas enjoy a moment in the sun of Sanders Theater, Sever Hall or wherever it is that the hunters have assembled to do battle.
Listening classes, however, are populated by gatherers. The students come to gather information and then to sort out that which they think is most valuable. Because the law of scarcity does not apply to information (it is in economic terms a "public good," its supply within the classroom is not exhausted or even diminished by one person's use) the atmosphere in listening classes is less overtly competitive. Triumph for the gatherer is a far less public affair than it is for the hunter. It comes from recognition of the breadth of opinions and ideas to which one has been exposed and then from selecting choice morsels for the intellectual feast which this gathering effort makes possible.
A single question remains: Why? Why do classes tend to evolve into such radically different beasts?
The atmosphere in a lecture or section is the offspring of the discipline's nature, and certain departments are thereby transformed into hunter-friendly places while others become more gatherer-oriented.
In the study of governments, for example, analysis and evaluation of right and wrong lie at the center of discussion. Is the Hobbesian model conducive to efficient government? How fair and democratic were the principles upon which the decision in Lochner v. New York was based? Do surrogate motherhood contracts involve commodification of children? These questions are not meant for half-answers, quasi-truths and suggestions; they demand rigorous, directed, investigation and analysis. After all, governments themselves are predicated on some notion on what is right or what is good (sometimes for a small group, sometimes for the masses.) Studying them therefore implies examination and evaluation of the value judgments made by the philosophers, theorists, presidents and politicians who dominate or direct a given form of governance. Government sections are in the business of finding answers, not in simply posing more questions.
In listening classes, however, there is far less room for any discussion of a definitive right and wrong. In fact, it seems that because we will never know precisely what a Dickens or a Tennyson, a Mozart or a Michelangelo, a Hitchcock or an Ellington intended to convey, there is a certain humility inherent to the study of their arts. A premium is placed on digesting as much as possible in the way of opinion and suggestion; yours are as good as mine, and mine no better than hers.
It is not my intention to bash the government department. If nothing else, my experiences in government classes have taught me how to think in an organized and systematic fashion, thus allowing me to hone a skill which I will carry with me and utilize no matter what path my life takes. However, one can learn how to think in a botany class, a digital circuits class, or a psychology class all without the aggressive and adversarial undertones which pervade my department. In short, being a hunter is far more unpleasant than it needs to be, if it needs to be at all. The humility of the listening class and of the gatherer himself contribute to a classroom atmosphere in which students are far less likely to sweat and squirm as well as scream and sneer.
I will conclude this essay of theories, ideas, and observations with a few facts. The registrar reports that 55 percent of Harvard undergraduates are male. The male-to-female ratio in the aggressive, hunter-filled government department is 61 percent to 39 percent, whereas the male-female ratio in the English Department is exactly the reverse--39 percent male, 61 percent female. I don't pretend to know what this means, if anything, about gender differences. I leave that to the psychology majors. Just a little food for thought.
Gil Seinfeld '97 can often be seen prowling the streets of Cambridge, hunting and scavenging for knowledge in a leopard-spotted coat.