No Strings Attached
The Commodification of the Harvard Education
Excluding Reverend Gomes at Memorial Church, it’s almost impossible to find a czar or other figure of authority saying that there is a responsibility that comes with this powerful product. The idea that as students at an elite university we have an ethical obligation to the world beyond our ivy-draped walls is perhaps voiced by the occasional PBH volunteer or someone of that ilk, but such an argument is rarely heard from the administration. In fact, people such as our president, who admittedly does make the occasional call to serve, seem to defend the philosophy that education can be a value-free endeavor.
I guess there have always been folks out there who believe that education can be a “neutral,” apolitical pursuit—that learning can take place in a vacuum, independent of “reality” and its “problems.” But as the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire brilliantly argued, the claim that learning should be separate from transforming our world is a political claim itself. It is equally political—yet infinitely more ethical—to make the case as Freire did that learning should ultimately be about developing our minds and our understanding of the world so that we can go out and turn it into a place that is “less ugly, less mean, less authoritarian, more democratic, more human.”
The miseducation we all too often accept is not neutral but passive. The administration essentially says that you can take classes here about pressing social dilemmas if you want to, but that’s your own choice—as if we could actually choose to disconnect ourselves from the world in which we live. Sure, we have a required Social Analysis core, but what’s the overwhelmingly popular course in that department? Ec 10, about as consumer-oriented a class as you can get. It relies on the premise that to think logically is to think self-interestedly and implicitly argues through the design of its curriculum that the maximization of wealth is more important than how it is shared.
Do you remember those “Faculty Conversations with First-Year Students” booklets we received before we even set foot here in the fall? Remember those chats on Emerson, Gates, and Co. that we had, way back in the day, before we even shopped our first class? Leafing through my copy the other day, I came upon this lovely first sentence in its introduction: “The essays in this booklet challenge us to think about the individual and the educational community in which we live, the ways in which the community is a diverse one, and the freedoms we enjoy within it.” Yet as much as I admire the sentiment behind this statement, the slim volume is ultimately kind of a joke. How many of us actually read the essays? How many of us actually participated in the discussions? After four essays and an hour-long chat, the University leaves us on our own to sort through all the ethical complexities of attending a place like Harvard—or not to do so, as is too often the case.
In the spirit of the impending release of the “Student Essays On the Purpose and Structure of a Harvard Education,” I’d like to throw out my own little suggestion. What if every student was required to take a seminar-style course entitled “Representations of the Intellectual”? Through the examination of novels and philosophical texts (such as Edward Said’s beautiful book of the same name), the course would present a variety of views on the intellectual from the ultra-conservative to the ultra-liberal. It would try to force students to wrestle with essential questions on the role of the mind: Is everyone an intellectual or are intellectuals part of a rarified elite? Does the intellectual have responsibilities to society? If so, what are they?
I am not saying we all have to go out there and be Che Guevaras. I am not saying that the whole focus of our education should be on understanding society and its problems—a little bit of disinterested study certainly can never hurt, and this is probably one of our last opportunities for it. I am not saying we should spend every minute of our four years here in guilt-ridden anguish over how we, “to whom much has been given,” must ourselves give back. What I am saying is that we as students have a serious responsibility to give a good deal of thought while we are here to what our social obligations are as the supposed “best and brightest.” Furthermore, the administration of this university should stop trying to hide its passivity on the matter and instead seize the opportunity to address this dilemma through the ongoing Curricular Review. Perhaps we as students have the right to ask the most for our money, but it’s about time that the University started asking more from us for our money too.
Henry Seton ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.