Forum Asks ‘Big’ Questions

Lewis launches PBHA spring series with talk on discrimination in academia

Dozens of undergraduates gathered Friday afternoon to probe issues of individual identity and community building at the spring launch of the Phillips Brooks House Association’s (PBHA) “The Big Question” discussion series.

The hour-long event featured an address by Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis ’68 and author of the critical book “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education.”

This spring, for the first time, “The Big Question” discussions will be held on a weekly basis with the hope of providing students with a forum in which to converse on issues such as, “what are our responsibilities to Harvard, what are our responsibilities to society, and what are our responsibilities to the larger world,” according to Co-Director of the series Steve Lin ’08.

During his address, Lewis spoke about the desire in many institutions of higher learning to overcome instances of past discrimination in academia and the professional world by encouraging students to explore fields outside of those prescribed previously by gender, ethnicity, or race.

But Lewis said that the hope of achieving this goal may sometimes stand at odds with attempts to respect and support the desired path of each individual student.

“There is a very fine line between putting pressure on an individual student to be a servant of some statistic that you hope will change over time and helping students figure out who they really are,” Lewis said. “On the other hand, if you don’t push people a little bit, are we just going to end up repeating the historical patterns of discrimination over time?”

Lewis said he hopes that students will explore other “identities” in order to better define themselves.

Following the speech, attendees assembled in groups of six to further discuss topics broahced by Lewis in a more intimate setting.

Matthew A. Opitz ’10 said he was surprised when he came to Harvard that more people did not discuss these serious issues.

“A lot of times, when people do address questions, they do so from a very narrow framework,” he said. “[In a forum] like this, you can take a step back and look at things from a broader point of view.”

Mojdeh S. Kappus ’08 said she enjoyed the event because it brought together a wide range of people and perspectives. “What I really like about this group is that it invites people from every background to come and discuss the ‘Big Questions,’” she said.

“The Big Question” forum was founded in 2005 with the preliminary goal of connecting students from the different PBHA programs, Lin said.

Since its inception, the program has increased the frequency of its sessions and hopes to engage a wider audience of students in its discussions.