Education and Application

Confronting homelessness in the real world requires more than an abstract awareness

As a liberal arts institution, Harvard prides itself on providing its students with a broad intellectual experience, one that encompasses a wide array of disciplines and seeks to nurture a well-rounded student body. The College’s website outlines some aspects of the desired outcome of this education, among which is the goal of helping students become “more perceptive of the world around them.”

Last Thursday, this philosophy was put to practice in a novel manner. Students in Sociology 149: “Inequality, Poverty, and Wealth in Comparative Perspective” welcomed three homeless members of the Cambridge community into their classroom to speak about their experiences living on the street.

Education, clearly, does not just entail sitting in a library for hours on end studying abstract concepts and methods of analyzing problems. There is a necessary application component as well—giving concepts like homelessness a face, and solving, rather than analyzing, social problems. This is where the invitation of guest speakers into classes function as an essential piece of the liberal arts puzzle.

No matter which discipline one chooses to study, the ability to communicate effectively is undeniably one of the greatest assets an education confers. A large part of learning to communicate well results from gaining real world experience with one’s subject of study. Good communication skills are not innate and do not develop suddenly. Most importantly, effective communication comes with experiences of engaging in the exchange of ideas among varying and diverse groups of people. Keeping this in mind, a course taught on inequality and poverty should be taken to a more personal level. Students will be better served with the inclusion of real life elements—and what better element than the people who experience these inequalities?

A book may offer names and theories to concepts that have impacted or are currently affecting our world today, but often learning can be bolstered by making those concepts real through example. Firsthand accounts like those offered by the guest speakers in Sociology 149 offer more meaningful and nuanced insight into a discussion about homelessness. Through real stories presented in the voices of those who have experienced in real life what we discuss in the classroom, our own ideas become more concrete and better informed.

With this type of comprehension comes another achievement: a greater sense of social awareness. Harvard students walk past many of the faces of homelessness every day on their way to classes or to the river houses at lunchtime. Indeed, the extreme poverty of many of the people who live in Harvard Square has not been lost on Harvard students, many of whom work with various organizations on campus to help ameliorate issues of inequality. One example of this is Harvard’s student-run homeless shelter which works to meet the needs of people like those who spoke to Sociology 149.

Ultimately, a good education does not prove itself in a test, but instead in practical application and in the inexhaustible effort to continue to learn. Sociology 149’s inclusion of the homeless in its process of interactive learning helps to make this possible.  While such a strategy is obviously not feasible for every course, the principle of connecting our education to the real world is a sound one, and something of which we would like to see more.

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