Making Diversity Meaningful

Movie clichés can be useful. One of the most familiar is the army platoon in a World War II movie of soldiers thrown together by the Draft Board and fated to lean on each other in adversity: the poor boy from Brooklyn, the farmer’s son, the rich kid, the intellectual misfit, the Southerner, and so forth. This cliché could actually be used as a model, or at least an inspiration, for an approach to solving some persistent and apparently worsening problems in Harvard’s undergraduate education.

From reading The Crimson, as well as from my own experience as a Harvard graduate, parent, and teacher, it seems that more and more students, particularly first generation students, feel that they somehow do not “belong” at Harvard—that they are a “mistake,” excluded or left behind by more privileged peers.

It also seems that a larger group of students are unsure about the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education. They may regard Harvard as a career stepping stone or, more vaguely, a mark of success, but they chafe at General Education requirements and, more broadly, suffer from a high-achievers’ “is-this-all-there-is?” angst.

Finally, I hear from employers (and some faculty) that graduates of elite schools are often surprisingly poor writers. Having taught writing at Princeton for seven years from 2007 to 2014 (and a section of Expos at Harvard in 2005), I saw the struggles of students who were ill-prepared by their high schools to write clearly and cogently.

These are problems without simple solutions, but maybe those old Hollywood war movies suggest the use of a unitary approach to helping students learn from each other as they set out.

Here’s how: Divide the incoming freshman class into groups of a dozen students. Make sure these groups are diverse in every way—mixing races, genders, and social classes, athletes and actors, scientists and poets. Have them live together, in the same dorm if not the same entryway. Require them to meet for a year-long, full-credit class twice a week to discuss the meaning of a liberal arts education. They should be compelled to grapple with what they want out of their time at Harvard—and to debate, among themselves, guided by a trained teacher, what Harvard wants out of them. The discussions would touch on—and hopefully directly engage—the sort of issues of class, race, and gender that bubble and sometimes seethe beneath the surface of undergraduate life.

These group sessions would supplant Freshman Expository Writing. Students should be required to write every week, and, crucially, to re-write every paper. They should build towards a year-end research paper, but the emphasis should be on clear writing and rigorously thinking through what they are trying to say. About five years ago, I taught a two-week writing course for 50 Harvard sophomores, juniors, and seniors during January Term. I saw repeated examples of very smart students failing to write coherently, regardless of having taken Expos.

Who should teach these groups? Harvard has scores of proctors living in freshmen dorms as well as numerous Expos preceptors. Graduate students living in the Yard and post-docs provide a natural pool of teachers, but they should be hired to teach these small sections only if they are prepared to critique a dozen papers a week, lead wide-ranging (and sometimes fraught) group discussions with firmness and sensitivity, and offer extra counseling and extra writing instruction to those who need it. The teachers should be rigorously trained, generously paid, and held to a high standard. The success or failure of this program would depend on the quality of the teaching.

Historically, by half-acknowledged custom, Harvard has left its students largely alone. Yes, there have long been tutors and advisers, but for many students, the real message has been: Here we are, a magnificent education waiting for you—but you have to come and get it, and don’t blame us if you get lost along the way. This system worked well, or well enough, for many decades. But as Harvard (to its great credit) becomes more inclusive and diverse, more students need a leg up when they arrive. By the same token, the better-off, better prepared students would do well to spend more time directly engaging with students who are truly different from them. In time, students can and will go their own way. But to take advantage of a Harvard education—and each other—first year students should be first required to write and reason together about why they are here.

Evan Thomas ’73 was a History concentrator in Quincy House. He is now an author and taught Expos at Harvard in 2005.