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We Need Another Core Requirement

By Theodore K. Gideonse

The balloons all over the Yard piqued my interest. Plant sale? Book exchange? Bike Sale? No, I went to Phillips Brooks House for the community service open house. I signed up to go to an introductory meeting for one of the programs, but I soon discovered that I had little time to give to community service if I wanted to pass my classes and work on The Crimson.

I was disappointed that I wanted to volunteer and couldn't, and that there are millions of people across the country who have hours and hours of free time to volunteer, but instead were watching "American Gladiators" and "Wheel of Fortune" on TV.

Wouldn't my time be better spent helping someone in the community rather than spending six hours a week in a course purporting to teach me social analysis? Or if I spent time teaching prison inmates to read instead of trying to memorize the differences in moral philosophy between Kant and Nietchze? Or if I worked in a neonatal clinic instead of spending hours trying to manipulate birth statistics in order to pass the Quantitative Reasoning Requirement?

Harvard's Core requirements make us learn many different skills and attempt to prepare us to be well-rounded thinkers. The College makes us pass a test in statistics (even if we are never going to need it for our concentrations, which would require us to take a different one anyway). Why shouldn't they make us take a "course" in community service?

During one semester, all Harvard undergraduates should have to do some kind of community service as a requirement. For about the same amount of time that they would be in class and doing its work--seven to 10 hours a week--they would instead be at a community center or a homeless shelter.

A community service requirement would definitely be an enormous task for the College to undertake. The new department, perhaps the Phillips Brooks House Department of Community Service, would direct the course, and that would require hiring people to organize and manage the plethora of people and programs.

The projects themselves could (and should) be integrated into the Core and concentration requirements as work studies or practicums. The benefits for our largely middle and upper middle class population, most of which has not had experience with people of different socio-economic backgrounds, would be as great as taking a traditional lecture course.

"The philosophy of the Core Curriculum rests on the conviction that every Harvard graduate should be broadly educated" says the Courses of Instruction every year. However, even in this period when our nation's social structure is crumbling around us, the Core does not have a class that actually deals with modern, urban social issues. The Social Analysis requirement attempts to "enhance our understanding of contemporary human behavior...and institutions," but it deals little with practical analysis of us as individuals in society--how we deal with others as responsible citizens.

The Moral Reasoning requirement teaches us "about such matters as justice, obligation, citizenship, loyalty, courage and personal responsibility," but it does this by assigning lofty, philosophical readings and asking us to relate those to our present life. While the intentions are good, there is no other outlet in the University for us to use the values we are taught to define in these courses.

The Core is also supposed to explain what methods are used in studying and creating thought. Working in the community, especially in positions such as teaching elementary school children, supervising toddlers or building and managing a community service program, would give the participant vast experience in the processes of thought and government.

Most educators insist that learning by doing is the most effective method in understanding a subject or idea, which is the reason why Chem 10 students have lab exercises.

There are thousands of places that need volunteers to paint walls, rock crack babies, be big siblings, be teachers' aids, read for the blind, lead after school programs...the list goes on and on. I probably don't have to explain the value of community service and helping the underprivileged or needy, but many people, even Harvard students, aren't motivated enough to actually go and work in a soup kitchen or help build a playground.

In order to make this feasible, the community service requirement could be added as an 11th core requirement that doubled as a concentration requirement. An advanced placement and exemption plan could be worked out through summer volunteer work before or during college. Or this course could replace one of the more outdated or overlapping Core requirements like Social Analysis.

While this requirement could help students prioritize helping people into their busy schedules, it could also help the University fit the surrounding community more into the concerns of the school. The College itself can always use some good publicity in town and gown relationships.

Harvard is not the most loved institution in Cambridge. Many Cambridge residents see Harvard students almost as carpet-baggers, coming to Cambridge and interrupting its peace, allowing the College to take advantage of housing and zoning laws and then never putting any thing back into the community.

Extending immensely the community service done by Harvard students wouldn't make Harvard a shining college on the river, but it would definitely give it a much better image.

Many Harvard students go to rallies and work for political candidates who are working for social change. Fine. I hope Bill Clinton wins too. Still, no politician's policies are going to help the poor and unfortunate now, or even in the near future. Working in the community, renovating low-income housing and serving in soup kitchens are all things that need to be done. Harvard can help us by giving us the time to work in those apartments and kitchens. And we can get credit for it, too.

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