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People, Not Parrots

By David M. Debartolo

If you put an infinite number of monkeys in front of an infinite number of typewriters, would any of them produce the script of Hamlet? Last month, British researchers tried to get part of an answer to that age-old question when they put a computer inside a cage of monkeys at a zoo in southwest England. The answer: Five pages consisting mostly of the letter “S,” and after the monkeys had finished attacking it, one wrecked computer.

Fortunately, Harvard teaches its undergraduates to be a lot smarter than monkeys. But all too often, in the social sciences at least, Harvard doesn’t force its students to do much more than parrots. Social science courses all too often reward superficial repetition rather than in-depth, original scholarship.

The biggest culprit is the hour-long midterm, or “hourly.” Usually consisting of several phrases to be identified (IDs) and a short essay, a midterm attempts to measure the knowledge gained over two months in about 53 minutes. A typical ID asks for the significance of the battle of Gettysburg to a course on war and politics. If you think that’s difficult to explain in five minutes, well, you’re right. Of course, professors don’t really expect students to go into an in-depth analysis—but that’s precisely the problem. We’re only expected to parrot back the basic arguments and corresponding authors that have been drummed into our heads during lectures. Doing the reading isn’t even necessary to ace midterms; omnipresent “study groups” give students a concise summary of authors and their ideas to sprinkle throughout an essay. I have never once envied the teaching fellows who grade these midterms; to read the same arguments in blue book after blue book must be one of the most agonizing forms of intellectual torture.

Social science and Core sections, in which creativity is supposed to be sparked by stimulating discussions with fellow students and teaching fellows, are truly an intellectual wasteland. Required participation forces everyone to say something (whether constructive or not), and the talk usually devolves into a banal rehashing of the past week’s lectures. A typical section is like a cow chewing cud: ideas are digested a bit in one stomach, regurgitated briefly to be considered again, and finally swallowed. And the hated “response paper,” which asks students to reflect on the week’s reading in one short page, makes no pretense of requiring any in-depth knowledge or thought.

Of course, the most rewarding academic experience should be writing an innovative and thoughtful paper. Yet in a stunning number of social science classes, especially government classes, professors demand no outside research—in fact, they discourage it by explicitly declaring that all the sources needed for a paper are included in the comfort of your very own sourcebook. These papers prioritize good writing and solid arguments, but they place little value on rigorous thought and dedicated research.

The consequence of these limiting forces is a dearth of originality, creativity and academic curiosity. When all of your sources for a paper have been dissected in lecture and laid out in front of you on your syllabus (and, literally, at the Coop), there is no need to think for yourself or challenge any of the professor’s assumptions. There is no impetus to consider the merits and drawbacks of a radically different point of view. Any automaton can amass pre-processed arguments on both sides of an issue and take one side or the other while never approaching the sublime thrill of creating an innovative idea.

One effective way to address these problems, in addition to revamping the way sections are taught and students evaluated, would be to require independent, outside research papers in the vast majority of social science courses. Instead of merely parroting back the arguments and objections they heard in lecture, students would need to evaluate those theories against new cases they unearthed and different information they discovered. Searching through books and magazines in the library is cathartic in a way that thumbing through a coursepack can never be; an idea that you discover on your own is infinitely more rewarding than one presented to you on Harvard’s silver platter. And in that “Eureka!” moment, real intellectual originality is born.

The current system does not prevent the most ambitious budding intellectuals from seeking out the courses that do ask for independent, outside research. And everyone has the option of writing a thesis, the mother of all creative and innovative papers. Still, too many students slip through the cracks; whether they are constantly playing baseball or producing plays or writing for The Crimson, the temptation is strong to take the easiest academic path.

Yet every time a student’s mind lights up with insight is a chance for the passion of discovery to be reborn, a chance for Harvard to train not a parrot, but a person.

David M. DeBartolo ’03, a government concentrator in Lowell House, was editorial chair of The Crimson in 2002.

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