Sections Should Be A Place For Dynamic Discussion With Peers

Letters to the Editors

To the editors:

I read with great dismay the column by Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 (“Not So Special After All? April 7). As the Head Teaching Fellow of Historical Study B-19, “The Renaissance in Florence”—one of the largest Core courses in the College—I daily engage with the practical challenges that Harvard faces in providing its students with a top-notch education. Moreover, as a College alumnus, I care deeply about Harvard’s fate and hope that its curriculum will always outclass that of a certain small boarding school in New Haven.

On many points, I agree with Freinberg’s description of the ideal liberal arts education. When he says, “being able to think intelligently about the problems we face is clearly a terrifically important skill,” I applaud.

Likewise with his belief that “graduating students should be...self-assured enough to navigate confidently through the problems they will face in life and yet self-aware enough to recognize their limitations.” And who would dispute that graduates “should also have a firm moral compass,” or that they “should be civilized” and “civil”?

The reason I am crestfallen, then, is Freinberg’s painfully mistaken belief that “we confuse true intellectual enlightenment with Harvard-style academics at our peril.” For him, apparently Harvard means “facile response papers, mandatory section participation and finals where students spew professors’ own words back at them (or, more likely, at teaching fellows),” which “squelches independent thought.” In sum, Freinberg complains that watching “Jeopardy!” is more educational and more fun than his section discussions.

Granted, most teaching fellows do lack the quick wit and dashing good looks of Alex Trebek. And, I must admit, Harvard has yet to fulfill my requests to hold my sections in a television studio, or distribute cash prizes to my students who write “A” papers (you see, the endowment would run out too quickly, since 47 percent of all students expect to receive A grades). But I simply cannot sit in silence when Freinberg claims that section participation is superfluous or that final exams are designed to prompt wholesale regurgitation of professors’ and TFs’ ideas. I cannot begin to describe the tedium of reading dozens of identical exam essays, all of them cribbed from a professor’s lecture notes; nor can I begin to describe the elation I feel at finding that rarest of student papers that takes the time to unpack a subject and find something new and all its own at its heart.

What Freinberg tragically has failed to grasp in his four years here is that the purpose of sections and exams is to encourage students to read their books, think critically about them, share their ideas and learn something from each other.

I ask Freinberg: if reading great books, participating in section debates and composing original and thoughtful essays summing up a semester of contemplation stifles his thought, then what on earth would set him free? I find it strange and unsettling that he believes that his independent thought is better stimulated by staring passively at a television screen than by spending an hour with his classmates discussing his own insights into his reading. My, my—I realize now that Freinberg has actually proven the very point he intended to argue against: clearly David Brooks is correct in underestimating Harvard students’ intellects, if students themselves believe that their television sets are a better resource than their Harvard peers!


April 7, 2004