Sanders “Theater” is among the last places we students normally want to visit while shopping classes. We often judge classes by their size—with small classes being inherently superior. And many a prospective student has been turned off by the idea of taking a class not just in a large lecture hall, but in a theater.
Yet “Social Analysis 78: Globalization and Its Critics,” the latest course to burst onto the Sanders stage, is, like many of the classes that have come before it, a reminder of the promise of the large lecture class. The course, taught by University President Lawrence H. Summers and Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel with several guest appearances by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, is an intellectual clash of the titans, with three world-renowned experts debating an issue of singular importance in the world today. Such a confluence of great minds and personas is a treat only available at a handful of institutions worldwide and only available in the format of a large lecture.
Yet the benefits of large courses extend beyond the great minds that they can attract. These types of classes provide a large portion of the student body with a common intellectual experience that spills out of Sanders and into dining halls and dorm rooms across campus. The sparking of campus-wide debate on issues that are crucial in achieving a liberal, Harvard education—in this case, globalization—mean students learn as much from each other as they do from the big names on stage.
Campus-wide discussion is further reinforced by the debate-style format of “Globalization and Its Critics,” which is a refreshing and engaging change from sit-and-listen style lectures that tend to dominate college campuses. Occasional class-wide and professor-versus-professor debates are often a highlight of other classes at Harvard, and we encourage more courses to use this set up, at least occasionally. Such classes, if done right, could be a template for the “Harvard College Courses” proposed by the Harvard College Curricular Review. These courses are envisioned as introductions to strains of thought, lacking the specificity of many Core Curriculum classes. What better way to introduce and provoke discussion on broad swaths of academia than through a teaching style that encourages debate?
However, debate-style classes do have their drawbacks. Arguments can cloud the learning of course material if not properly structured and prefaced with formal introductions and mini-lectures. And, as Daily Show host Jon Stewart pointed out about CNN’s “Crossfire,” debates between big personas can denigrate into over-the-top theatrical hullabaloos. Some students were turned off by such antics in Social Analysis 78, when at times serious discussion was replaced by ad-hominem attacks and personal jabs. However, such jokes are fairly common shopping period occurrences, and we trust that the class will become more serious, scholarly and nuanced in subsequent lectures.
The only possible downside to “Globalization and Its Critics” is that there are no true conservative voices in the course, something that is, unfortunately, quite commonplace at Harvard. Fortunately, Friedman and Summers are quite conservative on the issue of globalization, so students will likely be exposed to both sides of the issue. Nevertheless we hope that other debate-style classes seek to avoid potential biases, especially when discussing a politically charged issue that would benefit from the debate format.
On balance, it seems clear that classes like Social Analysis 78 that take full advantage of the potential of large, debate-style lectures are, contrary to popular opinion, very positive experiences. We hope that other star professors follow the lead of Summers, Sandel and Friedman and step out of the highest rooms of the ivory tower and into the intellectual forum of Sanders.