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It is, I think, occasionally important to ask yourself that odd question: “What the hell am I doing here?” It is perhaps easier, though no less important, to ask this question right as you are about to leave (and Harvard will kick us out with very little ceremony on June 5, following the exaggerated ceremonialism of the preceding two days of graduation). Why did I choose my concentration? Why did I choose my thesis topic? Why am I going to graduate school? What is the value of an education at all?
To an urban liberal like me, the word “value” can have some suspicious connotations. It brings to mind the “values voters” of the last two or three presidential elections, in which “values” seemed a stand-in for an unexamined and potentially bigoted moral rubric—an ethical compass calibrated not by reason or argument but by a seat-of-the-pants, bottom-of-the-gut, irrational “feeling” about what is right. Or, in the completely opposite direction, the word “value” could also connote the equally unappealing hyper-rationality of modern economics, with its theories of value-added or real and nominal value.
But, as I think about why I am here, I somehow find myself returning to the ideas of value and values. Perhaps what is important about education is, first, to develop and articulate for myself a set of values—whether about social justice or civic participation, art or scholarship—and, second, to learn to produce objects that I believe have value in themselves. The first could be called the ethical and aesthetic side of the word “value,” and the second could be called the productive or material side.
Since one thing I’ve learned at Harvard is that etymology will improve almost any argument (or at least extend its length), let me begin with a brief history of the word. “Value” started from the Latin valere, passing through Old French before landing with a messy splash in English. An odd cluster of meanings branched from its two short syllables: it meant to be healthy, to be able, or to be worthy; when used to describe words, it also meant to be meaningful or to be significant. Somewhere along the way, the word evolved from describing a state of being to describing a more active means of direct evaluation.
This idea of articulating “values” sounds slightly stodgy and conservative, but Harvard has long considered it an essential part of the liberal arts education, requiring that every student take a course in “Moral Reasoning.” According to the course catalog, the aim of Moral Reasoning is to “discuss significant and recurrent questions of choice and value that arise in human experience”; one can satisfy this requirement with courses ranging from Mansfield’s Machiavelli to John Rawls and Catherine MacKinnon (as I did). My Moral Reasoning core—offered in the philosophy department—was on equality, democracy, and distributive justice, and it became one of those rare courses that changed not only what I know but also how I think. It did as much for me as anything in helping define how I approach social and political issues and teaching me how to articulate my values.
Existing alongside the ethical mode of evaluation is the aesthetic mode. Aesthetics are value judgments about the world, about its beauty, its form, its order. There is a simple pleasure in pure appreciation without any justification—what Susan Sontag called the “erotics of art” in her “Against Interpretation”—but this too is part of the cloud of values and its modes of looking and observation.
The flip side of the coin from the act of evaluation, however, is the act of creation. Producing things of value is just as important as evaluating things that already exist. How do you make something that you think has value? How do you give an object worth, meaning, significance? Some people learn to create monetary value (of varying degrees of reality or imaginariness—like all those recent graduates blowing hot air into the ballooning moneybags of Wall Street in the earlier part of this decade), others create social value with nonprofit work, others create artistic value through films, plays, and articles. All of these are means of learning to create something well, whether it is a piece of historical writing or a ceramic bowl or a mathematical theorem.
Harvard doesn’t try to teach us to be happy (see “What Makes Us Happy” in June’s “Atlantic”), but it does give students the tools to learn, grow, and articulate their values and then to craft projects and products they believe have value. Perhaps these values are occasionally skewed, but it is part of the process of teaching us not just how to know things, but how to think and how to create.
And now, the final meaning of the Latin valere: valeo iubere, I bid you farewell.
Alexander B. Fabry ’09, a former Crimson arts executive, is a history of science concentrator in Winthrop House.
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