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What an Education Means

By Yelena S. Mironova

For me, the fall so far has been an invigorating workout. On top of the customary flurry of shopping, I was changing my concentration and was chasing down at least five different academic oracles in an effort to figure out my life once again.

In the very few moments I had free from fighting the Course Planning Tool (it won, in the end), I found myself reprising the Core versus Gen Ed question. By virtue of the existence of such programs, the college wants our education to span a range of areas in at least some depth. But how effective is it at providing such opportunities, and are its standards and expectations reasonable? And what is the point of such education? In mulling this over, my thoughts wandered back to, of all places, last spring.

In March, the Harvard Salient published an article opposing Harvard’s ethnic studies options. The author suggested that what it means to be educated had not changed over the course of the last 2,000 years, that Harvard “need not offer a course on African civilizations if there is none worthy of study. The progressive priorities of Harvard’s curriculum usually do not coincide, however, with the promotion of meaningful areas of study... Curricula should be essentially conservative and permanent.”

While I believe The Salient publishes most of what it does expressly to provoke, the issue could not help resonating with me. As I wandered in and out of courses the first week weighing the merits of switching from premed concentrating in the hard sciences to one of those rare birds who juggle French 142 and organic chemistry, I reflected on what it meant to be educated.

Brennan had indeed posed some Salient questions, albeit indirectly. By approving courses of study and designating courses as part of the Core or Gen Ed curriculum, does Harvard define what is worthy of knowing and, in turn, what it means to be educated? If so, how authoritative are these judgments? In the past, it was easy to define a canon that every educated person should know because there was simply less to know. As far as recorded history went, there was less material. In the realms of literature and philosophy, less had been published. Until the 19th century, colds were believed to be caused, literally, by cold because germs had not yet been discovered.

But with the loosening up of education requirements at Harvard, we're seeing math concentrators who don't know what DNA base pairs are or what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization does and music concentrators who don't know pre-calculus. We’re seeing premeds such as myself who can tell you much about cattle raid sagas in early Ireland, Samurai ethics, the Meiji restoration, and New Wave French cinema but nothing about George Washington except that he was the first president and that he suffered from frequent toothaches. What I do know of world history that isn't boutique specialty-interest comes from Wikipedia and early high school. As such, my knowledge of what might be called the Western and American canon is, admittedly, rather shallow. And I am certain I am not the only one at Harvard for whom this is true.

I am not proud of this. In fact, it makes me feel insecure and intellectually unfulfilled. Yet if working toward a degree from a world-class university does indeed make one “educated,” then I must be above average when it comes to being “educated,” whatever that means. And yet, the answer to “what does it mean to be educated” remains elusive.

Of course, should all education still be spoon-fed to us at 20, and should we blame institutions for the yawning gaps in our knowledge of the world around us? Formal instruction is but a starting point. There is much to be said for initiative and self-education, and many of history's the best and brightest minds were self-taught, from Tom Stoppard, author of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” to Dmitri Mendeleev, one of the first developers of the periodic table.

Then again, do historians or musicians need to know calculus, and do mathematicians need to understand the structure of DNA? Does merely knowing a great deal about the Continental Congress and the American Revolution make one an informed citizen in 2010?

Claims can be made either way. Regardless – I think everyone needs a basic framework of awareness of who we are as a global civilization, of how we got here, and how this relates to issues that are immediate to this day and age. As such, studying “Old Dead White Guys” is not sufficient. But neither are boutique-interest, relatively narrowly focused courses that adhere to a certain format.

What's the answer, then? Admittedly, I don't have one that isn't nebulous. Perhaps more courses that focus on using the range of tools – economic, scientific, and humanist – to solve international disasters, such as Harvard Medical School Professor Paul Farmer's Societies of the World 25. Perhaps survey history courses that never cease to tie things to the present. Perhaps a region-by-geographic-region requirement to avoid Eurocentrism would be superior to too great an effort to avoid Eurocentrism.

What I do know is that I sprung for a multi-disciplinary education as a premed Romance Studies concentrator focusing on French colonialism and international influence because I believe that education is not about excluding any topic as unworthy of further scrutiny, whether as an academic or personal pursuit. After all, only in the process of further scrutiny does one become capable of judging whether or not something is “rot” and ought to be dropped. And, as Jeremy R. Knowles, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, stated in his Fall 2006 address to the Harvard freshman class, being able to tell if a man is “talking rot” is the ultimate goal of a liberal arts education. We cannot, of course, delve into everything. But we must be introduced to as much as possible, so that it may, hopefully, pique someone's interest enough for them to go out and test it.

Yelena S. Mironova ’12 is a romance languages and literatures concentrator in Dunster House.

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