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Just fifty years ago, a Harvard graduate was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States. In his now-famous inaugural address that took just shy of 14 minutes to deliver, John F. Kennedy ’40 inspired thousands of Americans to do what they could for their communities with whatever resources they had. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he urged in what is perhaps his most famous sentence, “ask what you can do for your country.”
Half a century later, it is high time for the University to take those words to heart and renew its commitment to inspiring public service among its students. In tribute to the legacy of one of its most accomplished graduates, Harvard, in these trying times, must take a public stance in support of public service, reiterating that its students have a moral imperative to use their educations for the betterment of society, not merely the betterment of themselves. As Kennedy’s alma mater and an institution of global regard, Harvard must do what it can to eradicate the all-too-pervasive idea that its educational function is merely to churn out students whose sole purpose in life is to pursue their own ends.
Of course, not every Harvard student today can claim the privileged position Kennedy enjoyed, but it is a mistake to see public service as the exclusive domain of the rich and the privileged. Obviously, one does not have to give $100 million to the Newark public school system, like Mark Zuckerberg, or $100 million to the eradication of polio, like Bill Gates, to count as a “public servant.” And while it is unfortunate that such a misperception exists, it is Harvard’s job to impress that all of its graduates can and should embrace public service in whatever careers they choose and to whatever extent possible. Of course, “public service” is a broad, nebulous term—but we mean it as Kennedy did, in the general sense of applying one’s chosen field to social betterment. To be sure, not everyone should enter government bureaucracy or join the Peace Corps, but all Harvard students, by virtue of the innumerable privileges this institution has afforded them, must recognize their obligation to give back to society however they can. We call on the University to bring its students to that realization—it has the unique power to do so.
To that end, there are some additions the University could make right away. At the graduate level, we hope that funding for public service careers will be reinstated as soon as possible. At the undergraduate level, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences should establish a secondary field in public policy, along the lines of the existing program in Global Health and Health Policy. Ideally, this program would be an interdisciplinary approach to public policy and would present the field as it should be presented to students, as something that can apply to any academic interest, whether in the sciences, the social sciences, or the humanities. In short, it should be designed to show that the public interest mentality can—and should—interest everyone.
Additionally, certain General Education requirements should deal more actively with the question of students’ obligations to society, especially coming from a Harvard background. General Education bills itself as a method of linking “the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face and the lives they will lead after college.” General Education serves as our doctrine, thus we wish that the University would consider adding a provision that went beyond merely understanding the “world students will face” after college and that actually stressed the moral obligation students have to serve, as per Kennedy’s example.
Students can do their part by making serving others a part of their lives even while they are still in school. This can mean volunteering with a community service program, resurrecting the lessons of a forgotten scholar, or weighing in on policy debates in Washington.
In the speech that precipitated the establishment of the Peace Corps, then-Senator Kennedy told an audience in October 1960 at the University of Michigan that the “University is not maintained by its alumni, or by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it.”
In an age in which public service has come to seem a niche interest, we urge to Harvard to ensure that sense of purpose is still clear.
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