Year in Review

The Purpose of a Harvard Education

The College provides a liberal arts education with social obligations

College graduation brings up many existential questions, not the least of which is: What have I learned in the past four years? This year’s seniors offer very different answers to this question: I’ve learned to value dinner with my friends in the House dining hall; I’ve learned not to procrastinate in writing a term paper; I’ve learned that coffee can be found for under $1.50 in the Square. Yet anecdotes aside, is there a fundamental attitude that marks the 1,600 men and women of the Class of 2011? Hopefully, the answer is yes. The College, as an institution that draws many of the brightest and ambitious young people America and the world have to offer, should have a responsibility to direct these future leaders to a certain end.

Today, it is not sufficiently clear what this end is. It is obviously not what it was in 1650, to educate aspiring Puritan ministers in “knowledge and godliness.” And yet, stating that Harvard College is only a liberal arts institution seems to be denying the reality that undergraduates are surrounded and influenced by powerful professional schools and that the Harvard brand makes them a professional target in a way that students at other schools are not. Understanding this, the College seems overdue for a revitalization of purpose. This issue can be divided into two parts. The first part is the purpose of a Harvard education for the individual student, which centers on the question of the degree to which the College succeeds in providing a traditional liberal arts education. The second is the purpose of this education for society, which concerns how the College should influence the career and life choices of its students.

Traditionally, the purpose of Harvard has been to provide students with the critical thinking skills to succeed at any task they wish to pursue. According to the Task Force on General Education, a “Harvard education is a liberal education—that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of learning is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilization.” This mission contrasts with that of peer institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania, or, indeed, of most colleges around the world, which seek to educate students in a narrow practical specialty.

While the College does a good job of articulating this purpose, it could do a better job executing it; pre-professionalism is present within the student body to an unprecedented degree. There are historical grounds for this shift in focus—the average Harvard graduate is no longer guaranteed a nice job in a family firm regardless of the content of their coursework—and it makes sense that the College has been caught off-guard by what is essentially a side effect of a more meritocratic admissions process. In the largest concentration, economics, this year’s junior seminars—although recently reinstated—were not at all popular among concentrators. In fact, there were only 34 applicants for 68 junior seminar spots in the spring shopping period. The fact that spring is prime recruiting season for finance and consulting jobs surely played a large part in this. Pre-professional extracurricular activities of all stripes are playing a larger and larger role in students’ lives. A student who is attending meetings four nights a week, planning a 300-person conference, or biking to the Medical School to assist in a lab every day cannot possibly devote a full measure of effort to course obligations. Additionally, pre-professional summer internships are gaining more importance and weight. Many students spend nearly half the school year deciding on and organizing a summer activity.

Thus, while extracurricular and summer activities can enrich the individual student’s experience, the time and energy devoted to them threatens to trivialize the actual academic education.


Additionally, the Harvard education does have a social purpose. This truth manifests itself most obviously in the rhetoric of the admissions process, which aspires to become a mechanism of social justice in itself. By the numbers, few schools do as much to empower the middle and working classes. Harvard has embarked on an ambitious financial aid initiative that has brought scholarship to portions of the population that only decades ago were nearly shut out of higher education. Harvard’s broad financial aid program, which strives to prevent students from graduating indebted, has combated the recent hyperinflation of college fees that has mired many young students in debt and forced others away from college completely.

In this light, it seems odd that the College remains officially apathetic with regard to what students should do post-graduation. The question of whether Harvard student should aim for careers in public service should not be contentious. Not everyone needs to run a refugee camp in the poorest country possible; “serving” is more about attitude than about title. Whether as a banker or as a barista, giving back to society should be a normal part of what undergraduates aspire to do. Far from being remiss or overreaching, it would show moral conviction for top-level administrators to dictate this more strongly. President Faust has taken important steps to in this direction: In October 2009, the University held a “Public Service Week,” and the President’s office created a prestigious public service fellowship program this year. Nevertheless, changing the tone of campus discourse to reflect more strongly our societal obligations will take much more than this.

How should the College better articulate and implement the “purpose” of Harvard education? A good start would be to establish a mission statement. We submit the headings on either side of the Dexter Gate, which is already casually cited by many: “Enter to grow in knowledge. Exit to serve better thy country and thy kind.” Right now these are just words on a gate, alongside the 1876 Gate’s quotation from “The Ballad of the Bouillabaisse.” However, the Dexter Gate’s phrase has the potential to be a University staple in the same way that “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations” is for Princeton University, where the motto is offered as a prompt for admission essays.

In the end, four years at Harvard should yield more than a diploma; it should establish an individual ethos that enriches the human spirit and betters society. The University’s 375th anniversary is coming up during the 2011-2012 year, and what better way to honor our history than to reinterpret “knowledge and godliness” in a way that has relevance and resonance for today’s undergraduates.