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The Value of Education

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” —Nelson Mandela

By Emilee A. Hackney, Contributing Opinion Writer

I was so excited to wake up and see the headline on last Thursday’s newspaper: Next semester, juniors and underclassmen will for the first time be able to declare a secondary in Educational Studies. I’d heard rumors about a possible Education secondary that piqued my interest—I earned an associate’s degree in Education at the community college I attended before Harvard—but had no idea it would actually come to fruition in my remaining two years here. Giving students greater accessibility to formally exploring education, especially as an intersection to their respective concentrations, is a wonderful decision that will benefit many people at Harvard and beyond.

My mom has been a public elementary school teacher since before I was born, and because I grew up seeing just how much the job demanded from her, I always believed I’d never have anything to do with education. In community college, though, I heard rave reviews about an education class, and since I was undecided on my major, I took it. I enrolled in that class expecting to learn strictly teaching strategies and classroom management. To my surprise, it was centered around exploring the social and economic forces that shape the way our society interacts with and values schools and education. It made me rethink everything I knew about not only the American school system, but our society as a whole.

I learned about education inequality among races, incomes, and geographic locations. I learned about the critical role of community, school, and family support systems. I learned about the politics of education, the foundational policies, modern legislation, and ongoing issues of contention. Instead of simply learning how to teach, I learned how to better myself in order to help others learn. That was the most unexpected, yet fascinating part: I learned to identify my biases, empathize with others, acknowledge differences and establish common grounds, and build and maintain relationships with people very different from me—not just for the sake of teaching, but to be a greater positive influence on the world. I left that class with a much stronger appreciation of America’s education system, finally understanding the extent to which education intersects with all other aspects of our society.

Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of learning about schools, students, and myself as opposed to simple lesson planning, but the magic of this education class was that I began to notice and question things I’d always just passively accepted before. I started paying attention to how schools are funded and what kind of students different schools produce.

When I first came to Harvard, I was fascinated by student demographics and backgrounds. Quite a bit of what I learned in that class was applicable to daily life, too. I remember one class in which our professor explained student misbehavior as a possible manifestation of the frustrations of poverty, a difficult home life, and lack of a support system. This was a good lesson in learning about not only education but empathy, a reminder that you never know what someone else is going through.

That’s the value in exploring education through the new secondary, or even taking an education class or two. Studying education can provide you with a broader, more in-depth understanding of others, yourself, and the world around you. After all, learning is a lifelong endeavor; wouldn’t it be nice to better know who and what influences how you and others learn?

Every student at Harvard ended up here because of some kind of influence from the education system they grew up in, whether that system propelled them directly into a top university or they followed a less direct path. For students, it’s important to recognize the systems that enabled us to be here—and especially the political, social, and economic forces that drive those systems.

Educational Studies will enable us to do just that: better understand our own paths and, hopefully, better understand the forces that drive the paths of others. You might be surprised to see just how much the world of education intersects with your concentration; you might find out it intersects with fields you never would have expected. Even if you have no plans to pursue teaching or education careers, so much can be learned from this invaluable new program.

Emilee A. Hackney ’20 is an English concentrator living in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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