Let’s Learn to Serve



The case for making public service a mandated requirement at Harvard.

Cornell recently launched a $150 million initiative “Engaged Cornell” that will make it mandatory for undergraduates to take at least one course with a public service component. The announcement made waves on college campuses across America; Harvard wasn’t immune to its implications:while our own administration welcomed the idea of integrating academic coursework with public service, they came out against the idea of making it a compulsory requirement.

As a liberal arts college in an increasingly utilitarian world, our administrators realize well the importance of a well-rounded education; of an education that forces us to confront problems that go well beyond the confines of a our areas of study. The General Education curriculum was formulated with the aim of endowing undergraduates with a set of general skills with which to approach the world and its problems in general: skills required to be truly human.

The Report on the Task Force on General Education mentions as one of the reasons for the General Education: “It heightens students’ awareness of the human and natural worlds they inhabit.” We have sub-curriculum segments such as the Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding to deepen our appreciation of aesthetics and Ethical Reasoning to deepen our appreciation of the dialectical discourses that characterize the human condition. Why not, then, have a Public Service segment to deepen our appreciation of service to others? Is not service to fellow humans (besides the empathy and understanding that flow from such service) as much a marker of being human, as is appreciation of aesthetics or ethical dilemmas that shape our world; is not service in action as consequential towards understanding the “human word that [we] inhabit” as are Newtonian laws and foreign literatures? Is not the on ground exploration of this very world with its very problems as close as we can get to understanding the world that we inhabit? Insofar as we acknowledge this basic logic, it seems painfully hypocritical on part of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences to exclude a mandated Public Service component from the curriculum at college.

The appeal for this inclusion is warranted on other grounds too. Many of us have, at some point of time or the other, voiced the all too often and all too Harvard complaint: I came in with dreams of changing the world, and then Harvard happened. With good reason, too! When we arrive on campus, we are faced with a campus that reeks of affluence and lavishness to say the least; stealthily but surely, at differing levels of consciousness, we begin to aspire to the ideal of wealth so centrally ingrained and subtly espoused in all things Harvard — from libraries to houses to commencement day speakers. A breakfast conversation with upperclassman friend or a passing glance at the employment statistics of the graduating class is enough to convince an insecure freshman that the way (reasonable, if I may add) to achieve that foggy ideal of wealth is to pursue a range of options starting with consulting and ending at investment banking, and dropping anchors at medical or law school in between. Battling this troubling phenomenon requires Harvard to expose its students to atmospheres that run against than the oppressively affluent atmospheres with which the students are presented at the school. Avenues for such opportunities, most prominently the Phillips Brooks House Association, do exist, but they are essentially student-run and do not assume the role of an official administered avenue. They do not have the supervising eye of star mentors to guide the actions of fledgling change makers. People are expected to seek such avenues, and having already been inclined towards more materially inclined goals within two weeks of starting college, freshmen are more likely to seek opportunities and extracurriculars that feed precisely off these voraciously vocational ambitions. Having a college mandated public service course will force everyone, granted temporarily, out of this vicious cycle of vocational typesetting. They say you learn most by doing, and through these public service courses, people will learn not only about the variegated problems that plague communities in a nuance that glossy textbooks and frigid slides will never be able to capture; they will also learn of potential career paths and payoffs, both material and non material, that such careers entail, by interacting with successful public service individuals. To an average student, taking up endemic community wide problems might initially seem like a gargantuan and an unfeasible task; however, doing so under the directed guidance of able professors and stalwarts in the service sector would work wonders in transforming the way an average student perceives and approaches these problems. This change in perception is important — even though most of students might still end up reverting to their vocational plans after the semester long interlude, they will now know that public service is a feasible option open to be explored were they to grow tired at some point of time in their chosen careers. More importantly, they will now be more likely to engage in side service projects, be it in leadership or participatory capacities, at the same time as pursuing their main careers paths.

With nearly 14% of Class of 2017 coming from families with $500,000+ incomes and with nearly 40% of the class of 2018 comprising private schooled individuals, Harvard does not hold the composition of your average American college. It is reasonable to assume that a sizeable proportion of the students that swarm the yard every fall have never been exposed directly to such public service opportunities as might be provided by the Public Service component. Is it not the moral prerogative of the college to act as a leveler — not merely in terms of leveling people from different backgrounds, but also in terms of leveling the life-paths and aspirations that these people are exposed to? Such a prerogative can be fulfilled satisfiably only if we were, for once, to acknowledge our occasional fallibility and concede that it can sometimes take a trailblazing quasi-Ivy for us to identify our shortcomings.

Aditya Agrawal ’17 ([email protected]) believes that service in action is learning in action.