by Tushar Dwivedi
This morning, Harvard hosted a ceremony for new members of congress, allowing a limited number of Harvard students access to the nation’s leading politicians and business leaders. In a different venue, and seemingly a different world, Travis Scott (aka La Flame), an industry leader in his own right, made his presence known at the Science Center. Studying at Harvard is billed as a once in a lifetime opportunity, not only because of the education and career opportunities, but because of the access to another world of successful politicians, artists, thinkers, and altogether celebrities.
Growing up, I thought of celebrities less as reality TV stars or pop artists, but rather as those individuals completely out of reach. They existed in a fantasy world, one that encompassed everyone from NFL stars to Actors and major politicians. The chance to attend Harvard felt like a magic key, one that unlocked the door that at one time seemed permanently out of reach.
This semester, I had the opportunity to take Ethical Reasoning 39 (“Money Markets and Morals”), taught by Professor Michael Sandel, and for the first time, watched my parents mouths drop when they heard who I would be learning from. They were quick to rebut, however, claiming that such classes were rarely truly taught by the professor. Instead, it was often the teaching fellows who handled the bulk of the work, with the professor’s name only headlining the course. Nonetheless, I was excited; this was my first introduction to philosophy and who better to be learning from.
For the first time since CS50, after attending the first lecture, it truly felt as if I had that key sought so long ago in my hand. From a lecture hall packed to the absolute brim, overflowing into another classroom, to photographers capturing Sandel’s first words, the class hummed with an energy of its own, one that rarely died even as we dove deeper into Kant and Aristotle. After attending the last class today, I can look back and say that my parents were 100% correct, albeit not in the negative way they imagined.
With regards to actually learning philosophy, engaging my mental faculties and growing my interest in the subject, the entirety of that burden and responsibility fell on my TF – and he did an absolutely excellent job in doing so. Constantly probing, countering, and facilitating, for the first time, section became something to look forward to, and I learned just as much, if not more, from my classmates than I did from the readings themselves. The true class and knowledge building played out in section, while the lectures in class themselves seemed to play out more like a TV show.
Sandel starred in each episode using a combination of monologue, inquisition and standard lecturing to coherently and succinctly package huge amounts of information. Whether it be the rules surrounding lateness and technology or the sheer difficulty to lottery in, there was an air that I was part of something bigger while in the class. While at times the supporting actor analogy might be apt, it felt more like something out of Dead Poets Society, albeit with a group size orders of magnitude larger. There was a wisdom being imparted during lecture that surpassed that of any text or reading and the only comparison could be to listening to one’s father or grandparent tell stories steeped in meaning.
When Sandel and Mankiw faced off in debate, near the end of the class, the entire lecture hall waited with significant anticipation. As Jose Espinel, a Junior at Harvard put it, “watching Sandel debate Mankiw is exactly the type of thing I came to Harvard for,” and the class shined in that exactly that regard. With numerous quotables, ideologies, and snippets, the class hummed and it was clear that the debate was the peak of the class for most.
In the last lecture, however, the surprise was unveiled in a monologue by Sandel that the entire class was a microcosm-like representation of the manner in which political and moral discussion should exist in the modern world, in direct agreement with his own moral philosophy. The takeaway being that what we had done thus far was not simply sit, absorb, and take notes, but rather participate in a way of life constructed by Sandel such that we saw its true value from the inside. The value in such a construct was not uniformly shared across the lecture hall or class, but for myself, it was the eye opening experience I hope to have many more of here at Harvard.
Tushar Dwivedi ’20 (email@example.com) hopes not to have peaked at ER39.