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Ask What You Can Do (and Put it into Practice)

The Postgraduate Way of Life

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Two weeks ago, I wandered into the Center for Government and International Studies’ Knafel building to sit in on “Capitalism and its Critics,” a new graduate Government seminar offered by Professor Katrina Forrester. Drawn in by both the topic and the professor, I ignored the fact that I had done two of the assigned readings for that week — which totaled some 200 pages — and instead relied on the little Marx and Foucault I remembered from Social Studies 10 to follow along with the conversation.

The ensuing discussion was incredibly enjoyable and thought provoking. Yet by the end, I couldn’t really tell if we were still discussing capitalism — a real world economic system made up by billions of human beings who work, laugh, and cry — or an ambiguous concept whose only essential feature was some vague connection to power relations.

I tend to think that I’m not the only student who feels like this. In “A Mathematician’s Apology,” the English mathematician G.H. Hardy worried that academia might be an ivory tower, disconnected from the outside world: “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. […] Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics is it trivial anyhow.”

I don’t fully agree with this view. G.H. Hardy’s work in number theory was largely useless, that is, if you ignore the fact that number theory has allowed vendors to encrypt credit card information when selling online, leading to trillions of dollars generated through e-commerce. I’ll also still encourage you to take a philosophy class at Harvard, and not because it might help you get a better LSAT score.

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Yet this critique still has value and is part of the reason I lay awake at night and stress about what I’m going to write my Social Studies thesis on. Like Hardy, I worry about how useful what I do may really be. When I do so, I’m reminded of John F. Kennedy’s ’40 famous dictum, “Ask what you can do.” That’s why, during one of my weekly trips to spend my BoardPlus on a ramen bowl at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, seeing this quote adorn the walls made me think that maybe the answer to my worries lay within this school for public policy.

The Kennedy School’s emphasis on praxis is clear as soon as you walk in. When entering one of the buildings, I looked down to see a gold disc set into the floor, with a quote from the address by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, class of 1904, at the Harvard Tercentenary Celebration: “Harvard should train its citizens in that high Athenian sense which compels them to live life unceasingly aware that its civic significance is its most abiding.”

HKS aims to offer a reprieve from the worry that one has never done anything useful, and, in this way, its very mission sets it apart from the College.

The school’s descriptions of its four degree programs further exemplifies its practical orientation. According to the website, the Master in Public Policy is for those who have an “urge to extract answers from the clutter of real-world public problems.” The Master in Public Administration is for those with some previous professional experience who now need “the specialized skills, informed perspectives, and nuanced understanding to be an even more effective leader in solving public problems.” The Mid-Career Master in Public Administration is for those with already advanced careers who “know [they] can make a greater impact.” Finally, the Master in Public Administration and International Development provides economics-centered training to those who want to “acquire the analytical tools and global perspectives to design and implement effective solutions.”

My conversations with students at the Kennedy School showed me that students themselves notice this palpable culture of public service. Mauro Morabito, a recent MC/MPA graduate, told me that at HKS, “There is definitely a very keen interest in the public or in ways that the public good can improve.” To me, it looks like HKS offers a unique space for students to learn while always thinking about the potential impact of their education on the public sphere.

What does a school that is almost entirely focused on practicalities look like? This may be from a lack of experience, but I tend to think that taking a class on linear algebra for one semester gives you much more information than a semester course on negotiation might.

I’m not alone in feeling this way. In the past, HKS has been critiqued for a lack of academic rigor and a failure to provide anything except the Harvard name — in other words, for serving as “a country club shrouded in academia.”

Indeed, Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson editor and current MPP candidate at HKS, told me that “grades below a B minus are quite rare.”

“Most classes are curved to give everyone at least a B minus unless you don't do a major assignment or something,” he added.

Because of this lack of emphasis on GPA, Levin continued, “most of the jobs that you wind up getting, you’re gonna get through either networking” or writing one really good policy report.

But those who criticize HKS for lacking academic rigor miss the point. HKS classes aren’t trying to be academic, in a conventional sense of the word. Instead, they’re focused on teaching skills.

“This is quite special, and probably what HKS is most known for,” Morabito told me. “The so-called soft skills — so, advocacy and negotiation, public speaking, leadership, persuasion.”

Courses based on these skills, Morabito added, are “experiential courses, and you have a lot of learning by doing and simulations.”

Some students see these types of courses as the most valuable at HKS. Shulin Jiang, an MPA candidate, told me, “If I could, I would choose classes with more simulations, like the negotiation classes.” To me, it seems that by interacting amidst these simulations, students learn from the professional experiences they each bring to the table.

Some may see the College as presenting the opposite model of education as HKS. Instead of skills based learning, we learn information. Our thousands of pages of readings push us to internalize loads of knowledge, which we are free — but not necessarily taught to — apply in our real lives.

This view of the College’s educational model presents a problem, though. Not only does it risk detaching students from the real world, it leaves unanswered the question: What value is there in a Harvard education?

In “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon’s character confronts a Harvard student and tells him that one of the few certainties in life that he’ll one day discover is the fact that the student “dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education [he] could’ve picked up for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”

Damon misses the point, though. He’s right that at many institutions of higher learning, the actual knowledge gained could have easily been accessed somewhere else. However, the value of these institutions is that they serve as a space in which very motivated students can gather and learn from one another.

At the College, we hesitate to admit this. The idea that our courses aren’t actually the most important part of our education may leave a bitter taste in our mouths.

HKS, however, does not shy away from this reality. The Kennedy School realizes that its value lies in its ability to cultivate practical skills, a mission it carries out by gathering an incredibly diverse group of people with substantive professional experience into one classroom.

Each of the school’s four degree programs attract students at different stages in their career. The result of this, Morabito told me, is that “everybody can get something out of this, but specifically for the younger cohorts that might not have encountered this before in their professional lives.” To me, it seems that this diversity in age leads to an environment in which the young, more idealistic students with an appetite for change exchange knowledge with the older, more pragmatic students with professional experience and who may have actually changed the world.

HKS recognizes that any education they can offer pales in comparison to the education students will receive simply from interacting with each other. I imagine that’s why many professors seem to emphasize the interactions, constructing classes around simulations that bring out the most from those interactions.

Likewise, the professors are there because of the benefits students get from interacting with them, not because of any special ability they have in imparting information to students. As the MPA website states, faculty are meant to “share significant, real-world experience with you.”

We should take note of this at the College. We have the theoretical education, but to some extent, we also have the practical education that HKS offers. We may not have structured simulations forcing us to critically engage with each other, but we do have an incredibly diverse student body and an open “play” environment in which we can interact. This has led to the creation of a college newspaper that has produced more than 40 Pulitzer Prize winners, a multimillion dollar business, and the oldest theatrical organization in the nation.

The practical education that HKS offers and that some undergraduates so desperately crave when we’re learning theory in a lecture hall is there —we just have to take advantage of it. Like the poet Walt Whitman’s learn’d astronomer, when we become tired and sick of the charts and diagrams, we must look up in perfect silence at the stars.

Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column, ‘The Postgraduate Way of Life,’ runs on triweekly Thursdays.

CORRECTION: February 12, 2023

A previous version of this story mispelled the name of poet Walt Whitman, who wrote "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer."

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