Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Lectures and learning, education essentials, Tea Party tempest

May-June 2012

Fie on Al Franken

Your fawning feature article on the aggressive and obnoxious Al Franken was extremely ill taken ("Al Franken: You Can Call Me Senator"). Franken, whose ideas and value system are comprehensively wrong, is an embarrassment to everyone, but in particular to the Minnesota voters who must have thought they were playing a joke on the rest of the country. (They have done so before; remember Jesse Ventura?) The notion that this former comedian (and I didn't think he was very funny, either) could be taken seriously, much less have a voice in our nation's future, is absurd. His politics are not "progressive," but rest on taking money from those of us who produce and add value, and giving it to those who consume.

Richard Sybert, J.D. '76
San Diego

 

With Al Franken on the cover, the Harvard Magazine went straight into my trash. Condescending humor is not clever. A man so rude, profane, and partisan should never be elected to public office.

Betsy Jensvold, M.B.A. '86
Seattle

 

I usually appreciate your interesting and informative magazine. However, I think that the cover of the March-April issue, which featured a recently elected U.S. senator making a defiant closed fist salute, was regrettable. I am mystified by your sense of priorities in selecting this person, who has not demonstrated any real accomplishments in his brief public service, as the subject of the cover article. I am disappointed by the lack of balance in this article, which presents a one-sided account of his disputed election. This article did not meet Harvard Magazine's usual high quality standard of objectivity. I believe that a much worthier choice for the cover would have been the brilliant physicians doing the extremely important scientific work described in the excellent article on "The Traumatized Brain".

Daniel H. Taft '57
Arlington, Va.


Long Live Lectures

Craig Lambert's article "Twilight of the Lecture" illustrates what a difference a professor who takes his teaching of undergraduates seriously can make. It is good to see Harvard in the lead of making important changes.

Reading between the lines gives me a less upbeat picture. Professor Eric Mazur's change of approach occurred over 21 years ago. Since then the new teaching method has spread very slowly. The article suggests it is still a distinct minority. What is holding other professors back? Could most Harvard professors be so set in their ways that they are unwilling to try new approaches?

Robert L. Freedman '62
Philadelphia

 

When Mazur has finished demonizing those of us who have spent (or, for him, wasted) our academic lives teaching large lecture courses, he might consider testing his "active learning" at, say, night classes at America's large urban universities. Until then I will continue to believe that lectures by John Finley, Harry Levin, and Perry Miller were the most memorable educational experiences I had at Harvard.

Howard Clarke, Ph.D. '60
Professor emeritus of classics
University of California, Santa Barbara

 

The group learning that Mazur advocates sacrifices potential advancement of the strong students for the benefit of the weak. It is tantamount to socialism in education, and it is especially disappointing to see the fad promoted at Harvard. Yes, even the strong student can learn something in the interactive process that goes on, but that function may be adequately fulfilled by traditional teaching section Q&As, and does not in any way compensate for what may be lost in lecture time.

A carefully crafted lecture, particularly one that is honed over many years of feedback and presented in person (not canned on video), is still the most efficient way to transmit knowledge to a well-prepared, attentive mind. Yes, live polling can be useful to track comprehension, improve engagement, and point out fallacies; but it should be the professor who presents the best explanation refuting the fallacy, even if it must incorporate explanatory language gleaned from students who did not "get it" at first. It should not be the responsibility of those students who do "get it" right away to struggle to find ways to explain it to those who don't, and at the cost of their own instructional time. Mazur notes the "vitriolic e-mails" he gets (I would venture from the stronger students), but dismisses them as ill-informed. I would suggest he give some more consideration to that poll.

Stephen Apfelroth '84, M.D., Ph.D.
Norwalk, Conn.

 

Is Mazur right: are all lectures bad teaching? (I think back to Marjorie Garber's wonderful lecture course on Shakespeare: I don't remember either of us sleeping, despite Mazur's claims.) He also notes that 99 percent of teaching at Harvard is via lecture, but a third of every lecture course is made up of discussion sections—and that complicates his claim that students in lecture classes are "passive." Is that the right term for people being asked to connect lecture content to readings, to discuss them in sections, and to incorporate lecture materials into their writing? And if Mazur is assuming that students can't or won't draw those connections, then surely Harvard shouldn't be assigning readings either, since information gained from passively reading a text can be worth no more than information gained from passively listening to an expert? These questions are worth asking.

Why lecture? I find lecturing to be incredibly efficient, letting me convey knowledge to students which they could only construct themselves by reading hundreds of extra pages on the subject each week. It's not the best way to learn for some students, but then neither is group work; the existence of multiple learning styles seems to me to imply that we should use a variety of techniques in the classroom. Certainly we should be open to discussing how to teach more effectively, and I wish Mazur had done that rather than offering clever quips and exaggerated statistics that seem to close off the possibility of a dialogue. What possible response can there be to the idea that, while I may think that Garber inspired me with a lifelong love of Shakespeare, this is merely a remarkably persistent illusion, and I actually missed out on getting a real education?

Tara Kelly '91
Thompson Writing Program, Duke University
Durham, N.C.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the article on Eric Mazur's teaching techniques, and applaud this long-overdue movement in higher education. However, as Mazur himself acknowledges, "active learning" has been integral to K-12 education for so long as to have become cliché. The article's treatment of the method—as revolutionary and stumbled-upon by a brilliant physics professor in 1990—is an affront to the thousands of K-12 educators who have practiced this truth for decades.

There is a pretty good School of Education at Harvard, where I'm sure no one is surprised that collaborative learning is more effective than lectures for both children and adults. The real question is why a method that has been known to professional educators for so long is only now catching on among university teachers.

The uncomfortable truth is that too many professors—at Harvard and elsewhere—are absolute masters of the content they teach but not necessarily of how to teach it. I hope your article, and Mazur's work, will motivate more university teachers to draw from the expertise of other educators, even (gasp!) their K-12 colleagues, in thinking about how best to convey their considerable knowledge.

Lloyd W. English IV, Ed.M. '01
Richmond, Va.

 

Mazur quotes Albert Camus: "Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep." Only lecturers? W.H. Auden came closer to the mark: "A professor is one who talks in someone else's sleep" (The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, edited by Evan Esar, Horizon Press, 1953, page 20).

Incidentally, Auden's Lectures on Shakespeare (1946) were published from notes taken by his students.

John J. Stephan '63, A.M. '64
Honolulu

 

The article touts interactive teaching or peer instruction as pedagogical tools that may supplant the classic lecture in college as the most effective approach to ensuring student understanding of material being studied. This is surely more the case in science and engineering courses than in the "softer" curricula of the humanities. It seems to me there must always be room for those few gifted professors whose enthusiasm, speaking power, and obvious erudition serve a larger purpose beyond simple transfer of knowledge: imparting the love of learning, the excitement of immersion, and sheer pleasure in pursuing a subject well beyond just earning a good grade.

I took a beginning course in Shakespeare as an undergraduate. The professor drew the class emotionally into the works from which he quoted, evoking his own deeply felt tears and laughter as the class hung on every word. I was hooked for life. I have experienced similar feelings in a few other courses. There isn't a plethora of professors of that ilk out there, but those who fit this mold are critical to a true university education and its sequel: a lifetime of intellectual stimulation.

Bernard G. Elliker, M.P.A. '69
Laurel, Md.

 

Education and Economics

I was amused—as I always am when I read the comments of those unfamiliar with public education—by the letter of John Thorndike '64, J.D. '68 (March-April). He is astounded by a two-and-one-half times increase in public-education expenditures, and attributes this to teachers' unions "kidnapping the system."

Thorndike should consider a few facts bearing on his comments, for much has changed since the 1960s, although the existence of teachers' unions has not; thus unions cannot be the only reason educational costs have risen. Local school districts were not required to educate students with special needs before 1975, and handicapped students rarely attended local public schools. Congress has since passed more laws expanding access to public education for disabled students. These students require more staff to educate: accordingly, pupil/teacher ratios have been driven down. There are also the considerable costs to local districts caused by members of the bar, for legal costs have risen as parents have increasingly sued school districts for failing to meet the needs of these students.

State standards for teachers have also risen, including the requirement that many teachers continue their education past a bachelor's degree (here in Massachusetts, teachers must earn a master's degree to stay certified). Additionally, Thorndike might have noticed that educated women have many more options to pursue than before 1970, and this has helped drive teachers' salaries higher, for local districts must compete with the private sector for talented, trained faculty. Higher salaries have still failed to attract a preponderance of qualified men to teach in public schools. Perhaps they are attracted to the legal profession, where starting salaries are much greater than teacher salaries.

Thorndike would likely advise those seeking expert advice on legal matters to turn to an experienced, qualified lawyer. As a public-school teacher, I suggest he seek some advice from experienced, qualified educators before betraying his ignorance of the subject. Or perhaps he might return to school.

Matthew Brown, A.L.B. '86
Chatham, Mass.

 

John Thorndike's letter has two themes: people who work extraordinarily hard and who take risks with their human and economic capital deserve to keep most of their money; and we should shift our educational resources away from the middle class and to the very disadvantaged. I find both positions to be profoundly wrong-headed.

Lots of middle-class people work hard, some at two jobs, many with college degrees, including professionals, but they aren't seeing commensurate economic reward. By comparison, most of the rich don't work extraordinarily hard for their wealth. Many rich people don't work at all, in fact. Wealth begets wealth, and concentrates it. The financialization of American industry has created a profoundly rich class of individuals who enjoy a game of finance rigged in their favor, and their resultant rewards are hugely out of proportion to their industry and contribution.

Our public schools—once the envy of the world—are, except in the richest of communities, in spiritual and physical tatters. Withholding resources from them will merely strap and degrade them further. More and more students will graduate with substandard educations and not be able to understand the world around them nor be able to compete for the jobs their parents lost. The very disadvantaged will lose the most: the resources they need at school to shift their attention from the dysfunctional social world in which they live after school to a productive future they can believe in.

Michael Miller, M.Arch. '76
Key West

 

Civic Education—and Action

Ellen Lagemann and Harry Lewis address a crucial issue for our times ("Renewing Civic Education"). In addition to their proposals, I suggest that the University consider developing a department or interdepartmental center for learning "solutions." There is no shortage of problems that have been created by the shift to corporatism; what is needed is a profession, or life commitment, to making change actually happen.

Change is needed not only in the University, but in society and its institutions. The moral guidelines are there—in America's founding documents, the precepts of our major religions, the teaching of philosophers. To effect these values, however, requires getting our hands dirty, in politics and within our institutions. Such change is not easy, since the University, like all our institutions, has been corrupted by scholarly professionalization, government contracts, professionalization of athletics, and so on. Hopefully "Occupy" and whatever movements follow will create a much-needed return to civic morality.

Richard Almond '59, M.D.
Palo Alto

 

Presuming Innocence

Tracey Meares's review, "Justice Falls Down", only touches upon an essential problem: the inability of hundreds of thousands of poor people, who are often black or Latino, and some of whom have disabilities, to defend themselves, even if they are innocent. The public-defender system is woefully underfunded; most defendants have no money; and assigned counsel do not have the time or tools to mount a defense. By the time these defendants are arrested, the police and prosecutors focus only on their supposed guilt.

 Only by instituting pretrial, publicly funded, impartial investigative procedures can this be ameliorated. Sure, other changes are necessary to revive confidence in the system. Police stops for driving or walking on city streets while black must stop. Many drug crimes should be decriminalized. The list can go on. But innocence should be the touchstone of the system.

Lewis M. Steel '58
New York City

 

Tea Party, Part Two

In his attempt at irony, Sam Levin, a "double Harvard grad" (Letters, March-April), objects to Professor Theda Skocpol's comments about the Tea Party's objection to Obama ("Tea Party Passions").

I don't think she is misrepresenting the opinion of this rather odd group, whose comments have rarely met the level of factual and dispassionate discussion one might expect from grown-ups, even those with two Harvard degrees.

Levin might note that our Senator Scott Brown, who hopes for reelection this year, repeatedly refers to his presumptive Democratic opponent [Gottlieb professor of law Elizabeth Warren] as "an elitist Harvard professor." Considering that her background is about as hardscrabble as his, I think he ought stop this line of attack. He likes to complain also that much of her financing comes from outside Massachusetts, which seems to be true—but so does his.

Joseph R. Barrie, M.D. '60
Harvard, Mass.

 

Protecting Primates

Since the Brevia coverage ("Animal Welfare Violations"), Harvard has been forced to suspend all new experiments on animals at the New England Primate Research Center after the fourth negligent death of a monkey and more than 20 cited violations of the Animal Welfare Act in less than two years.

Here are some of the details behind the citations: two primates died of severe dehydration; an employee broke the leg of another by smashing him into a cage door. Another primate was found dead in her cage when it was sent through the high-pressure, scalding-hot water of the mechanical cage washer—with her still in it. Inspectors found monkeys confined to cages too small for their bodies and suffering from self-injury and other abnormal behaviors that are the result of severe psychological distress.

 These cases violated the law, but students, faculty, and alumni would likely be dismayed to learn that the legal experimentation that occurs at Harvard and masquerades as "science" is just as horrific. Harvard confines nearly 2,500 primates—one of the largest primate populations locked in any U.S. university laboratory. Many animals are subjected to painful and distressing experiments, including being addicted to cocaine, heroin, nicotine, and alcohol. Others have holes drilled into their skulls, electrodes inserted into their brains, and steel coils implanted in their eyes.

Harvard may be an Ivy, but it gets an F for its treatment of animals.

Jessica Sandler '78
Senior director, Regulatory Testing Division
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Norfolk, Va.

Editor's note: See “Animal Research Reforms”  for updated news coverage of the Medical School's primate facilities.

 

Public Health in India

As participants in the School of Public Health field trip (reported in "Into India"), we were privileged to explore health issues for urban slum residents in Mumbai. But it was disheartening to see that our Business School colleagues were allocated projects that can undermine health priorities. One caption reads, "In Mumbai, one student team worked with a chain of 'hypermarkets' trying to win business from small neighborhood grocery stores." Changing food-purchasing habits from local suppliers to hypermarkets is associated with poorer dietary choices and a rising incidence of noncommunicable disease. It is disappointing that Harvard is not pursuing a harmonized, health-promoting approach to all its activities in India.

Rosemary Wyber, SPH '12
Jennifer Weaver, SPH '13
Boston

 

Corrections and Amplifications

The article on the renovation of the Empire State Building ("A Green Empire") gave a figure of 2.2 million square feet for the size of the skyscraper. The correct figure is 2.85 million gross square feet. During editing, the description of the building's ownership and management was simplified; a fuller explanation is that the Malkin family are significant owners who are responsible for the building's day-to-day operations, and that they share control of the operating lease with the Leona Helmsley estate.

The March-April cover story on Senator Al Franken contained several small factual errors. His family did not move to Minneapolis when he was a child, but to Albert Lea, and then St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Franken graduated cum laude in general studies, not government. His radio show began in 2004; it moved to Minneapolis in 2005. His credit rating agency amendment, described as in committee, was actually passed by the Senate. His bill denying government money to contractors that force employees not to sue them applies to all defense contractors, not only to those in Iraq.

Professor Joseph Aldy (Portrait, March-April) has worked for the CEA (Council of Economic Advisers), but not for the BEA (Bureau of Economic Analysis).

"The Traumatized Brain" identified Kevin "Kit" Parker as McKay professor of bioengineering and applied physics—the title provided in the University's directory, which was incorrect. Parker is the Tarr Family professor in those fields.

You Might Also Like:

At Harvard African Students Association’s Africa Night (from left): Tom Osborn ’20 of Kenya; Joshua Benjamin ’21, of Phoenix, Arizona (whose ancestors are Angolan but were first brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late seventeenth century); Tawanda Mulalu ’20 of Botswana; and Mfundo Radebe ’20 of South Africa

Photograph by Christabel Narh

Harvard through an African filter

You Might Also Like:

At Harvard African Students Association’s Africa Night (from left): Tom Osborn ’20 of Kenya; Joshua Benjamin ’21, of Phoenix, Arizona (whose ancestors are Angolan but were first brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late seventeenth century); Tawanda Mulalu ’20 of Botswana; and Mfundo Radebe ’20 of South Africa

Photograph by Christabel Narh

Harvard through an African filter