Speech given to the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance Summit, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 26 2018
Community or Lifestyle Enclave
By Gerald Chan
I had understood that the organizers of this conference wanted me to say something about my current work, but when I saw Larry at a school event last week, he told me that I must say something about the admissions lawsuit. I thought that a kamikaze assignment as there are bound to be people in the audience who feel passionately for or against the lawsuit. But duty calls and I must live up to the stereotype that Asians are ever so obedient to the teacher.
Let me begin by describing a concert I attended last month in London. It was the Last Night at the BBC Proms concert held in Royal Albert Hall. This annual concert is the one occasion that the usually reserved Brits shed their inhibition and collectively hallucinate that the British Empire is still alive and well and on which the sun still does not set. With Brexit negotiations progressing in earnest this year, and perhaps precisely because those negotiations have laid bare the fractured state of British politics, the need to find solace in delirium was all the more acute. Between the Union Jack flags being waved and people wearing all manner of paraphernalia made with the Union Jack motif, the concert hall was a sea of Union Jacks. But here and there, there were also clusters of people waving the European Union flag or wearing apparel items made with that motif. When it came time for the audience to join in the singing, the EU crowd in blue and yellow, no less than the Union Jack crowd, were swaying and singing with gusto the patriotic songs – Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.
It was at that moment that I realized the people waving the EU flags felt no less patriotic about their country than the ones waving the Union Jack. There were two divergent visions of how the nation should move forward, but the people on either side of the divide were just as committed to the good of their country. Reasonable people, or even well-reasoned people, do come to divergent conclusions from the same set of facts and therefore disagree. We either resort to authoritarianism to enforce one or the other view, or we practice democracy by learning to live together as a free people, albeit, harboring profound differences.
This admissions lawsuit is not about whether our sons and daughters will have a better chance of getting into Harvard. The odds of getting admitted is so low that doubling the percentage of Asians in the student body is not going to make that much of a difference to a given applicant. Consider if the admit rate goes from one out of twenty to two out of twenty applicants. What that means is that after the first spot is filled, there will still be nineteen applicants vying for the second spot. Whether the odds are one out of ten or one out of twenty, these are very long shots. Either way, I know I won’t be able to get in today. As much as we were fortunate to have been admitted to Harvard and had a great education here, it would be counterproductive if we saw Harvard as the only road to a good life. If we had given our children a good upbringing, they will be fine regardless whether they go to Harvard or not.
It would also be misleading to frame the narrative of this lawsuit as merely one of individuals or groups who feel aggrieved. What this lawsuit has sparked across America is a soul searching for what is the shape of the society that we want for the country. For better or for worse, being the oldest university in the land, Harvard bears the weight of its own operation as well as the weight of being an icon to which people look for meaning and guidance as they contemplate society’s present and its future. In the landmark Harvard Committee Report of 1945 published as the book General Education in a Free Society, otherwise known as the red book, the professors on the Committee wrote, “At bottom, education is society perpetuating its spirit and inner form in a new generation.” This applies not only to what we teach and how we teach, but also to how we constitute and how we configure the university as a community of people who are striving together towards a good society.
The university is more than a collection of teachers passing on knowledge and skills to their students. It is a setting where each student develops both as an individual in his own right and as a member of a community. Some thirty years ago, the sociologist Robert Bellah wrote, “Where history and hope are forgotten and community means only the gathering of the similar, community degenerates into lifestyle enclave.” A true liberal education is one that enables the student to find the shared history and hopes among dissimilar people. For us who are people of multiple identities – while American, yet Asian – and living in a country of still greater diversity and complexity, the challenge for each one of us is to find a workable synthesis between what is particular and what is general, between the fragment and the whole.
Rather than being fixated on one slice of the higher education pie called Harvard, we can work on enlarging the pie of quality research universities in this country. In this regard, I applaud President Bacow’s reaching out to the University of Michigan to work together. To my knowledge, this is the first time in a long time that an elite private university reaches out to a state university to bridge that divide. After all, it is still the public institutions of higher learning that are bearing the bulk of the load of educating the young people of this country. Harvard should become more porous.
Of greater urgency in this country is the restoration of quality education in K through 12 schools. It is a gross misallocation of priorities for this country to pay so much to people who look after our financial assets and so little to people who look after our human assets. Because the value of financial assets can be counted, it is all too easy for people to succumb to a cognitive distortion that overvalues financial assets. Human assets, on the other hand, takes a long time to develop; the impact of a good teacher may not be known until years later. In the inauguration of President Bacow, Rabbi Gardenswartz who gave the benediction singled out three people that had the biggest impact on Larry’s life – his father, his mother, and his fourth-grade teacher Shirley Chandler. With a gentle touch, the good rabbi has shown us what is important. To this, we must give heed.
Much of what I am working on now has to do with finding ways to make quality school education accessible to all communities. I am exploring the use of the case study method as practiced in HBS and the problem-based method as practiced in CS50 to make learning relevant to high school students. Leveraging technology for delivery will be inevitable in the future of education. We must embrace technology but we must never lose sight that both teaching and learning will always be an intensely human endeavor. It is only when we care for our young that we will have a future.