To an assemblage of 1,000 freshman parents on Oct. 26 in Sanders Theatre, Dean of Harvard College David R. Pilbeam offered a welcome. “Your freshman is already a member of the extended Harvard family.”
Harvard will stay in touch with you, he said, adding a humorous warning: “There is a Harvard College Parents Fund.”
Once they graduate, the Class of 2011 will not be exempt from the same kind of attention, said Pilbeam, who is also Henry Ford II Professor of Human Evolution and curator of paleoanthropology at the Peabody Museum.
To illustrate, he told a joke.
Three young college graduates are marooned on a desert island. The Princeton graduate gets to work building a signal fire. The Yale graduate runs to the beach to spell out a big H-E-L-P in the sand.
Meanwhile, the Harvard graduate takes a seat in the shade with a coconut martini. “What are you doing?” the two frantic workers ask.
“I’m from Harvard,” she says. “The Development Office will find me.”
On a more serious note, Pilbeam described what’s new at Harvard, and what is planned.
A new general education curriculum will replace the current core courses, he said — though perhaps largely too late for the Class of 2011. Along the way, Harvard will offer innovations in how to teach writing, critical thinking, and public speaking.
Study abroad is emerging as an emphasis in undergraduate life, said Pilbeam, along with hands-on learning experiences beyond science labs. And a new academic calendar goes into effect in the fall of 2009.
Updated emergency communications systems are in place, he said, along with new spaces for extracurricular life: the New College Theatre, the Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub, and the Lamont Library Café.
Pilbeam also had some advice for the new Harvard parents: Give your freshman some space — social space, so they can grow with new friends; and academic space, to acknowledge there are many entry points to success. “I suspect,” he said, “you don’t have to concentrate in biochemistry to go to medical school.”
Pilbeam introduced the parents to Harvard President Drew Faust, who had addressed the freshman themselves seven weeks earlier.
With the new president, he said, “the Class of 2011 is privileged to be present at the birth of a golden decade at Harvard.”
To the assembled parents, Faust repeated her challenge to freshman “to explore the rich troves of the University … and begin a life of risk and reward at Harvard.”
With that comes a pledge, she added. “We are accountable to them, and to you.”
Accountability includes respect for intellectual journeys that are not for immediate gain, said Faust, “but for their own sake.”
Those journeys will “deliver a human being significantly different from the one you dropped off at the doorstep seven weeks ago,” said Faust. Education, after all, is “not about filling a bucket, but lighting a fire,” she said, in an allusion to the poet William Butler Yeats.
A good college education also requires following Mark Twain’s advice, she said, “to sail away from safe harbor.”
In graduate school, students embark on the orderly mastery of a discipline, said Faust. “College, by contrast, cultivates a culture of unruliness.”
She asked the gathering of parents to help new students “make the choices that may not make sense to you, or even to us.” (One recent graduate, Faust noted, went on to become a professional wrestler.)
But accountability at Harvard also means a pledge of good and innovative teaching, said Faust.
For one, undergraduates take an increasingly active part in scholarship and research, she said. A three-day 2006 symposium on the late Leonard Bernstein last fall was inspired by student research. They left behind a permanent archive related to the composer’s Boston and Harvard connections.
This fall, said Faust, anthropology students are busy with a dig in Harvard Yard, sifting soil for evidence of Harvard’s 17th century Indian College — and learning from every old bone, button, and shard of clay.
In the classroom, good teaching sometimes means tapping the pedagogic potential of new technologies, said Faust, who noted that 90 percent of courses taught at Harvard (5,000 a year) have their own Web sites.
Stretching the boundaries of technology this semester, Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen J. Greenblatt — Cogan University Professor of the Humanities — is using virtual computer worlds, links to primary texts, interdisciplinary guest lecturers, and Google Earth maps for a class. “A Silk Road Course: Travel and Transformation on the High Seas” follows the progress of three 17th century ships traveling around a long-ago world.
Harvard also sharpens a student’s self-image, widening the horizon of dreams. “It changes aspirations,” said Faust.
She told the story of one undergraduate who arrived wanting to be a high school chorus teacher. Today, she studies voice in London and New York.
Harvard is a world of passionate, intersecting interests. “Once you’re here,” said Faust, “you realize you belong.”