December 14, 2013

Issac J. Bailey: What I learned during my first semester at Harvard

Before I arrived in Cambridge to begin my Nieman Fellowship, I half expected to encounter a gaggle of arrogant people drunk with their Harvard University calling card.

Before I arrived in Cambridge to begin my Nieman Fellowship, I half expected to encounter a gaggle of arrogant people drunk with their Harvard University calling card.

That was the Southern bias I didn’t realize I had.

During the past few months, I didn’t meet many arrogant people. I met many who were just as hospitable as those in the place I was raised, South Carolina.

And I met a few people from my native state. I took a Harvard law course taught by Randall Kennedy, a long-time professor raised in Columbia. In that course was Everson Ladson, a Harvard corporate law student who grew up in the Sampit community of rural Georgetown County.

Weeks later Tommy Tobin of Socastee caught up with me and my wife Tracy for lunch. He was studying at the Kennedy School and said he “grew up” reading my column in The Sun News. (I think that makes me really, really old.)

So what did I learn during my first semester at Harvard?

A good bit, actually, about how to better comprehend judicial proceedings and judgments and the hidden costs and benefits of even well-designed laws; that children growing up in environments with constant stress literally have their brains restructured during those early years; that it is possible to overcome those negative effects, though best not to allow children to languish in such situations long; that there are solutions to youth violence and the disjointed child welfare system; that there are serious people doing important work in every field imaginable, many of them more guided by a desire to make the world a better place than the want to make the next buck.

It was obvious in all the classes I took - at the divinity school, Harvard law, the graduate-level education school, and the sociology department - the goal was two-fold. Students needed to show a mastery of the subject matter, and how and why the intellectual giants (and a few midgets) believed what they believed, and core concepts. Students were pressed to think critically about how they could improve upon some of that thinking or research, to either confirm or enhance what others had already discovered, or to disprove old ways of thinking that needed to be upended.

In just about every course, the professor worked hard to present opposing but legitimate points-of-view - and frequently encouraged students to challenge them and each other. That was cool. The ultimate goal seemed to be about advancing the science or thinking or the field in new and surprising ways - even if those ways cut against the grain of what the professor believed. But, again, all of it was based upon first understanding the subject, then picking it apart if you could.

All the lectures were not equal. Some were interesting just about every week; some were bland. And I must admit that I had to stop taking one course. It was, frankly, just too darn boring. I tried really hard to like it but just couldn’t. I hope to try the same subject with a different professor in the spring.

Professors’ grading methods have also come under scrutiny. I wasn’t graded the way other students were (I was a 40-year-old unofficial student, not an official full-time student), though I did write a paper the professor leading my child development course said he planned to use in future courses, meaning I get to indoctrinate Harvard students in the ways of little ole South Carolina long after I leave. The Harvard Crimson, the student-produced daily newspaper, recently reported about grade inflation and showed the typical grade at Harvard is either an A- or an A.

Yes, there are smart students here and I was impressed by many of them.

But, no, an average grade that high makes little sense.

Harvard’s strength is not just its reputation. The university has people from all walks of life doing incredible, cutting edge work in every field imaginable, which is made possible because of the resources available and because so many people from the top of their fields are eager to come here. That’s where its real power lies. I attended courses with people working in the CIA and FBI, and top military officers, and business owners, and foster moms who had taken in dozen of at-risk kids, and was able to attend events with Supreme Court justices.

It is a stimulating place because of the people you bump into and have access to. One day I was walking across campus and ran into the famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz shortly after passing a gaggle of monks.

But that doesn’t mean I believe Harvard is the only place where great things are going on or great people reside. It’s not. I know many students and professors and staff members at Davidson College, where I graduated in 1995, and Coastal Carolina University, where I taught a journalism course for a few years, who are just as impressive as anyone I’ve met at Harvard. That includes students and professors, current and former, who share my worldview, and those with whom I vehemently disagree. (I feel the same way about spending so much time with 23 world class journalists in this year’s Nieman class. They are all incredible, but I work with impressive journalists at The Sun News, too, who might not realize just how excellent they are and are often underappreciated by Myrtle Beach and Grand Strand residents.)

It is a privilege to get to check out Harvard for a year. But it has also been a privilege to be associated with institutions such as Davidson and Coastal Carolina. Harvard does education well for a variety of reasons. That should be noted. But I haven’t lost sight of what I learned “down South,” either.

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