Longfellow’s tomb

Life (and death) brought me back to Mount Auburn Cemetery the other day, so I can now include a personal photo of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s tomb, in place of the one I included in this post:

2015-09-17 12.15.18

(A sprinkler is at work in front of the tomb.)

As a special bonus, here is the more modest gravestone of the nineteenth-century American historian Francis Parkman, buried right down the street from Longfellow:


Parkman’s uncle George was the victim in a celebrated murder case chronicled in the documentary Murder at Harvard.

America has run out of miracles, and we know who to blame

When Harvard’s basketball team unexpectedly won its first-round game in the NCAA tournament, the Harvard Lampoon sent out this apologetic tweet:

“Everything else” apparently includes the lack of miracles in modern America.  Here is Pat Robertson:

Why do miracles “happen with great frequency in Africa, and not here in the USA?” asked a 700 Club patron Ken. “People overseas didn’t go to Ivy League schools,” Robertson replied with a chuckle.

“We are so sophisticated, we think we’ve got everything figured out,” the Christian Broadcasting Network chairman continued. “We know about evolution, we know about Darwin, we know about all these things that says God isn’t real, we know about all this stuff.”

According to Robertson, it’s the “skepticism and secularism” that is being taught at “the most advanced schools” around the country that is keeping God’s miracles at bay.

Meanwhile, Africans are “simple” and “humble.” “You tell ‘em God loves ‘em and they say, ‘Okay, he loves me’,” said Robertson. “You say God will do miracles and they say, ‘Okay, we believe him’.”

If Harvard and those other snooty places had only disappeared, maybe we’d be seeing Florida Gulf Coast in the Final Four.

Should Oprah speak at Harvard’s commencement? Should anyone?

Oprah Winfrey has been chosen as the speaker at this year’s Harvard commencement.  This has raised a small ruckus.  Here is Harry Lewis, a Harvard professor and former dean of the college, in a bit of a snit:

I am sure she is an inspiration, though I can’t quite get out of my mind the image of her with the wheelbarrow full of fat. The car giveaways and so on. She has given away a ton of money for good causes, to be sure.

And I suppose we will again have some noble, courageous, self-sacrificing folks also receiving honorary degrees as they sit listening in polite silence to the self-promoting, wealthy television celebrity.

Is that what the stage once occupied by Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Ralph Ellison, John F. Kennedy, U Thant, Vaclav Havel, Alan Paton, Benazir Bhutto, Mary Robinson, and David Souter is going to be used for in the future?

But in a later post he makes a more substantive point, noting that Oprah is a major purveyor of pseudo-science and quackery:

It seems very odd for Harvard to honor such a high profile popularizer of the irrational. I can’t square this in my mind, at a time when political and religious nonsense so imperil the rule of reason in this allegedly enlightened democracy and around the world.

He also provides a link to a list of past commencement day speakers.  Perusing this list, I started wondering why the heck Harvard has a commencement speaker at all.  At lesser institutions the speaker probably gives the school a bit of publicity, but Harvard doesn’t need publicity.  Sometimes I suppose an institution gives the speaking slot to a top contributor, but Harvard clearly doesn’t do that.  So why do they bother? It’s not like anyone cares about what Oprah or Fareed Zakaria (last year’s speaker, also a dubious choice) or Ellen Sirleaf (president of Liberia and the speaker two years ago) has to say.  Certainly not when all anyone wants to do is get out of the heat and go party.

And it’s also not like Harvard’s choices have been uniformly good in the past.  Lewis admits he cherry-picked that list of his, with Churchill and Marshall and Kennedy on it.  The complete list is filled with the names of forgotten politicians and diplomats and industrialists.  Harvard seems particularly fond of bringing in presidents and chancellors of Germany.  What’s up with that?  My year we listened to the immortal Roy Harris Jenkins, who is described as “former deputy leader of Britain’s Labor Party.”  I’m sure if I hadn’t been hung over I’d have remembered every word he said.

Harvard should just get rid of the commencement speaker altogether.  Then it can say that no one meets its high standards.  Which would probably be true.

“Hope Springs” and the most exciting football game ever played

I went to watch Hope Springs the other day.  Meh.  It has three A-list stars (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carrell) doing the best they can with a C-list script.  Maybe B-minus.  But it, and the beginning of the football season, reminded me of the most exciting football game ever played.

The game took place on November 23, 1968.  Harvard and Yale were playing for the Ivy League title at a standing-room-only Harvard Stadium.  Both teams were undefeated, but Yale, featuring players like Calvin Hill (who later played for the Dallas Cowboys) was a big favorite.  Yale raced to a 22-0 lead, and led 29-13 with 42 seconds left.  Then Harvard scored a touchdown, and of course went for the two-point conversion.  They made it — down by eight.  As expected, an on-side kick.  Harvard recovered.  Another touchdown with no time remaining.  A two-point conversion — a pass to the tight end, Pete Varney (number 80)!  Final score: Harvard 29, Yale 29.

The Harvard Crimson immortalized the game with this headline:

I was at that game along with my lovely girlfriend (now my lovely wife), standing at the top of the stadium overlooking the end zone at the closed end of the stadium, where all the action took place at the end of the game.  It doesn’t get any better than that/

Tommy Lee Jones was there too, playing on Harvard’s offensive line.

Four years ago Kevin Rafferty released a documentary about that game, fittingly titled Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.  It is fabulous (the New York Times reviewer called it “preposterously entertaining”).  When the movie first came out I it at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square with a friend who had watched the game from the Yale side of the field; that was the right place to see it, but you can, and should, stream it from Netflix.

The movie goes back and forth between the broadcast video of the game (a local production featuring the beloved Boston sportscaster Don Gillis) and interviews with players on both teams.  You start by thinking it’s just going to be an exercise in nostalgia, but by the end it has become way more than that, as all these successful men reflect, with a mixture of humor and regret and wonder, on those unforgettable hours in their lives so long ago.  Some of them (uniformly on the Yale side) turn out to have been pricks back then, and they’re still pricks now. Others seem are funny and, yeah, lovable.

Jones is interviewed, and he is terribly serious as he reflects on what it was like to be out there on the field as the tension mounted at the end of the game, and you realized how critical it was not to make a mistake.  One Yale player sheepishly reflects on his one claim to fame back then–for a while he dated a Vassar undergraduate named Meryl Streep.  (And that’s where I made the connection between Hope Springs and The Game.)

There are other connections with famous people.  A Yale player had been George W. Bush’s roommate (the filmmaker himself is Bush’s cousin).  Famously, Jones’s roommate at Harvard was Al Gore.  The Yale quarterback, Brian Dowling, was the prototype for the character B.D. in Doonesbury; Gary Trudeau started a version of the comic strip when he was at Yale.

But the connections aren’t what matter.  What matters are the people.  And The Game.

Thoughts on the Harvard cheating scandal

This blog seems to be turning into a real-time ethics course.  What are we to make of the Harvard cheating scandal?

When news of the scandal broke on Friday, there was much wringing of hands and clutching of pearls, along with a lot of schadenfreude. Here‘s one typical response. My initial thoughts were:

  • There’s got to be more to this story.
  • The professor was probably an idiot.

I can easily imagine Harvard pre-med students cheating on some important required course like Organic Chemistry (if Orgo gave them the opportunity, which I doubt it does). And they shouldn’t do that! But no Harvard student would have to cheat on a well-run intro Gov course, and there should be no incentive to.  And so today some of the complexities have started coming out.

Students said they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected.

Here are the rules for the exam:

But the instructions on the exam said students should consider it “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” The professor had encouraged students to collaborate in their other course work.

A lawyer could drive a truck through that “etc.”.  Also:

Instructions on the final exam said, “students may not discuss the exam with others.” Students said that consulting with the fellows on exams was commonplace, that the [teaching] fellows generally did not turn students away, and that the fellows did not always understand the questions, either.

One student recalled going to a teaching fellow while working on the final exam and finding a crowd of others there, asking about a test question that hinged on an unfamiliar term. The student said the fellow defined the term for them.

The impression the articles give is that this had been an exceptionally easy course for years, the professor was trying to tighten it up, and he went about it the wrong way, by creating a confusing test with confusing rules.  And the result was chaos.

How does Harvard clean up a mess like this? They’ve got to say the right things about not tolerating cheating and upholding the ideals of the university and blah blah blah.  But if they really try to punish those students, they’re in for a fight, as well as for a ton of bad publicity.  I’ve got to imagine that a bunch of the students have parents who can afford high-powered lawyers, or who are high-powered lawyers themselves.

[Students] face the possibility of a one-year suspension from Harvard or revocation of their diplomas if they have already graduated, and some said that they will sue the university if any serious punishment is meted out.

Remind me never to become a university president; it’s not worth the hassle.  Drew Gilpin Faust will probably appoint a faculty commission to look at standards for take-home exams and what-not. But I’ll be very surprised if any of those students get anything more than a warning to go forth and sin no more.  And, based on what we know so far, that’s about all the punishment they deserve.  This isn’t a plagiarism scandal; it’s a bad teaching scandal.

Free Will and the Immigration Debate

I keep meaning to post about free will.  Everybody loves posts about free will!   Obama’s recent decision about immigration finally prompted me to come up with something.  So this is about politics as much as it’s about free will.

I have never really understood free will.  Where does this freedom come from, if we don’t postulate a soul or some other non-material entity that has no basis in science?  If everything is deterministic (except for some stuff down at the quantum level), where does the freedom come from?  I’ve read Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, and I don’t really get it.  It seems to me that he comes up with a kind of free will by redefining what free will means away from what everyone thinks it means.

So I don’t see how we can have free will. And if free will doesn’t exist, where does responsibility come from?  And similarly, where does merit come from?  In what way do we deserve what we have — or not deserve what we don’t have?

A point Michael Sandel made in his course (and book) Justice brought this home to me in a personal way.  Sandel gives the Justice course every couple of years to hundreds of Harvard students. In the course, he talks to the students about the concept of “moral desert”.  And he brings up the issue of admission to Harvard.  These kids have gotten into Harvard because they’re smart and talented.  Well, OK, there are plenty of kids who are smart and talented.  But the kids who got in worked hard and studied hard and accomplished amazing things with their talents.  Isn’t that the difference?  Well, OK, but — at this point Sandel asks for a show of hands: how many of the kids in the audience were the first-born in their families?

Every time he gives the course, an astonishing number raise their hands.  So, what do we make of this?  Being the first-born helps you get into Harvard.  But no one chooses their birth order.  He quotes John Rawls (another Harvard philosopher): “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.”

I graduated from Harvard.  Yay for me!  But I have never been able to figure out why this should say anything good (or bad) about me.  I didn’t make myself intelligent; I didn’t make myself hard-working — I just always seemed to be that way.  I wasn’t the first-born in my family, but I certainly got plenty of support and encouragement in my studies.  If I had wanted to make different choices along the way, could I have?  I have no idea.  But I suspect not — I am who I am.

This brings me, in a roundabout way, to immigration.  The immigration debate always seems to me to circle around moral desert and, ultimately, about free will and determinism.  What do we who were born in America deserve because we were born here?  Beats me.  It just seems to me that we are awfully lucky, the way I was lucky in my parents and my genes and my upbringing.  Do the immigrants who are here illegally deserve to be thrown out?  They’ve broken the law!  But the kids covered by Obama’s decision haven’t exactly broken the law — they’re just here, where life has put them.  They can no more change who they are than I can change who I am.  We can make the case that throwing them out will help the economy or reduce the need for bilingual education or whatnot– at the expense of untold human suffering, of course.  But I think that case is far from clear.

Anyway, as a reward for reading this drivel, here is the great Bonnie Raitt singing “Luck of the Draw.”  (She too attended Harvard for a while.)

Dropping the H-Bomb

The Boston Globe has a funny story today about an underappreciated problem that has caused untold human misery: the difficulty Harvard graduates have in telling people where they went to school. As the article points out, most grads don’t want to use the “H-bomb.”

When confronted with questions about their education, many elect simply for a kind of dodge, the most famous being the Boston method. “I went to school in Boston.’’ Sometimes it’s “near Boston.’’ Or perhaps even “Cambridge.’’

That almost never works.

The problem is that this bit of information about you has a high probability of distorting people’s impressions of you, typically not in a good way. So you try to avoid providing the information if you possibly can.

(My wife, who has the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein, as Henry Higgins would say, has absolutely no sympathy for the plight of the poor Harvard grad, by the way.  Nor does she spend her time worrying about beautiful women who complain that no one takes them seriously because they’re so beautiful and all.)

I’ve been lucky that I’ve lived my life in the Boston area, where graduating from Harvard is less of a big deal.  I’ve also worked at companies that employ people who are typically smarter and better educated than I am.  I recall once having to provide a short bio for a journal paper a group of us wrote about a project we had worked on.  When I read the bios of the other four people, it turned out that I had the least education of any of them, and the second fewest number of Harvard degrees.  The other folks on the project were very nice to me, however, and never brought this up.

There’s something to be said for being a regular schmoe.

Let’s all go back to school!

The big education news of the day is that Harvard and MIT are teaming up to offer free online courses.

I am a huge consumer of free online courses downloaded from iTunes University.  I have downloaded courses from Berkeley, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and other places and listened to them on my endless commute.  Some of these now come with reading lists, sample exams, and other materials, none of which I bother with. I’ve taken enough tests. Berkeley in particular provides a treasure trove of courses every semester, like John Searle teaching Philosophy of Mind and Brad DeLong teaching Intro to Economics.

I am not the target audience for edX (the Harvard/MIT venture), or Udacity, or Coursera (the Michigan/Penn/Stanford/Princeton venture).  They apparently want people to sign up, take online exams, write papers that are peer-graded or something, and get a grade, which will lead to some kind of certificate.  This is fine.  A certificate from MITx will never be the same as a degree from MIT, but it will probably be worth more than a degree from Greendale Community College.  As the Times article says:

“Projects like this can impact lives around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University, a publicly supported online Canadian university. “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

Likewise, if you wanted to learn about the Civil War, why would you sign up for some local community college overview if you could listen to David Blight’s Open Yale course, which was one of the best educational experiences of my life?

For my own selfish purposes, I hope that you’ll be able to download and audit all these new courses, and that they won’t all be on practical subjects like circuit design and computer programming.  And if that doesn’t happen, I hope Berkeley keeps doing what it’s doing.