This is the text of an address I gave (by Zoom) to a symposium on Service Learning organized by the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong. Attendees were scattered all over the world and were affiliated with universities throughout Asia and beyond. A video recording of my talk is posted here.
Learning as Service
Address to PolyU HK Service Learning Program
Good afternoon! I am so happy to be joining you today. I only wish I could be with you in person. I greatly miss the regular trips I used to take to Hong Kong and to the Chinese mainland, talking to people in the great universities I visited, including Hong Kong Poly. The hospitality was always wonderful, the food was always excellent. And more importantly, it made me feel part of the world’s academic society. When Grace invited me to give this address, we quickly found an unexpected way in which we are related academically—her PhD advisor was my undergraduate advisee.
But even academics who share no family ties like that are related in ways that other professionals aren’t. When the Harvard students get their degrees at Commencement every spring, the president uses a phrase that always sticks in my mind. The new graduates are welcomed “to the ancient and universal company of scholars.” Nothing like that is said of medical doctors or lawyers. The universal company of scholars. It is global and it is timeless. You are part of that universal company too. And the main purpose of my address today is to talk to you about what that means.
Now we are here together, only virtually alas, because you are part of a special branch of that company. You are engaged in service learning. What does that mean? It means you—and I am going to address my remarks to the teachers and scholars among you, though my message is for the students too—you service learning faculty are expanding education by teaching your students how to learn by helping other people, by being of service to them. You are teaching your students how to learn what it means to learn while being of service to others. You and your students are helping people help themselves, showing them how to electrify their houses or design their clothing or care for their elders. And your university includes this special kind of learning in the curriculum in the hope that your students will not just be of service to the people you are helping, but that they will develop the habit of helping others, that service will become part of what they take away from their university education. That they will keep doing it long after they earn their degrees. Your university hopes students will continue to be of service in the same way that it hopes graduates will engage in critical thinking, rational analysis, and persuasive argumentation long after they have stopped using those skills in their university courses, where of course their use is expected.
Now I am a Harvard man through and through. I have never left the place really since I was 17 years old, except for a couple of years when I was in national service. I love the place. It has its problems and its history is far from flawless, and I have written about those things. But it’s a wonderful place and it’s given a lot to the world. One of those things, it turns out, is the idea of organized national service of a kind that was not military service. That was first laid out in a 1906 address by William James. James was a Harvard philosophy professor who is generally regarded as one of the founders of the science of psychology. He gave that address at Stanford University, and it was called “The Moral Equivalent of War.” There is a lot wrong with that speech, as we read it more than a hundred years later. James was a pacifist, and among the spectacularly incorrect things in his speech was his belief that war was coming to an end. He thought that men might not have enough worthy things to do in a world of perpetual peace. As it was, World War I started only 5 years later, and that was hardly the last war either, so that premise was badly wrong. In any case, James thought there should be some activity in which the youth of the world could more morally invest the energy and pride that had up to then been invested exclusively in warfare. Here is what he proposed (and I am quoting from him directly):
There is nothing to make one indignant in the mere fact that life is hard, that men should toil and suffer pain. … But that so many men, by mere accidents of birth and opportunity, should have a life of nothing else but toil and pain and hardness and inferiority imposed upon them, should have no vacation, while others natively no more deserving never get any taste of this … life at all, -- this is capable of arousing indignation in reflective minds. … If now -- and this is my idea -- there were … [an] army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out …
Let me just interject here that the idea of a “war against nature” sounds pretty jarring in this time of environmental degradation and climate change, when we are much more interested in protecting nature than conquering it. But what James meant was the notion that misery was the natural and permanent state of humankind, that is what he wanted to go to war against. He goes on:
[T]he luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.
End if quote. It was in universities where this idea was picked up and developed over the past century and more. You are part of that tradition, and you are today at work instilling “healthier sympathies and soberer ideas” in your students.
So service learning is different from classroom learning. Service learning happens out in the field, in direct contact with the people you are trying to help. The other kind of learning happens in classrooms and laboratories. Though of course what I am calling classroom learning also happens in the occasional academic bubble in the field, at an arctic research station or an archaeological dig. But those are really just university classrooms located somewhere other than the main campus.
Of course there is more to service learning it than where it happens. Service learning is about students helping other people. And that means that regular classroom learning must be the opposite somehow. So if service learning is about students helping others, then classroom learning is about … what? Students helping themselves?
Well, that is certainly the way we often think about it. The US government puts out charts. With titles like “Education pays,” showing how much more money educated people will make in a lifetime depending on how many years of higher education they have. There is certainly a big economic advantage to getting an education. So people get an education out of economic self-interest. And societies invest in higher education in part because the economic self-interest of individuals adds up to create social upward mobility for whole populations. An economically progressive society needs an educated population. For example, the world needs more wordsmiths and code-smiths than ironsmiths today.
This is all true, and yet there is something quite wrong about the picture of a university education as a sort of fusion of two different halves, classroom learning and service learning. Education is not some kind of bimetal strip, one side devoted to an obligation to help other people and the other side devoted to helping ourselves. Now that’s a terrible analogy, but it is actually interesting to think about. When heated, a bimetal strip bends one way only. In the real world, the incentive for financial gain, or at least security, is likely to overwhelm the pull toward more charitable efforts. I am sure you have heard students say exactly this in so many words, I know I have: “That good works stuff, I’ll get back to that later. Right now I need to figure out how to make a good living, how to support a family. Once I’ve done that, I’ll have the time and resources to do some good in the world. But not yet.”
Now I want to be careful about ridiculing that sort of student. I certainly have known some who were not distinguished by their altruism when they were undergraduates but who have gone on to become major philanthropists later in life. Bill Gates, for example. When he wasn’t coding he was mostly playing poker, as far as I can recall, and now he really is saving lives at a global scale, and doing a remarkable job at it. But he’s an exception. For most students, the habits and attitudes they learn as undergraduates stick with them, perhaps in some modified form, for the rest of their lives.
And one of those bad habits you can get into at university (you the student, I mean) is to think on a short time scale. To try to optimize for the short run without regard to where you are going in the long run. To think you can remake yourself into a better person later on even if you don’t try to be a better person right now. In the same vein, I have heard students say that they intend to become more honest in the long run, once they are successful and financially secure, but right now they have to cheat to get ahead because everyone else is cheating. Somehow I don’t think they are going to become more honest later on if they are successful at cheating while they are young!
Let me say a few more words about time scales. The great thing about service learning is that it gets students to confront the world’s ills as they really are. But success in opening students’ eyes to the present can, if we are not careful, blind them to the future. I have an anecdote to explain that—I am quoting here from a Carnegie Foundation report:
A student volunteering at a soup kitchen . . . very much enjoyed the experience and felt that it had made him a better person. Without thinking through the implications of his statement, he said, “I hope it is still around when my children are in college, so they can work here too.”
There are various ways to describe what went wrong with this person. Put most simply, the student has been made to confront the plight of his fellow human beings, and to feel empathetic. But he has failed to understand that the point of the exercise was not just to develop his empathy and not just to respond in the moment, to the here and now. Service learning is part of this student’s education, but that education is not just about him and the way it makes him feel today. Somewhat more abstractly, one could say that this student hasn’t come to grips with the time scales on which various human interventions can operate. That the solution to the problem of hunger is not to build more soup kitchens, nor better ones, nor more permanent ones. But most importantly, I would say, the student has lost sight of his civic responsibilities as he has personalized his soup-kitchen experience. He has lost sight, or never understood, the opportunity he has as an educated person to make a larger difference in the world, in the longer run, through civic leadership and political action and support of education itself.
Now I am sure you already knew that we should not let students think that their education is mostly about their personal success. It’s wrongheaded for lots of reasons, but to start with it’s setting them up for a midlife crisis some years in the future, when they have been successful and can’t figure out why they suddenly feel empty. How it came to pass that they have made a life that feels meaningless, lacking in purpose or even coherence. It is our obligation as educators to get our students to get into the habit of asking themselves why they are getting an education in the first place. That is key to having their education be the basis for a productive, satisfying, and meaningful life, no matter how successful we can help them make it for the short run. Of course we too are guilty of encouraging temporal myopia. We set up degree requirements as checklists, and students dutifully focus on getting the boxes all checked off. But even if we can impose enough rules and regulations on them that they never think about the why at all, and just think that their only job is to check the boxes unquestioningly, we can’t control what they will think of all that the day after they graduate, or a decade later. Then their doubts and misgivings are very likely to emerge too late for their education to help resolve them. While we have their attention, we have to give them a deeper sense of what education is about. So let’s turn to that.
I want to start with something written about the reasons for getting an education way back in 1620, at the very dawn of the European Enlightenment, by Francis Bacon. In English it’s a bit antiquated in its diction, but except for that, every word of it could have been written yesterday. Here goes:
Men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of the gift of reason to the benefit and use of man.
Yes, now just as then, those who love learning do it for fun, or to show off how smart and clever they are, and most often to make money at it. But seldom to give a true account of the gift of reason—that’s a phrase that’s invoked when Harvard presidents are inaugurated—“for the benefit and use of man.” All learning is learning for the benefit and use of humankind, in the short run or the long run. Our work as scholars and educators is in service of that mission.
I sketched a caricature of a university education, an education which is partly or mainly about making the student more able to earn a living, bonded to a thin layer of education about helping other people. This caricature utterly misstates what education is about—which is giving a true account of the gift of reason, whatever that means. So let’s get concrete.
An education, in fact the very idea of a university, is about two things, and they aren’t the self and others. Universities are about, on the one hand, preserving and transmitting the past, and on the other hand about creating the future, hopefully a future that is better than the present.
On the one hand, there are products of civilization which, if let go for a generation, could completely disappear from the face of the earth. How to read hieroglyphics, for example—that was handed down for thousands of years in Egypt, and then there was a last generation that could read them, and then nothing for several thousand years more. The art was reconstructed with great effort a couple of centuries ago, but if someone were to shut down all the world’s Egyptology departments, wipe out every memory of what those hieroglyphs mean, then that knowledge would be lost again, perhaps forever this time.
There are those in the US who think that the idea of human freedom and the rule of law are similarly imperiled institutions—that we will forget that the law is, as the Harvard president says when conferring degrees on graduates of the Law School, “wise restraints that make us free.” Universities are the places where our history, our culture, our wisdom such as we possess it, are carried forward. The fact is that many aspects of human culture, many parts of human memory, are hanging by a thread with us. And if we don’t carry that memory forward it will be lost. That is why we teach.
But universities are also in the futures business. I mean the inventions and discoveries and new knowledge we create to make the future better than the past and the present. We are in the business of creating human progress. That is why research goes hand in hand with teaching in universities. They are two vectors pointed in the same direction. We professors are at the head of one arrow and the tail of the other.
It is my own view that in American universities, for various reasons, the teaching role has become unhappily subordinated to the research role. The creation of the future is what earns the big rewards, especially in departments of science and engineering. The past seems not so important if you are convinced that your main job is to make a better future. But “The past is never dead,” as the great American novelist William Faulkner wrote; “It's not even past.” You can’t understand your own future if you don’t understand our collective past.
Hong Kong universities are based on an amalgam of British and American systems, but this duality is best understood in American terms. From the very beginning, American universities served these dual purposes of preserving civilization -- receiving it and passing it on -- and creating the future, through scholarship and research. Here are words about the founding of Harvard College from “New England’s First Fruits”, published in 1643, just seven years after the founding of Harvard, the oldest of the American universities. These words are inscribed on a tablet mounted just inside the main gate to Harvard Yard; do pause and read them if you have the good fortune to visit us in Cambridge. Here is how those settlers described the reason for founding Harvard.
AFTER GOD HAD carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship, and led the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.
Now that is a remarkable passage. First of all, it suggests that it was rather an obvious thing to start a college; it was just something you had to do when you settled a wilderness, after building your houses, churches, and basic structures of survival and government. Then there are the dual purposes of advancing learning and perpetuating it, that is, advancing and preserving knowledge, looking forward and looking back. And then there is the explicit vocational education note. The college was not built to be an ivory tower where scholars could talk to each other. It was built because there were no guarantees that any more ships would be arriving from England with replacement ministers on board. The colonists were on their own, and they needed to create an institution that would serve their needs. It might be a mistake to credit those devout and Godfearing Puritans with much respect for the gift of reason, as they set up camp in the New England wilderness only a few years after Bacon had written the lines I quoted. But the Puritans certainly understood that learning was “for the benefit and use of man.”
That was all very different from the way Oxford and Cambridge saw themselves, and that is why Harvard, to this day, is organized as a corporation with lay governors, not professors that is, in ultimate control of the place. The lay boards still represent the public interest. The professors later got academic freedom, but not the right to run the place. Virtually every American university followed something like this model, with the public interest at the top of the organization chart. That students should be expected to be of service, in one way or another, is very natural in this structure. In fact, while Harvard’s motto is just the Latin word for Truth, Princeton’s is “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”
To this day many faculty tend not to understand their obligation to society, and the basis for the tax exemptions American universities receive, and so on. Their confusion is the result of a persistent misunderstanding that American universities are modeled on our British forebears, which really were self-organized aggregates of professors. The historian Bernard Bailyn wrote a wonderful piece about this years ago, in which he quoted from a letter Bertrand Russell wrote after visiting the University of Wisconsin in the early years of the 20th century. “Whenever some farmer’s turnips go wrong,” Russell wrote, “they send a professor to investigate the failure scientifically.” He was bewildered that in a place so sensitive to taxpayers’ needs, they would want to pay him to lecture on the foundations of mathematics. He did not understand that the American university always has been about both cultural and intellectual inheritance and about creating the future. And about solving the problems the local farmers were having with their crops as well as delving into the absolute truths of pure mathematics.
Now the relative indifference to education in many great universities, by comparison to research, happened because teaching is fundamentally a preservationist activity, and research is a futurist activity. And the resulting general lack of educational coherence results from the lack of any serious commitment to the famous aphorism of Harvard’s George Santayana: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is as though we think understanding the present suffices for the future, since, after all, everything that can change the future is already baked into the state of the world as it is today. If you think the future can be predicted from the present, why would you need to understand the past?
Now finally I can get to my main point. You who are active in service learning are doing important work, not just for your students and for the communities they are serving, but for the world at large. And yet, you are not alone among teachers and scholars in that regard. All learning is a form of service. Teachers, researchers, and scholars are preserving civilization and trying to improve it, one student and one academic work at a time. Students are not just making a better life for themselves; they are reflecting on the fate of humanity, why life is worth living at all, and how they can contribute to the lives of others. In service learning you are making sure that students confront the present, the actual lives of actual human beings, as they actually are. And that is important.
But sometimes consolidating the past, confronting the present, and imagining a better future require solitude, rather than human interactions. In fact, I think that our extreme degree of technological connectedness works against our efforts to get students to think deeply about themselves and their place in the world. It is hard, for example, to explore your identity by reading a novel and imagining what it would be like to be a different kind of person, to think their thoughts and have their ambitions and experience their loves, if your cell phone is bing-ing every ten seconds with urgent messages from Sam and Josie and Mary. Sometimes you need to get away from the present to imagine the future.
Every scholar is a service professional. We are all in our roles in service of civilization itself, its preservation, perpetuation, and improvement. It is a privilege to be in this role, though there are surely days when it feels like a form of personal sacrifice that our society does not value enough, or even disparages. I know this well in the US, where expertise has in the past few years been an object of suspicion and resentment. But each of us who is involved in conveying the truth to our intellectual heirs and adding new knowledge to the storehouse, even microscopically, experiences a feeling of intrinsic worth that those cannot experience who make money one day and lose it the next. And the thing about knowledge, unlike money, is that it comes in infinite variety, and can’t easily be quantified. A contribution to knowledge may look small today, or beautiful but completely useless. But a generation from now it may be the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the key needed to unlock some mystery.
It has happened over and over again. The basic research that made it possible to quickly produce MRNA vaccines started a decade ago with no such concrete objective. Or to take an example from my own field, the mathematician G. H. Hardy proudly declared that number theory was useless; the reason he was proud of that was that he thought that meant it could, in particular, never find military application. Go forward a couple generations and all of computer security is built on some of those beautiful phenomena about the properties of whole numbers. We don’t know what we’ve got when we get it, another generation has to come along to make our meager contributions to human knowledge into something really important. We have to take joy in learning for its own sake, not because we think it will never be useful; we don’t know. But the whole mountain of knowledge to which we are contributing our grains of sand will, we believe, serve humanity well in the long run. We strain to preserve civilization because we see ourselves as part of a great chain of learning. The playwright Tom Stoppard described that chain in his play Arcadia. One character is trying to reassure another that nothing that has happened or been thought is ever lost. “We shed as we pick up,” says the character, “like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march, so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up, piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.” That Stoppard vision is all true, but only if we all do our part.
And don’t forget that beautiful things of no immediate practical application, poems and artworks and musical compositions, are useful too, if they inspire others or help them understand their place in the world. Even when no one cares about our work, or when it meets resistance and hostility and we are afraid to pursue it, we follow beauty and truth because that pursuit is a service to posterity, and we are in it for the long run. As Francis Bacon also wrote, “Truth is the daughter, not of authority, but time.” It takes patience and confidence to know that truth will win out, if we do our part to develop and defend it.
Students too, are part of the future, and every teacher is a service professional too. You are performing a service to them though your mentorship, your demands, your kindness. It is hard to remember on a day to day basis, when you have too many papers to mark, and your students are making too many petty complaints and requests. But after more than 45 years of teaching, I am far less impressed by what I did for my most famous students than by what the ones I don’t even remember tell me that I did for them. And also what other students say their professors did that they have never forgotten for all the wrong reasons. I once met a middle-aged gay couple at an event, and apparently one of them had taken my introductory CS theory course when he was an undergraduate. He wanted me to know that when I went off my lesson plan (and I certainly did that a lot!) and told the tragic story of the life and death of Alan Turing, the forefather of computer science, that was the first time he felt at home at Harvard. And on the other hand, I once took a very successful graduate to lunch and across the room I noticed a faculty colleague she probably would have known. I offered to take her over to say hello, and she quickly declined. “That last time I saw him was to ask for a recommendation to graduate school,” she said. “He told me that if he wrote one, it wouldn’t be worth the postage it would take to mail it.” She never forgot that petty slight, almost fifty years later. Our small words matter, and like the words of ministers and priests, small comments can be influential and unforgettable. We can’t measure our worth in quantitative terms here either. All we can do is to be kind to our students, in confidence that our small kindnesses will propagate downstream.
Now I have just two more points to make. First, I have said that learning is a service profession, but what I have called classroom learning, both scholarship and the direct instruction of students, is different from other service vocations in one particular way. It is highly competitive. Professors compete to write the best books and to make the best scientific discoveries; universities compete to build the best laboratories and to attract the best scholars; students compete for admission to the best universities and to gain the top marks once they have matriculated. Nurses and clerics don’t compete like that; we expect them to be 100% altruistic all the time and never think about themselves.
As in any marketplace, competition in universities improves quality, but it can distort the perspective of the individual participant. Because its goal is to improve society as a whole, education is not a zero-sum market; victory for one party today need not mean loss for another or for the future. That is why cheating is so disappointing in higher education, whether by students or by faculty; there is always more to learn, a student who is a little worse at one subject can be a little better at another, a professor can find many ways to be valuable to her students without being the best in her field. Service learning is generally a relief from the competitive aspects of academic life, an opportunity for students to see themselves in purely altruistic terms and not as conquerors of anything. This particular form of complementarity between classroom learning and service learning is healthy for students and faculty alike.
But I must pause to note that this is not at all what William James had in mind. When he spoke of the moral equivalent of war, he really did mean that national service to improve the lot of the less fortunate would excite the same competitive, conquering spirit as military training did and still does. With a properly conceived service program, he thought (and here I quote him directly),
We should get toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary, and threatens not, as now, to degrade the whole remainder of one’s life. I spoke of the “moral equivalent” of war. So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, an until and equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way. But I have no serious doubt that the ordinary prides and shames of social man, once developed to a certain intensity, are capable of organizing such a moral equivalent as I have sketched, or some other just as effective for preserving manliness of type. It is but a question of time, of skillful propagandism, and of opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities.
I really do wonder what you think about that. Is anything like that within your service learning experience, or in your imagination? (James really did think that, like military service, this form of national service would be just for men.)
Finally, I’d like to strike a different note. Service learning is about developing human empathy and learning how to act on it. It is about our interconnections, and I began this talk by offering some collegiality with you all, as fellow members of the ancient and universal company of scholars. But I also put in a word for disconnection too, you will recall. That it is impossible for young persons to explore alternative identities and to discover their true self if they are constantly tied to the here and now, constantly recalibrating themselves against the expectations of their peers and authority figures. So I also want to put in a word for loneliness, for eccentricity, for feeling out of place. Maybe you, or your student, really are that one person trying to keep alive the meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, or any number of other unpopular or disparaged subjects other people think you really should not be studying. The mark of a great university and of a great society is that those lonely thinkers and students and scholars have a place within it. William James wrote another remarkable piece in 1903, less well known than “The Moral Equivalent of War.” It’s called “The True Harvard,” and it’s a paean to Harvard’s way of sheltering oddballs and freethinkers, but please hear it as a hopeful description of any great university. “The men I speak of,” he said,
and for whom I speak to-day, are [Harvard’s] true missionaries and carry its gospel into infidel parts. When they come to Harvard, …. It is because they have heard of her persistently atomistic constitution, of her tolerance of exceptionality and eccentricity, of her devotion to the principles of individual vocation and choice. It is because you cannot make single one-ideaed regiments of her classes. It is because she cherishes so many vital ideals, yet makes a scale of value among them. … The true Harvard is the invisible Harvard in the souls of her more truth-seeking and independent and often very solitary sons. Thoughts are the precious seeds of which our universities should be the botanical gardens. Beware when God lets loose a thinker on the world— either Carlyle or Emerson said that— for all things then have to rearrange themselves. But the thinkers in their youth are almost always very lonely creatures. The university most worthy of rational admiration is that one in which your lonely thinker can feel himself least lonely, most positively furthered, and most richly fed. Here they find the climate so propitious that they can be happy in their very solitude. The day when Harvard shall stamp a single hard and fast type of character upon her children, will be that of her downfall. Our undisciplinables are our proudest product. Let us agree together in hoping that the output of them will never cease.
In my own teaching career, I have always hoped to live up to that standard, rather than seeing every nonconformist as a protruding nail to be hammered flat.
Thank you for listening to me today. I hope I have given you some things to think about. Being scholar or professor or teacher in a university can be lonely work, and frustrating as we combat the forces arrayed against us. Remember that the service you are providing to your students, to the pursuit of knowledge, and to posterity, is part of what you are doing in service learning, but also what you do in the classroom is in service of the same ultimate ends. In all aspects of your academic life, you are engaged in a single noble activity. All your teaching and all your scholarship is in service to the preservation and improvement of human civilization. You should be proud to be able to reconcile your ambitions with your disappointments in your daily work “for the benefit and use of man.”