Cambridge, Mass. — Talking with Harvard students reveals a broad self-confidence -- which seems fitting for a group that proudly labels itself not just prelaw or premed, but "pre-power."
"Balance is a popular term today," Harvard senior Betsy Rowe explained. "We're meant to be well-balanced individuals, we've all got to be balanced in our relationships, and even have balanced running shoes."
But she and half a dozen classmates discussing the question of political balance in the classroom didn't see it as a problem -- because they feel they are mature enough to handle whatever bias may arise in their courses.
Robert Coles, a Harvard professor and author of the "Children of Crisis" series and many other books, is not so sure.
Students flock to Coles courses -- such as "Social Science 33, Moral and Social Inquiry," which combines lectures with long seminar discussions and film showings to lead 400 eager young men and women through such social observers as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, James Agee, George Orwell, Kierkegaard, and Georges Bernanos.
Sitting guru-style on the edge of a vast auditorium stage, wired for amplification and taping, the lean Dr. Coles looks and sounds like a deeply committed country preacher. Students make fun of the style -- and tag the course "Guilt 33." But they also follow his words closely and seriously.
Looking through one of his books shows just how much he has thought about the problem of influencing students. In his study of novelist Walker Percy, the professor warns against surrendering "to any glib expert or teacher who happens to come our way with a promise of this or that: maturity, happiness a political or social paradise."
He writes that "as students come to terms with something called a 'curriculum ,' they become consumers, tourists of sorts: They go from one scene (called a 'course') to another, and they are constantly told what to think, what to say, what is the 'right' answer to the 'right' question."
So in his lectures Dr. Coles flies a thousand kites in different directions. He tells tales on himself. As a young psychiatrist he worked with blacks in the South, trying to understand their reactions -- why they didn't seem to show the same fear he felt, even as a white, when white Southerners attacked. Now he tells his students that "nothing in my clinical education and superior training had prepared me to understand this."
The message is that students shouldn't think that a Harvard education unlocks allm doors. The message is that the world is wonderfully complex -- and that the whites who went to "help" in Mississippi had more to learn from the poor blacks than they had to give. The message is that the student today must undertake the same humbling search -- and can begin by realizing that he or she doesn't have all the answers and often will face situations that defy answers.