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    Positive Thinking


    In Moral Reasoning 22: “Justice,” government professor Michael Sandel asks undergraduates the “big questions.” Outside of this class, however, few Harvard students are ever asked to ponder the personal implications of the answers to life’s toughest and most general queries. Following studies by education professor Richard J. Light, it seems that now Harvard undergraduates—at least those from the Class of 2011—will have another chance to tackle these “big questions.” Following many interviews and surveys of graduating Harvard seniors, Light concluded that while most students were pleased with their college experience, one thing that they felt they lacked was an outlet for general reflection; more specifically, a venue to examine how their morals and ideals fit into their lives at Harvard.

    Light has now taken his findings and—along with Dean of Freshman Thomas Dingman ’67—spearheaded the introduction of freshman discussion panels. In these small groups, first-year students can talk in an intimate setting about issues that stretch beyond academics. Of course, these panels will not immediately absolve any students from their problems, or give concrete answers to such questions as “what does leading a good life mean?” That would be expecting too much out of a program that—even past its pilot stages—will be incapable of providing students with solutions to existential quandaries. Pursuing these ends, however, is in itself a salutary practice and can be helpful as a starting point for further introspection.

    The involved faculty should be commended firstly for being interested in the mental health of its students, and even more so for following up on its discoveries and attempting to alter the trends they witnessed. Harvard can certainly be a pressured-filled climate, especially for freshmen not yet acclimated to it. The faculty’s recognition of this problem is important, and their offering of a time for students to mentally slow down will surely benefit those students who choose to participate.

    Perhaps the greatest strength of this program is that it provides therapeutic benefits while retaining a dissimilar nature from therapy itself. For better or for worse, the idea of traditional one-on-one counseling or therapy is not welcomed by many Harvard students, and seeking counseling unfortunately holds a stigma among many undergraduates. Students should be helped to understand that self-reflection is not limited to the stereotypical vision of a patient lying on a couch while a doctor looms in the corner taking notes. Encouraging engagement with profound questions in a group setting will lend legitimacy to students’ moral queries and create an intellectually-charged forum for introspection.

    The benefit that these groups could have on students will not only be the generation of a sense of community among peers, but more importantly, the formation of a moral identity for each student. With too many students focusing on the bottom line, GPAs, test scores, job offers, and extracurricular activities, adding a broader perspective of why students attend college or earn a degree will only make them appreciate more the position in which they find themselves. A journey with a destination is much easier to navigate than one without, and with this program in place students will be ushered along a more purposeful track.

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