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Undergraduates Think Big

2.19.10

At 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 11, Sanders Theatre was filled to capacity with undergraduates who were there, after a long day of classes, to attend—of all things—more lectures. But Harvard Thinks Big, an event consisting of 10 lectures of 10 minutes each, each delivered by a different professor, didn’t seem to tire anyone out. There was no one sleeping in the back, no one checking Facebook on a laptop. Instead, a level of enthusiasm usually found at rock concerts kept the audience’s attention tightly fastened upon the wide range of faculty members, from professor of comparative religion and Indian studies Diana Eck to professor of psychology Steven Pinker. “This is what I always wanted Harvard to be like,” said Arch Vamanrao '12 after the lecture, as an energetic and chattering crowd scattered from Memorial Hall into the night.

That sort of reaction thrills Peter Davis ’12, who conceptualized and planned the event. “The happiest thing wasn’t that it was a packed crowd. It was seeing people get excited about hearing ideas. I talked to this girl afterwards, and she said, ‘You go around your routine all day, and I was shocked out of it.’ … I want ideas to have a bigger role on campus.”

Davis got the idea in the fall of his freshman year. “I loved TED talks,” he explained, referring to the popular conference and online lecture series featuring innovative thinkers from industries including technology, entertainment, and design. “I thought, ‘We’re at Harvard with all these great minds around,’” and the goal of doing something similar at Harvard provided the basis for Harvard Thinks Big.

He made a video to pitch the idea and e-mailed it to President Faust’s office. The president’s office forwarded it to the Office for Student Life, where assistant dean of the College David Friedrich and fellow for campus life Sarah Sidwell helped to begin the process of realizing Davis’s vision.

Dean of the College Evelynn Hammonds introduced Harvard Thinks Big as "a first in Harvard history, where we will attempt to limit your professors to 10 minutes." Inevitably, perhaps, the event ran late. But no one seemed to mind as some of Harvard's most popular lecturers spoke on their individual "big ideas."

Psychology professor Daniel Gilbert spoke first, about the reasons why climate change has not caused more alarm. "We are the progeny of creatures for whom the greatest threat was a man with a stick," he explained. "Global warming is a deadly threat because it sneaks in under our ancient alarm system," at a pace too slow to be recognized as a danger by our brains. (Read about Gilbert's work on the psychology of happiness in the Harvard Magazine archives.)

English professor Matthew Kaiser argued, "I am convinced that every big idea has a dead boy buried in it somewhere"—in a metaphorical sense, of course. "Manhood defines itself against boyhood as much as it does against femininity…Men are constantly beating up their boy within, thereby distancing them from their flaws. The boy is a scapegoat," he posited, mixing his thoughts with a narrative of his early life as a teenage runaway.

Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, delivering a lecture called "Cooked/Raw" on the effect of cooking on the course of human evolution, noted wryly that he was concerned about the presence of a dead boy in his lecture before proceeding to explain that "cooking was necessary for, even defines humanity…The discovery of fire allowed Australopithecus to cook, and so to become Homo erectus."(Read about Wrangham's research in the magazine archives.)

English professor Glenda Carpio outlined a view of hip-hop as a vital form of art-making, particularly among the disadvantaged: "I am here to urge you to listen to the lower frequencies," she said, playing clips of Public Enemy and "Rapper's Delight" to illustrate her points. (In the archives, read about Carpio's research on slavery's portrayal in African-American humor.)

Computer science professor David Malan spoke on "how to make machines do your bidding," arguing that the tools to control computers are well within the reach of everyone at Harvard, and provide remarkable power to solve problems and create new possibilities. (Malan was the subject of the July-August 2009 Harvard Portrait.)

Steven Pinker presented recent work in which he argues that humanity has become substantially less violent over the past centuries, and that, although it is still unclear why this is the case, it is important to find out so that we can know "what we've been doing right."

Evolutionary geneticist Andrew Berry introduced the basics of his methodology for "hunting for the genes that make us human," delineating the basics of the mechanism of DNA recombination and the concept of behavior-linked genes.

Folklorist and German professor Maria Tatar analyzed the use and reuse of the Little Red Riding Hood story across history, from its beginnings to its recurrence in places as disparate as children's Holocaust literature, Gothic subcultures, and Looney Tunes cartoons. "What if the beautiful 'what if' of fairy tales has become an 'or else'?" she wondered aloud. "These stories are still a safe place for working out our cultural anxieties." (Tatar was profiled inthe November-December 2007 issue.)

Diana Eck presented her work with the Pluralism Project (based at Harvard) as a call to action, beginning, "I'm Diana Eck, and I'm here to recruit you." She argued for an accelerating need to know about religion, noting that "the 'we' of 'We the people' has become far more complicated than ever before…Pluralism requires that we share a world, though not a worldview." (Eck's description of the Pluralism Project appeared in the September-October 1996 issue.)

Her activist proposal dovetailed neatly with the final speaker of the night, Kennedy School and history and literature lecturer Timothy McCarthy, who argued fervently for the future of protest as a vital force in American political life. "Real change requires continual vigilance," he maintained, and "nowhere is the aspirational ideal more evident than in the protest tradition." His lecture was received with some of the loudest applause of the night, followed by a standing ovation for all the speakers together.

Davis was thrilled with the result. “One of the goals was for people to go there and be reminded, even though we grind away at our homework, in the end, what’s our goal? It’s the whole idea of Veritas, truth… It’s to take big ideas and mix them together, to share them and make them accessible to people, to make them meaningful." The crowd that night clearly left with a sense of intellectual enthusiasm beyond that of a normal day of classes. Cynically, one might ask whether such energy is merely ephemeral, spurred on by the dynamism of a one-night event. But it is encouraging that, even before the lecture began, Sanders was packed full merely at the prospect of a night dedicated to the sharing of ideas.