“Learning as Service”
Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science,
John A. Paulson
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences,
Harry Lewis is Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science in Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Among computer science books he has recently authored or co-authored are Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion (2nd edn.), Essential Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science, and Ideas That Created the Future. His books about higher education include Excellence Without a Soul and What is College For?
After graduating from Harvard College in 1968, Lewis served as a commissioned officer in the US Public Health Service before returning for his PhD. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1974 and became full professor in 1981. His students include founders of Microsoft, Facebook, and Tripadvisor and professors at most leading American CS departments. Lewis has served as Dean of Harvard College and as interim Dean of Harvard’s Engineering School.
Starting in the 1970s, Lewis created Harvard’s undergraduate CS curriculum and the CS major itself, and long served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in CS. He also developed popular courses on computing in society. He is a director of the electronic privacy organization EPIC.org and a faculty associate of Harvard’s Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society.
Abstract of the Speech
Those engaged in service learning probably think of it as something different from classroom learning. It’s done in the field; it’s done as a group; it’s done to help other people.
But 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.
What makes learning different from other service vocations is its competitiveness. 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.
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.
Only when they remember that they are service professionals can educators reconcile their individual ambition and their disappointments with the present with their hopes for the future and the altruism and sacrifices to which they are called.