Back to school. Me, I mean…

So, at 59 ½ years old, I’m a Harvard student.*

IMG_1384 (Bill at Harvard 1)

Mom and I parked in the heart of Cambridge ($36), and we found our way to my class through throngs of real-er Harvard students: first, the entire band, all in crimson, crossing Mass. Ave. with their clarinets, trumpets, et al, and oozing spirit. Next, the entire freshman class of 2019, on the stairs of Widener Library, posing for their class photo; it was really quite something to watch.

0901151636 Harvard Class of 2019

These 1,665 young people have, after 18 years of striving, successfully arrived at the very top of the food chain. Am I imagining that they seem to know it? Heck, I’d be proud, too.

(I had the momentary thought of trying to crash the photo. But no, that wouldn’t be me, would it now? Putting aside whether there’s a soul on earth I could fool! <grin>)

Of course, we saw the obligatory Harvard tour, with the guide standing in front of the statue of John Harvard. I wasn’t listening, but I actually know the shtick. The tour guide is supposed to say that this statue comprises three lies: that it’s not really the image of John Harvard; that John Harvard didn’t really found the place; and that it wasn’t founded in 1638, as the statue claims.

Why do I know this script? Because, in previous iterations of my course, available online, my professor described it. He’d then walk through the available evidence, arguing that it is at least conceivable that each of these alleged falsehoods might not actually be false.

How do we know? How could we know?

My course is called “Historical Controversies,” HIST E-20. In the past few weeks before it started, I’ve been trying really hard to get ahead on the readings. I sensed a couple of themes coming through loud and clear: how easy it is to do history “wrong,” and how tenuous historical facts really are. I’m well along the way to being convinced of this!

A little while ago, I’d asked you what you wanted to achieve during your senior year. Here’s what I want to achieve this semester.

First, I hope to learn something about how to do history “right”… or, more accurately, how to somewhat increase the likelihood that my interpretations roughly align with the evidence we have available.

This means learning how to control better for confirmation bias and such – the tendency we humans have to give way more credit to evidence that supports the views we already hold.

Since I’ve only attended the first lecture, it’s way too soon to know how all this will play out for me. But the centerpiece of the course splendidly challenges my own assumptions. Did Shakespeare really write those amazing plays I’ve come to love so much?

I find I’m really emotionally invested in one side of that debate: way out of proportion to the evidence I possess. The argument that “it couldn’t have been Will” usually starts from the premise that he was just too ordinary a guy. You’d need an Earl or a Duke — or at least an Oxford or Cambridge graduate, like Christopher Marlowe – to know so much, or write so well.

That is one of the most unpleasant arguments I can think of. For me, it’s like fingernails scraping an old-fashioned blackboard. I want so much to continue to believe that Will Shakespeare, grammar school graduate** from a small town, could just as easily be touched by genius as those born to so-called nobility. Maybe even more easily!

But, as you and I have often discussed, what I want to believe ain’t necessarily what’s so. In history, politics, science, or anywhere else.

So the skills I hope to hone in this class would seem to be useful.

(Wouldn’t it be nice if the world incentivized rather than disincentivizing** them? <grin>)

Second thing I want to learn: How to totally drill down on a topic.

I’ve never written a 20 page paper; have you? That requires a whole new set of skills. Selecting a topic worthy of a full 20 pages (but not requiring an entire book). Framing and sustaining an argument at that length. Doing research that presumably goes way beyond secondary sources, or hand-picked primary sources.

All stuff I never did as an undergraduate. (Maybe you will in your senior seminar… I hope.)

(My 1,100-page book about Microsoft Word does not count as a sustained argument!)

So here we are. Easy to sign up. Easy to log on. Easy to watch videos. Easy for me to say I’m a graduate student.

Even pretty easy for me to write the tuition check (a lot less than three part-time out-of-state undergraduate credits where you are <grin>).

Easy for me to actually do this, the way it should be done?

That… is another story. That… we shall see.


*Harvard Extension School. Just for the record, from my Facebook post:

It’s a really fascinating place. You study with Harvard professors following Harvard guidelines, but anyone can attend. If I can earn 3 grades of B or higher, I can matriculate to pursue a master’s degree there (“Master of Liberal Arts, Extension Studies, Harvard University”). There’ll be a LOT of reading and writing…

“Most of the coursework can be done online, but you have to be on campus for three courses, including a difficult “proseminar” that needs to be one of your first three courses. Plus, down the road, there’ll be a thesis… assuming I get that far.

“It’s a tall mountain to climb, but as with all mountains, it starts with the first step…”

**It must be said that you actually learned quite a lot by age 11 in a small-town English grammar school, circa 1570-1580…

**Disincentivizing”: God, what an ugly word. I’d hoped “disincented” was a word, but evidently “disincentivized” is actually preferred. Ugh.