Reconciliation of Intellectual Inquiry and Religious Education in American Universities

As my junior spring semester at Harvard ends, I am beginning to reflect and wrap up learnings for the year. I came across this essay I wrote a few months ago for my “Democracy and Education in Modern America” class, and I thought it might be of interest to anyone curious about history of American universities, history of religious education, and/or my personal development of ideas about “value systems.” Since I wrote this essay, my Christian friend Brian Zhang has added to my thoughts on religious belief (especially to William James’s interpretation of it), yet I think it is interesting to see my thoughts on religious belief before I considered his perspective.

Reconciliation of Intellectual Inquiry and Religious Education in American Universities

When asked about the value of their higher education experience, many American university students will talk about their intellectual education, which Charles Eliot describes as “a mental training inferior to none in breadth and vigor [and] a thirst for knowledge” (Eliot). Yet fewer students will talk about their “religious education,” by which I mean their process of learning the core beliefs and values according to which they should live. But a religious education is, to varying degrees, an important part of many university students’ experiences as well. Separated from their parents and hometown morals and placed into an environment with incredible freedom and many choices—including the freedoms to choose how they use their time and which peers to befriend—many students are initially overwhelmed by their newfound freedom and the accompanying realization that “freedom is responsibility” (Eliot). When these students start asking the questions “How should I choose?” or “What should I do now?” they necessarily start asking harder value questions such as “What do and should I care about?” They might look to their peers, families, and role model professors for answers. The difficulty of answering such questions is the beginning of their lifelong religious education to uncover their core beliefs and values; such religious education is one of the great purposes of higher education, alongside intellectual education.

Before 1900, American university educators sought to meet this need for difficult answers by simply telling students the answers given by Christianity. Such “telling” was a very direct form of religious education—it consisted of chapel services for students to instill good morals and a sense of community (Reuben 119) and courses in “Natural Theology and Evidences of Christianity” (Reuben 89). However, as the late 1800s saw the spirit of open intellectual and scientific inquiry begin to sweep the academic fields, including philosophy and religion, the dogmatism of “telling” in religious education no longer sufficed, and universities struggled for 30 years to reconcile intellectual inquiry and religious education in their students, ultimately giving up by outsourcing religious education to competing student groups and outside religious groups (Reuben 132). Although university leaders ostensibly failed to reconcile intellectual inquiry and religious education after losing control of religious education during 1890-1920, the resulting decentralization of religious life into a diverse set of student communities has actually reconciled intellectual inquiry and religious education by giving students the control to both design more emotional and personal religious education for their peers and conduct their own investigations of the religious systems by which they want to live.

From 1890-1920, American university leaders failed to reconcile intellectual inquiry and religious education in their students because they failed to understand that religious education is mostly initially relevant to students because of the emotional strength—not intellectual wisdom—it provides. It was a natural mistake for universities to make, since one of their main goals is to provide their students with an intellectual education, and since the institutions most easily under university control—the teaching of courses and research—were intellectual. This is evident from the universities’ first attempts at this reconciliation—university presidents started by searching for professors who combined intellectual inquiry and good religious character in their teaching, “who were independent thinkers… who were sympathetic to Christian beliefs and values” (Reuben 90); then sought to create new fields of research under the umbrella of “science of religion,” which included the psychology and sociology of religion as well as literary criticism of the Bible (Reuben 102); and then even tried to secretly insert religion into courses that were deceptively named scientifically, such as “The Things That Shape a Nation’s Character” (Reuben 116). That all efforts at reconciliation focused on improving courses and research indicates the intellectual focus of these universities’ first attempts at religious education. Faculty’s assumption that students would take courses on religion if “taught scientifically” (Reuben 95) is also telling of their misunderstanding of the value of religious education to students.

In fact, as William James emphasizes in his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” it is emotional strength—not intellectual challenge—that is religion’s most relevant benefit to religious people. He discounts the value of intellectual pursuits in religion when he says that “personal religion will prove itself more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism” (James 744), the intellectual and organizational outgrowths of personal religion. James later demonstrates that this “fundamental” characteristic of personal religion is the emotional strength it provides to the participant: “There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others… The time for tension in our soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived… No other emotion than religious emotion can bring a man to this peculiar pass” (James 755). James’s physical images of “deep breathing,” “relaxation,” and “anxiety” suggest that religion’s great appeal is the happy and peaceful “religious emotion” it brings, not intricate theological arguments or doctrinal differences. We can easily imagine, then, why universities’ first attempts to add intellectual rigor to religious education failed to appeal to students. Evidence of failure includes “student rowdiness at [chapel] services” (Reuben 119) and declining attendance of classes concerning religion.

After these failures, universities gave up control of religious education to student groups and religious organizations leading up to 1920 (Reuben 132). This move would appear to symbolize the ultimate failure to reconcile intellectual inquiry and religious education; after all, William James’s claim about the fundamentality of religious emotion seems to make such reconciliation impossible. But, after broadening “religion” to encompass its general aforementioned definition as a set of values and beliefs according to which one should live, we will see that the end of the university “monopoly” on religious education and the rise of diverse student communities each attempting to serve different students actually fostered each student’s process of inquiry into the religions of each of these communities. This is the reconciliation of open intellectual inquiry and religious education.

There are two main reasons that a diversity of student communities, rather than the single university, has succeeded in reconciling open inquiry and religious education. The first is that students now have the control to design more emotional and personal “religious education” for their peers. For example, to look at Christian groups temporarily, the 1910s saw the rise in influence of student YMCA and YWCA groups as well as University of Chicago Christian Union (Reuben 129), and today at Harvard there exist a variety of Christian organizations include Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA) and Asian American Christian Fellowship (AACF). The reason these groups have hundreds of students in modern times is that students running these organizations understand the strong emotional and personal needs of other peers that are elsewhere unmet in a university; these include emotional strength during such existential crises as I previously identify as the “overwhelming freedom” of college, as well as a close community to which one feels a special connection. The diversity of these communities is particularly important since today’s student bodies are much more diverse; thus the Harvard Christian groups have specific ethnic appeal (e.g. AACF), gender appeal (e.g. YMCA and YWCA), and denominational appeal (e.g. Orthodox Christian Fellowship). It is difficult to imagine a single university coordinating the religious education and close community of such a diverse set of students as today’s, and even the diversifying set that entered university in the 1920s; this set included women in coeducational schools (Angell) and students of different denominations (Reuben 122).

The other reason for the success of diverse student communities is that they enabled a student to conduct his or her own inquiry of the various religions offered by the various communities on campus. Here I will broaden my definition of “religion” as above to encompass any set of values and beliefs according to which one should live, so that we can interpret traditional theistic religions as examples of this broadened definition but also include secular belief systems. This implies that we can interpret student communities to have meanings broader than organized student groups; they also include the students from one’s concentration, one’s house, and one’s sports teams. From the point of view of a student at Harvard beginning to grapple with the questions I pose above regarding what one should do or what one values, the diverse set of communities at Harvard is a perfect field for open inquiry into the religions by which one would prefer to live. Each community has its own set of beliefs and values, and by analyzing and choosing communities, a student is doing exactly the intellectual inquiry into which type of religious education he or she desires.

For example, I recently became a member of the effective altruism community at Harvard, which is dedicated to doing good for the world in the most effective way. The community has as its religion—or core beliefs and values—that one should do the most good one can in the world, and that it is possible to figure out which methods of doing good are better than other methods. The reason I chose to surround myself with people in effective altruism is because I have felt the strongest emotional and intellectual connection to it. It is filled with people who think mathematically and rationally, which appeals to my desire for rigorous evidence and proof in making decisions, and who are searching for ways to improve the world. Moreover, I have evaluated how strongly I connect with the effective altruist community compared to other communities around Harvard—including the Christian communities, math academic community, or the community that embraces the philosophies of classes like Justice or Chinese Philosophy—and concluded my search with effective altruism. This is how I have reconciled open inquiry with religious education of my own beliefs and values, making the choice of religion ultimately my own.

In sum, the decentralization of religious life into a diverse set of student communities has actually reconciled intellectual inquiry and religious education by giving students the control to both design more emotional and personal religious education for their peers and conduct their own investigations of the religious systems by which they want to live. Because of this decentralization, both open inquiry and religious education have complemented each other in constituting a large part of the value of higher education for me.

References

  1. Angell, James. “Presidency of the University of Michigan.” In The Reminiscences of James Burrill Angell. : Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911.
  2. Eliot, Charles. “The New Education.” The Atlantic, February 27, 1869.
  3. James, William. The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, Including an Annotated Bibliography Updated Through 1977. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
  4. Reuben, Julie. The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
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Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 2, on the Difficulty of Doing Development

For most of January, I worked in Tanzania as a Tech in the World Fellow. Many people have asked me about my reflections on it and how my life changes after it, so I’ve written up my reflections here in Part 1 and this post.

Tech in the World has a stated mission: “to expose top computer science students to underserved needs in developing communities and the various ways technology can be applied to address these global issues.” Certainly there is something more underlying that mission; why expose computer science students to developing nations? So that those students will work there and help make an impact on an area of the world that is impoverished and could greatly improve in quality of life.

So if you want a final assessment on Tech in the World and whether it is achieving this ultimate goal, you will ask the question, “Andrew, how do your future plans change after doing development work in Tanzania?” For some reason, I found this question quite hard to answer the first few times I was asked, but then simplified the question by envisioning two (among many possible) post-graduate futures for myself. The first has me working as a technologist and problem solver in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people I admire and learn from, and solving a problem interesting both technically and in terms of the “business” questions surrounding the value my company can provide, my long-term strategy to achieving my mission, etc. Ideally, I am riding an innovation “wave” in a slow but important industry that is just beginning to accelerate, such as government, education, or energy. Let’s call this future “Comfortable Future.”

The second future has me in Tanzania doing (and rising in) software, global health, investment, or really any type of work that improves the state of human and economic development in the country (see Part 1 for concrete examples of development problems to be solved). I may be working within an institution like Ifakara Health Institute or starting my own, and of course I’ll be living in Tanzania with both my favorite and least favorite aspects of its culture, climate, and daily facts of life (such as electricity outages). Let’s call this future “Uncertain Future.”

Which future looks better as I close my eyes to imagine each? If “Uncertain Future” means graduating and immediately pursuing work akin to my Tech in the World experience prolonged for several years, everything else constant, then I would prefer “Comfortable Future.” This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my Tech in the World experience—given the same choice back in the fall with the hindsight I have now, I would certainly still have gone. Rather, I initially feel uncomfortable with the idea of being one of the very few Harvard (math and CS) graduates, technologists, people from the United States, and people from my friend group to dedicate several years of my life struggling to solve problems in Tanzania’s pole pole culture, being almost alone in my decision to go there in the first place. After trying to break down this discomfort in terms of my values of personal growth and world welfare (note how this has evolved from previously named “memorable achievement”), I can imagine changes to the “Uncertain Future” scenario that would make me prefer it over “Comfortable Future.” I think that these changes actually illustrate some of the reasons that many peers and I hesitate about doing development work despite knowing about the significant problems to which they could contribute.

I would prefer “Uncertain Future” over “Comfortable Future”…

1. If I were no longer personally growing in “Comfortable Future.”

For example, if I found that in 20 years, I had learned all I cared to learn about Silicon Valley—developing my software and hardware engineering expertise, having extensive experience leading a company or two in different industries, seeing a wide variety of problems, learning to work with all types of people (within Silicon Valley, that is), and building relationships and community with shakers and movers—then I would prefer the new challenge and growth opportunity offered by “Uncertain Future.” My desire for personal growth is like the American obsession with expansion of the frontier during manifest destiny, always pushing boundaries into the unknown and untested parts of me and improving (aka colonizing) those parts. This scenario is pretty conceivable.

2. If a bunch of people I admired and wanted to learn from decided to start working in “Uncertain Future.”

Even if this happened right after graduation, I think I would go for “Uncertain Future” in a heartbeat. Unfortunately (based on the anecdotal evidence of my friends and network at Harvard and MIT), I see a much higher concentration of people I admire and can learn from following “Comfortable Future” instead of “Uncertain Future.” These “people I admire” include several highly visionary, charismatic or empathic, and/or brilliant friends I have met in college or while working, as well as leaders who inspire the entire communities I come from—Silicon Valley and Harvard. (From Silicon Valley, such leaders include leaders of recent visionary enterprises like Google, Microsoft, Khan Academy, Udacity, Palantir, Dropbox, Asana, Cloudera, OpenGov, as well as Silicon Valley legends like Xerox PARC, investors like Peter Thiel, and innovators like Elon Musk. From Harvard, such leaders mainly include academics like Amartya Sen, Niall Ferguson, Steve Pinker, Doug Melton, Joe Blitzstein, Ed Glaeser, and Paul Farmer.) This higher concentration of people I admire mainly doing work in entrepreneurship, technology, academia, and (to a much lesser extent) finance and consulting doesn’t seem to be spilling over to work in international development, and I sense this is a chicken and egg problem in which the people who I think I could learn from are not in development because they themselves want to be surrounded by people they admire, and of course not many of them are willing to go do work in Tanzania without having their circle of mentors and high-achieving peers around them. There are many exceptions to this generalization: of course many of the leaders I mentioned and my inspirational friends and co-workers do impact world welfare via philanthropy and charity, whether they are my roommate Ben Kuhn (who runs Harvard Effective Altruism), tech giants like Dustin Moskovitz (who started Good Ventures with his wife Cari Tuna), former Bridgewater analysts like Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld (who founded GiveWell), and of course Bill and Melinda Gates through their grant-making foundation. But I can point to fewer people I want to learn from who have actually done development work themselves beyond making or optimizing donations (not to trivialize donations, which are incredibly important), and even fewer who are doing it at the time I graduate. (A few exceptions I know of include Dimagi and some of the leaders at MIT’s D-Lab). If more of these greats were to start doing development work, I would happily join them so that I would be learning from people better than I and personally growing while achieving world welfare. (If you are an effective altruist pointing out that you might have more comparative advantage making lots of money and donating it instead of doing the development work yourself, please see my thoughts on that below [1].)

3. If there were more social and economic support for “Uncertain Future.”

By social and economic support, I mean that I have close friends (and perhaps a significant other) nearby who are positive, curious, and compassionate people; and some source of income that meets a modest standard of living but enables me to freely pursue interests and projects without feeling my agency restricted. I think both of these are quite possible (i.e. I can make new friends, try to convince old friends to join me, and make a reasonable income), but the point I want to make is that when I first pictured working by myself post-graduation, I briefly (and irrationally) pictured the lack of social and economic support I have just talked about (i.e. not having friends and not living with enough money), even though the lack of friends would be solved by Tanzanians’ friendliness and the lower income solved by lower cost of living. I believe many people who have not been to Tanzania will seriously picture a lack of social and economic support when you ask them to imagine doing work there, and this might cause the gut discomfort with “Uncertain Future.”

4. If my comparative advantage were strongly in favor of “Uncertain Future.”

This is where my world welfare value comes in (notice that the first three concerned personal growth). You might think that, on the world welfare criterion, “Uncertain Future” of improving the health of an impoverished nation clearly wins over “Comfortable Future” of solving a problem in the wealthy United States. For me, seeing the developing world completely without sickness is more important to me than seeing everyone in the United States with a proper education. But the other question I must ask myself for the world welfare criterion is about my comparative advantage—i.e. on which problem does my choice to work on it (versus not working on it) make the biggest difference? For a person with a problem solving, getting-things-done, people, and narrowly technical skillset (in data analysis and software engineering), I can see that I still have some comparative advantage in “Comfortable Future” (although I think I would be replaceable in the “Comfortable Future” setting). My comparative advantage in “Uncertain Future” highly depends on the problem I am working on. If I am trying to solve one of Tanzania’s bigger problems in electricity infrastructure or drinkable running water, I lack any technical comparative advantage but could still contribute as a generalist in terms of enterprise strategy, attracting technical talent, or executing on projects. If I were building applications for mobile phones, then I would have technical as well as other comparative advantage. The reason I think “Uncertain Future” is not winning significantly on this criterion is because the problems I would have lots of comparative advantage on in Tanzania (e.g. problems involving data and software) do not impact world welfare much more than similar projects out in Silicon Valley (e.g. I could work on online education here in the United States, with implications for the rest of the world), and the problems that have high welfare impact in Tanzania (such as electricity or water infrastructure) are not ones I have comparative advantage in.

Back to the Question

So how does this answer the original question of how my future plans change after Tech in the World? I think conditions 1-4 will happen at some point in my lifetime, perhaps within the next 25 years, and at that point I will prefer “Uncertain Future” to “Comfortable Future.” Tech in the World has helped me consider the possibility of “Uncertain Future” at all and characterize what is holding me (and I believe, many of my peers) back from doing impactful work in development problems ranging from providing drinkable running water to teaching more effectively in schools.

Because of Tech in the World, I am significantly more likely to do more impactful work in the developing world in the future.

Footnotes

[1] One note on the effective altruist argument that, depending on who you are, your comparative advantage in maximizing world welfare might be to make a lot of money and donate it instead of doing the development work. I used to buy this argument strongly for myself, but being in Tanzania has made me reconsider this (although I can’t generalize to other nations). The claim that I should spend my time making a lot of money and donating it instead of doing development work myself (whether medical work, broader health research, technology development, or education) assumes that my donations cause multiple people to go in my stead, who combined are more effective than I alone would have been. Then (depending on which kind of people I want) I would guess that spending my time increasing the incentives to do development work and breaking down the barriers mentioned in this blog post (e.g. by starting a scalable version of a program like Tech in the World) is a more effective way to cause people with medical, health research, development economics, technological, and pedagogical background to do development work. (This assumes you want to solve problems that need people with these kinds of technical expertise and motivation.) Effective altruists—what do you think about the problem of getting more people into development work?

What do Tanzanians perceive as American culture?

Before I answer this, I will preface my answer by saying that it is not representative of Tanzania in general, but based on the opinions of the biased sample of Tanzanians we have spoken with on our trip. The people in this sample all live in Dar es Salaam, one of the wealthiest and most urban areas of Tanzania; are all well-educated relative to the general Tanzanian population (either in college or graduated); are all young (age less than 35); all speak English quite well; and are all working in or studying technology. I think you have to meet Tanzanians in and out of sample to know how different this sample is from the general population. For example, this sample has (mostly consistent) electricity in their homes or dorms (only 20 percent of the country has electricity), has seen and spoken with foreigners in English before (mostly Indians and whites), has not experienced malaria extensively, and knows who Mark Zuckerberg is. Compare that to the Maasai pastoralists who live in small villages on the circumference of the massive Ngorongoro crater in northern Tanzania; electricity is so sparse that a Maasai person who wants to charge her mobile phone has to walk 2-3 hours to someone with a generator. The person with the generator actually makes a business out of charging phones.

Now onto the actual question. The question first arose when we (the Tech in the World team) were getting dinner at a burger place called Heineken. While we were waiting 1 hour for our burgers (see Pole pole), we noticed three large TV screens surrounding us on three sides with American music videos and TV shows. On the screen with the music videos, we saw Miley Cyrus’s “23,” Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber,” Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s “California Gurls,” Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” and Fat Joe and Lil Wayne’s “Make it Rain“. The TV shows included Cops and MTV’s Exposed. Immediately we began to realize (with some horror) how these music videos and TV shows must influence Tanzanians’ perception of American culture. Rappers tossing around $100 bills, shows about nothing besides dating and crime, and guys and scantily clad girls partying all the time and everywhere—on the beach in California, in the Bahamas, in the Wild West, and at school. Even from this single data point at Heineken, it seemed possible that these music videos and shows might be some Tanzanians’ only information about the United States, and that made me wonder about what Tanzanians really thought about our culture. (Studying how the Soviet Union dramatically distorted its subjects’ perception of the United States as a land economically worse off by restricting information flow has impressed upon me the importance of thinking about who has incentives to bias information flow in certain ways.)

I’ve started asking a few of our Tanzanian friends, including our mentor Isaac, our Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) contact Ashery, and some of the DIT students about American culture. Isa (a student) told me that while many Tanzanians might only see the partying and spending parts of American culture that are depicted in the media, those who are more educated (e.g. university students) tend to have a more nuanced idea that American culture is not just about money and girls. More interestingly, Ashery told me that many of the older generations (above the age of 26) are reacting negatively to a young generation (younger than 18) that is adopting the partying and spending elements of American culture in its clothing, values, and language (many young Tanzanians, including students, love mimicking Rick Ross’s claim that “he’s a boss”). This has led to an association of the word “American” with decadence and riches among older generations. According to Ashery, poorer Tanzanians often ask American tourists for money due to a perception that Americans have so much money that they can afford to “make it rain” in rap videos.

I find this interesting because I don’t think this perception of American culture is specific to Tanzania. My perception is that many other countries—even economic powerhouse China—simultaneously glorify (if you’re young) and vilify (if you’re older) the lavish lifestyle depicted in American music and TV. Even within the United States, I could anticipate many Americans have not interacted enough with other parts of the country to understand them beyond their depictions on TV, and I bet this fuels some of the political division in our country right now—a TV and the Internet are a much easier and cheaper way to get information about different cultures of Americans than multiple trips to the other side of the country! (As a quick proxy for that statistic, Gallup says that only 52 percent of Americans rode a plane in 2012, while 99 percent of American households owned a TV and 67 percent of Americans watched TV regularly during dinner in 2013.)

So far on this trip, I’ve been focusing my writing on new things I know about Tanzania, but this is the first time I’ve considered what Tanzanians know about Americans. This leads me to two questions. First, from the perspective of a social planner seeking to maximize some notion of global welfare, how “important” is it that people in Tanzania understand Americans and their culture as it actually is, and vice versa (and in general, for all cultures in the world)? For example, perhaps an optimal social planner would want to reallocate people who are currently working in global health in Tanzania to establishing cultural understanding through an exchange program, changing the depictions in the media, and other solutions. Secondly, if we agreed that cross-cultural understanding as defined in the first question is important enough that a social planner should reallocate people to work on it, what would be some good solutions (I listed some potential ones already)?

Mid-Semester Reflections

After finishing off papers and midterms this past week, I took a few days to reflect on how my values have changed since I first articulated them here. On first thought, my stated values have not changed. I still try to make choices to optimize values of personal growth (rephrased from “self-enrichment”) and achievement, and looking ahead now, it seems that my values could stay this way forever (with the likely added on value of deep relationships)! But a few things bug me about this (although I wouldn’t call them strong claims):

    • Other people live by different values and seem equally contented to prefer their own to any other values. I’ve twice asked each of 10 friends, “What are your values?”—once a year ago and once now. None of their answers have changed, although their values vary as widely as intellectual stimulation and power and they have all undergone the formative experiences of college. What bothers me is not that my friends and I all differ from each other in values (for this may simply reflect differing utility preferences), but that none of us differs from our past selves despite being exposed to changing friend groups, life experiences in different countries, or personal crises.
    • This excerpt from Anna Karenina (which I was reading right before this reflection) hit home the point that there may be some bias (beyond rational justification) in preferring your values to alternate ones (because you chose your values for a good reason, right?):

      [Oblonsky and Levin] were fond of one another in spite of the difference of their characters and tastes, as friends are fond of one another who have been together in early youth. But in spite of this, each of them—as is often the way with men who have selected careers of different kinds—though in discussion he would even justify the other’s career, in his heart despised it. It seemed to each of them that the life he led himself was the only real life, and the life led by his friend was a mere phantasm (1.5.26).

    • Many great people in the past led their lives with values completely different from personal growth and achievement. Gandhi espoused love while Winston Churchill always seemed to follow courage. Although the difference in values might again be due to differences in utility functions, why have I never considered these other values to optimize?

These three things suggest some bias in my methodology for initially choosing values a year ago. (Important aside: The function that values play in my decision-making is purely heuristic. My goal is to optimize my utility function, not necessarily my values. Values are variables such as personal growth that I’ve noticed are positively correlated with my utility preferences, so they become useful when I make decisions, because instead of thinking, “I should read Anna Karenina right now because that is a maximum of my utility function somewhere random in my search space of possible decisions,” I can say, “I should read Anna Karenina right now because that optimizes a combination of my personal growth and achievement, of which in general I know I prefer to have more instead of less.” In other words, for me, choosing certain concepts to be values solely serves the purpose of helping me search my decision space more efficiently.)

Keeping that purpose in mind, what’s the bias in my methodology for choosing values? I first chose values that summer after freshman year by straightforwardly reflecting on my past and thinking about the times in my life which I preferred the most. Then I looked for commonalities between these times, and set these commonalities (such as personal growth) to be the values I would strive for in the present. My choices for “preferred” times in life were probably influenced by faults in memory, what my friends and family implied that I prefer, and the limited range of my own experiences and others’ that I witnessed. Looking back, this has obvious flaws:

    • I will only ever optimize values I’ve experienced a lot, and those values will probably be those I’ve optimized. So personal growth and achievement will never change. Claiming that these 2 values are better heuristics than other values when I haven’t tried the others is like trying out 2 slot machines in an entire casino of slot machines giving out different payoffs and saying, “These 2 that I’ve picked surely reward the most!” This is like exploitation-only in the exploration-exploitation tradeoff from reinforcement learning.
    • Even when it is possible for my values to diverge from these 2 (because I do witness and see the merits of other values in my friendships, and often make spontaneous choices that deviate from growth and achievement), my existing values are solidified by my local environment. Being surrounded by Harvard student culture reinforces values of growth and achievement through constant interactions at meals, in classes, and in the daily disorder of students walking around and bumping into each other. This local world reinforces values not only through direct conversation, but also the activities people choose and even their clothes (e.g. the many suits you’d see around Harvard are associated with achievement).

So I wish to look beyond the limitations of my own faulty memory, personal life experience, local world, and even this 21st century era for value exploration. That’s why I’m beginning to look at values of “great” people in history by studying the lives they lived, to (1) draw on them for my own value exploration and (2) compare their values with the values of people in my local world today as a case study of the variance of values across time period and local worlds. This is my plan in particular until the end of January (I selected the people below based on diversity of values, my personal curiosity, and availability of literature or Harvard expertise on them):

    • Overview the lives of Einstein, Tolstoy, Truman, John Rockefeller, Catherine the Great, Gandhi, Darwin, Hitler, and Ayn Rand via biographical and autobiographical material, as well as interviews with Harvard professors and researchers (e.g. Janet Browne is a foremost expert on Darwin). (EDIT: I added Hitler and Ayn Rand based on excellent suggestions by Ben Kuhn and Josephine Chen to consider people with less “admirable” values or utility functions.)
    • Conduct 10 interviews with a sample of students and professors from Harvard to similarly overview their lives and understand their values and these values’ origins. List so far: Ben Kuhn.
    • Post weekly reflections condensing the content of these studies and my takeaways.
    • Write a final blog post at January’s end that includes (a) my updated values and (b) comparisons/contrasts of the values of the “great” people and Harvard students/professors, both within these groups and between them.

Thoughts? If you think you can do better, want to help, have suggestions for people to study, or happen to be at Harvard and want to be interviewed yourself, please comment and/or message me here!