My year at Harvard

My year at Harvard

When, earlier this summer, eagle-eyed snappers caught Ed Miliband lugging a pile of holiday reading off to Devon with him, the book that most commentators fixated on was one called Leadership on the Line. What did this choice say about the Labour leader? Had he suffered a crisis of confidence? Was he really resorting to self-help books?

The reality, however, is that far from being a cry for help, this book was in fact a badge of honour. For it is one of the hallmarks of an education at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (where Miliband will have gone to the odd lecture some years ago, when he was a scholar at the university’s Center for European Studies).

The book’s lead author, Ronald Heifetz, is a Harvard legend, with a cultish following. I know this because just a few months ago I, too, was in the very classroom where Ed Miliband first caught the bug.

A year ago I left my job as Economics Editor at the Telegraph to take a Masters at the Kennedy School. It was – or so many friends and colleagues told me – a bizarre move. I had spent pretty much all of my career at the Telegraph, and here I was giving up a prestigious job, covering a subject at the top of the agenda, to pay a small fortune to study for a degree that wouldn’t necessarily further my career.

None the less, the degree in question, a Masters in Public Administration (rather like an MBA, except focused on politics and policy rather than business), was something I had wanted to do for years, and if I didn’t do it now I knew I never would.

Like an ever-increasing number of British students – a record 9,000 enrolled into US universities last year, with Harvard receiving 35 per cent more UK applications than before – I wanted to see how Americans “do” education. I wanted to try to get a sense of how the world’s economic and military superpower managed to become so powerful. And I wanted to see first hand how it was facing up to an economic crisis that threatens to speed its decline from this previously unassailable position.

The cap on places at English universities – coupled with the prospect of £9,000 fees from this year – is fuelling British interest in US universities. But, of course, the major obstacle for anyone wanting an American education – particularly if they’re a graduate like me – is money. I was lucky, in that I managed to get a Fulbright scholarship, which covered most of my living costs, and a scholarship from the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School (which focuses on journalism and public policy). But the bottom line is that, all-in, a year at an Ivy League university will cost over $80,000 – almost £50,000.

These kind of sums might be affordable for Harry Potter star Emma Watson, who has been studying at Brown, the Ivy League school in Providence, Rhode Island; but they are steep for the average Brit without a scholarship.

So what do you get for that kind of outlay? The first thing you notice is the size. Only a day or so into American university life and it struck me: everything was, well, bigger. Not just the waistlines or the cars: it seems when it comes to education in America, bigger is also better.

For instance, when I was an undergraduate in England it was a landmark when our college football team managed to attract an audience in double figures. At Harvard they regularly fill a 30,000-seater stadium with paying guests. For its offices, my UK university newspaper had a tiny room over a shop on the high street. The Harvard Crimson has its own office complex with conference rooms and entertainment areas. The “final clubs” of which Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg famously coveted membership in The Social Network – private members’ clubs for undergraduates – are magnificent wood-panelled palaces run and financed by wealthy students (or, to be more accurate, their indulgent parents). Harvard’s Widener Library has a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible just sitting there. In short, the facilities are astounding.

The other major difference is the teaching style. As a British undergraduate I used to sit in a drowsy study, listening to an expert tutor explain the whys and wherefores of my subject, before going home to regurgitate my notes into an essay or assignment.

Teaching Stateside tends to be far more interactive, and far less reliant on lectures: most of the courses I took part in involved a fair amount of teamwork. We were often broken up into groups and given tasks – draw up a presentation, write a business plan, draft a briefing note for a minister. This teaching style is a staple of the American system, all the way from high school to postgraduate education, and it underlines a key attitudinal difference between the British and American education systems: whereas we Brits prize the intellect and put professors on pedestals, the American system values teamwork and problem-solving.

In British schools and universities the aim of the game is to be the smartest mathematician or literary critic; in the US the clever folks are only one part of a team, not necessarily even the key members. And this extends to the professors as well. In Britain interrupting your teacher is an act of intense rebellion; in the US it is almost to be expected. At Harvard Business School, half of your eventual grade depends on class participation: there is no sitting quietly and just doing your work.

This ethos of teamwork and contribution must have some impact on America’s consistently high levels of productivity. And if you’ve ever wondered why it is that even your average American genuinely believes that the world wants to know what he or she thinks about an issue, here’s your answer: this notion is drilled into American children throughout their education.

The apotheosis of this is Ron Heifetz’s leadership class at the Kennedy School. Having signed up for what I presumed would be a series of pep talks about how to corral one’s troops into battle, I discovered that in fact during the classes the professor would sit back in his chair and watch the 90-strong class descend into Lord of the Flies bickering. Undoubtedly there were lessons to be learnt about group dynamics and how one intervenes in such a highly charged, dysfunctional atmosphere. No doubt this will serve Ed Miliband well the next time he chairs a Labour Party meeting, but it was a bit too unconventional for me.

A couple of weeks later I replaced it with a more familiar class on economics – except, this being America, the professor was no normal academic but Larry Summers, who had just left the White House where he was advising Barack Obama, to teach Harvard students.

And that is what sums up Harvard for me: when your fall-back option is being taught economics by one of the world’s most renowned economic policymakers, you know you’re in a good spot.