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Villeage Voices: Why Harkness
By Pier Kooistra
Welcome to Villeage Voices, where community members are invited to share their thoughts each month on a variety of topics relevant to life at Lawrenceville and beyond. Lawrenceville introduced the Harkness system in 1936, when then Head Master Allan Vanderhoef Heely accepted a $5 million gift from Edward S. Harkness to implement an innovative “conference method” of instruction, with 12 students and a teacher at an oval table. Lawrenceville was instantly transformed by Heely’s vision and Harkness’s largesse. But the Harkness philosophy is about more than oval tables. We asked Pier Kooistra, English teacher on the Robert S. and Christina Seix Dow Master-Teaching Chair in Harkness Learning, to share his wisdom and perspective as we explore this hallmark of a Lawrenceville education. 

Why do we “do” Harkness?
What makes it so valuable?

We do Harkness to make us a truer, more effective we.
To cultivate our capacity for fuller, more constructive cooperation.
To condition ourselves to spend more of our time listening.
And not just for the next opening through which to speak.
No, listening in the sense of considering what others are saying.
Measuring and weighing their contributions.
Figuring out how others' offerings can advance our understanding (Even if, ultimately, that's by eliminating possibilities that don't check out.)

We do Harkness to play Peter Elbow's The Believing Game.
To do, first, everything we can to make others' ideas work.
Not to repel ideas just because they're not ours, not familiar (yet!).
To greet them with a warm welcome and say, "Ok , let's try you out."
To do so by engaging in vigorous inquiry and experimentation.
Stretching ourselves, rather than rejecting ideas out of hand.

Of course, we might determine that an idea warrants rejection.
Or requires extensive reconfiguration and refinement.
Our process of inquiry must be not just vigorous but logically rigorous.
We do Harkness, in large measure, to practice critical thinking.
To use varying perspectives within a group to test, test, test hypotheses.
To hold new propositions up against this datum and that one.
To interrogate a proposal via this challenge and that one.
We do Harkness to make each of us comfortable with what happens to all.
It's not just your idea that gets scrutinized; it's every idea, from everyone.

We do Harkness to engender empathy, to grow in grace.
The idea isn't to practice critical thinking to be dismissive, rejective.
But, instead, to learn how to accept the need for change.
We human beings don't, generally, understand fully at first glance.
This is why we've invented the scientific process.
This is why we use Harkness to habituate ourselves to scientific study.
Which is easier to maintain as a discipline within the fellowship of a team.
A team that, when confusion and fatigue strike, can help us to forge ahead.
And to venture downward, deeper into the details hidden in the muck.
The harder we work, the more we support one another, the more we grow.
We grow as a team, connecting with one another more lovingly.
We grow as individuals, learning to honor dignity, to use respect.

We do Harkness because we grow best in community.
Because as we come to trust others, to feel safe, we speak up more.
We do Harkness not just to listen but to embolden each individual.
To help each precious person in the group to find strength of voice.
To express glimpses of truth to which no one else has given voice (yet!).
To share crucial dimensions of our own experience that can expand others' experience.

We do Harkness because it helps us to seek the best for all.
Not just to hope for the best, leaving it an abstraction.
Not just to hope in that vague it's-up-to-somebody-else way.
But to get practice at pursuing what's best--truth and justice--as part of a team. We do Harkness because it infuses learning with love. Sometimes that's critical love, eyes-wide-open love.
Often that's gotta-rework-this-idea, reconfigure-this-team love.
But it's love--fascination with, gratitude for, and dedication to others.

We live together to open our minds and hearts.
We learn together to change them, for the best.
Living together. Learning together. Loving the wider world together.
That's the Big Red L, infused with Love.

For additional information, please contact Lisa Gillard H’17, director of public relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.