By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: (Nicely) earnest kids working to save the world

The first-year master's students at the Kennedy School at Harvard are now going into the home stretch of their first-year capstone project, what we call "spring exercise."


Pretty much the entire class -- almost 250 students -- works together in teams of five for two weeks on some "big" world problem, culminating in a briefing for a stand-in for some very senior government leader on the problem. In the past, spring exercise assignments have included AIDS in Africa, reconstructing Afghanistan and preserving the all-volunteer Army.


This year the assignment is to "help" United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (by coincidence, Ban has a degree from the Kennedy School from the 1980s) develop a U.N. position for the upcoming international negotiations on climate change. I get to play Secretary-General Ban for four student practice briefings on Wednesday (and, along with a Kennedy School economist colleague, critique the students' performance). The final briefings will be on Friday. The Secretary-General himself has actually agreed to be briefed by the student team that wins the award for the best briefing.


The assignment seems to be preoccupying the students. I have very few current students as Facebook friends -- if I may be permitted another Facebook reference -- but even with my limited sample, I've been noticing that current-student Facebook friends have been putting references to the spring exercise into their "status updates," the what-am-I-doing-right-now space on Facebook that is open and available for all manner of frivolous, often self-absorbed, reports from the Facebook world.


One student, whose life includes such diversions as actually playing in the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra as well as being a Kennedy School student (!), last night wrote a status update informing her friends that she was "recovering from 3 concerts and chaperoning an 80s-theme dance. But ready to reverse climate change."


Another student had written a few days earlier that she had "suddenly realized that climate change is not a rich bored white people’s problem, but a global catastrophe disproportionately affecting the poorest."


I asked another student with a far-wider group of current-student Facebook friends than I do, and he told me that spring exercise is right now all over the status updates of first-year Kennedy School students.


So even in their own Facebook world -- which is theirs, (mostly) separated from the older generation's -- there are kids who are nicely earnest, not just in the presence of adults but among one another.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 29, 2008 at 12:09 PM


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