Harvard Thick and Thin
Courses of Instruction, Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences By the Same Crew 821 pp. Package deal: Both books for only about $11,000
FIGHTING FOR OXYGEN in the jam-packed aisles of the Coop one fine September day, you will curse out loud at the thought of paying $22.50 for a book your professor wrote 15 years ago and still requires for his course. "Cripes," you will mutter, imagining the seedy old codger shuffling into the store that evening and emptying the day's receipts into the pockets of his coffee-stained tweed blazer.
We dare not print--nay, even think--what you might exclaim when you hit your first thoroughly rotten academic streak here at Harvard and realize how much you and your loved ones paid for the two books listed above. And for your $11,000 (chuck in another grand for incidentals), you get the two volumes for only 12 months. Skip a renewal payment, and you'll be over at the Coop full time, commanding one of their space-age cash registers or arranging Kleenex sale displays.
Yet tarry not on these grim thoughts; crass lucre is not of the essence when confronting the inauguration of your higher education. Harvard's Student Handbook and Course Catalogue, as they are known to veteran readers, are classics in the field. The former scolds and pontificates, but also explains the mysteries of that hallowed golden fleece: the diploma marked Veritas. The latter tends toward verbosity: 821 pages last year, and perhaps bulkier still when re-released September 8. Its strength lies in a vast scope combined subtly with a scrupulous dedication to detail.
To wit: Science A-18, "Space, Time and Motion," "an inquiry into intuitive, philosophical, mathematical, and physical notions of space, time and motion [also examined] in the light of modern biology and psychology; time and continuity...cosmology," precedes by a mere 713 pages, Sanskrit 202br, Paninian Grammar II, "interpretations and reworkings of Panini; readings from the Mahabhasya, Siddhanta-Kamudi, and Paribhasendusekhara." If for bluster alone, Harvard deserves some respect.
BEGIN YOUR PREPARATION with the Handbook,the College's version of Mao's Little Red Tome or Khaddafi's Green Book of Wisdom. Herein are the rules and regulations, the explanations of philosophy and practice, the words of wisdom and warning. The Handbook needs a context, for standing on its own, its directives seem distant and artificial. Imagine, therefore, the party to end all parties: the beer flows merrily from countless kegs; the stereo hum rumbles throughout the entire dorm; people are dancing; the furniture is flying; and Harvard seems a million miles away. Someone downstairs with a Chem 20 hourly the next day asks politely for a little more quiet. A fellow wearing only boxer shorts and a lampshade advises him to stick a carbon chain model in his ear. The volume knob hits "10." The police arrive.
Student Handbook, page 52: "A noisy or disorderly occupant of a room in a dormitory under University supervision may be dismissed from the building and barred from residence in any other dormitory...Radios, television sets, phonographs, and other audible equipment shall be adjusted so as not to disturb others...No students shall play boisterous games [e.g. dodge ball with the living room couch] in the Yard, in corridors, etc." Dragged in front of the College's disciplinary Administrative Board, you will be asked to explain everything, from the guy in the lampshade to the beer consumed by underage revelers. In a mysterious quirk in the system, your senior adviser will serve as both prosecutor, presenting evidence, and defense attorney, arguing on behalf of whatever good qualities you have displayed.
First-time offenders often slither away unscathed; the Ad Board isn't nearly as tough as the Handbook makes it out to be. Career miscreants, will, however, eventually find themselves facing disciplinary probation (no extra-curriculars, no fun), and then an obligatory year's vacation from Cambridge with an option to return reformed. With about one expulsion per year, "You practically have to kill someone to get thrown out altogether," as one ranking Ad Board member put it recently.
Should you wander from the straight and narrow path in the academic realm, the Handbook has plenty of provisions for steering you back toward propriety. Heavily over committed to various athletic and social diversions, let's say, you decided to lift an article from Sports Illustrated for an essay due the next day. (True story; Boy Scouts' honor.) The only problem is that the issue is from that week, and your section leader has just finished it himself. Hello, Ad Board; hello, page 38: "In preparation of all papers and other work submitted to most course requirements, students should to careful to distinguish between ideas which are their own and those which have been derived from other sources."
The sports fan briefly described here spent a year working on his spiral pass as a result of his little caper, and you will get the boot for less-obvious academic violations as well. Harvard takes these stipulations more seriously than it does rules about party notes. Perhaps the most famous disciplining of the past 5o years involved none other than the current senior U.S. Senator from the Bay State. Young Ted Kennedy '54 (but actually '56) didn't feel up for a Spanish exam and had a buddy take it for him. Only Ted decided to spend the morning munching on a sandwich in a popular Harvard Square eatery, was recognized, convicted, and sent to Hyannisport for some extra beach time.
BUT ENOUGH of this. Your proctor will do plenty of admonishing when you attend your REQUIRED MEETING on Sunday, September 12. Reserve a healthy chunk of time before study cards are due to enjoy the Course Catalogue. You didn't come to Harvard for intimate classes, fine food, or consistent weather. You came for this fat book and all it describes.
A brief introductory note decodes the volume for you, explaining symbols such as"*," which means that "the instructor must consent to a student's enrollment," and "," which means, "too bad, sucker, this course is listed but isn't being given"--a very popular practice among senior members of the tenured corps. A series of numerical demarcations, recently overhauled and still confusing to juniors and seniors, break down courses into those for undergrads, grads, or both. Do not be intimidated by the 100-199 range, or even the 200-299 offerings in some departments. If you're tough, you often get what you want at Harvard. Pay attention to "Examination Groups," page xiii. Do not schedule exams on consecutive days, or worse yet, on the same day. Have a little sympathy on yourself, no matter how mentally fit you feel right now.
Your first inclination when launching into the main part of the catalogue will be to construct a monstrous list of all the courses that seem interesting or required. That will be fun. Then when you reach about 250, throw it away and pick out four or five that meet at a civilized hour and give you a good introduction to several potential areas of concentration. Resist the temptation to get all of your Premed requirements out of the way in two semesters what they tell you, there are none for law school.
Secondary criticism abounds. Through the generations, a vast oral tradition has developed, revolving, for the most part, around the most ludicrously easy courses, "guts," and those at the other end of the scale. The real ball-busters--Chem 20, Applied Math 110, Gov 10, and so on--have changed the direction of people's lives. They are not discussed frivolously. But in the ream of guts, every course has a funky nick-name and tales of casually attained honors grades to go with it.
The granddaddy of them all is "Boats, "History 1375. Headed by Commodore John H. Parry, "Man and the Sea: Outlines of Maritime History," it has entertained varsity athletes and worn-out Biochem majors since the beginning of time. It's back this semester after a year in dry dock. Other favorites include: Fine Arts 175a ("Bricks for Dicks") and Literature and Arts C-14. "The Concept of the Hero in Hellenic Civilization," ("Heroes for Zeroes"). What promises to be this year's recording-breaking chart-topper among new offerings, philosopher Robert Nozick's Phil 25, "The Best Things in Life," hasn't yet acquired an official yuck-it-up title. "Pleasure" and "Ice Cream" are top contenders.
Criticism also comes in the form of two annual course review books, the College's student-faculty Committee on Undergraduate Education CUE Guide and the Crimson's Confidential Guide. Both will explain that the Core Curriculum is Harvard's answer for worries about the survival of liberal education. Both describe the withered remains of the General Education Curriculum, Harvard's last answer to worries about liberal education. One has jokes, the other statistics. Both help. And as they say in "Boats," full steam ahead, mate.