"The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels," wrote Henry David Thoreau (Class of 1837). "How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!"
Since 1971 the least-beaten path at Harvard has led right through the Yard and up University Hall's front steps to the Special Concentration Department. Although the current Harvard undergraduate community includes 6578 individuals, the do-it-yourself concentration crowd numbers only 24.
"I started out as an economics major and I just couldn't stand it," says James D. Chung '88, who says he found he was "more interested in the human issues of how people interact." His special concentration, Organizational Behavior, focuses on how people interact within business and societal frameworks.
Since Chung's freshman year, the Psychology Department has developed its own Organizational Behavior track so students like Chung will be able to stay in the department. But other undergraduates find that their desired course of study simply cannot fit within existing concentrations.
Although the Classics Department and the History Department both occupy buildings in the Yard, Steven J. Snyder '88 says he found that "Robinson Hall and Boylston Hall are really far apart." The Dunster House resident started in Classics and Allied Fields, but his interest in a more historical approach got him "into a kind of tutorial bungle," he says. Now he is doing Roman History and Civilization.
Current special concentrations range from Neurolinguistics--a tightly focused plan of study--broad fields like Theatre Arts or Latin American Studies. But all of the have-it-your-way study plans share one characteristic. They cannot now be accommodated by Harvard's 40-odd established undergraduate concentrations.
Designing a special concentration can be both a privilege and a burden, students say. "It lets you build from scratch," says Electronic Arts concentrator Charles S. English '88.
"You're alone and you're independent," says Betty C. Ludaici '90, who concentrates in Eastern Europe and International Relations. "It's scary but it's amazing."
Perhaps the biggest barrier faced by students who want to design their own major is ignorance. Many members of the Harvard community, students and faculty alike, are not aware of the interdisciplinary option. At the beginning of last term, when one special concentrator looked for a departmental meeting within her house, she says she was met with a joke about being "special."
"I went to ask one of the masters of my house where I should go, and he didn't even know that Special Concentrations existed," she says. Both the master and a medical school professor "thought I was kidding," she says.
Special Concentrations' shrouded nature is partially deliberate. The department consciously does not advertise. "We're not pushing Special Concentrations, says Carol S. Thorne, the Special Concentrations Department staff assistant. "We prefer to be found."
However, many of those who find the department, despite the dearth of billboards, say they feel they are "getting the things that Harvard is made of," as Allison B. Charney '89 puts it.
Charney says she wants to be an opera singer and decided on Harvard rather than a conservatory in order to approach her interests in "a well-rounded intellectual way."
Her special concentration allows her to get both a liberal arts education and the training she needs for music. "I wanted to learn the languages necessary, history and fundamental music background." Her program has entailed studying French, German and Italian as well as personal voice coaching from Professor of Music Earl Kim. One of her projects was an attempt to transcribe music passed down orally in her family from her great-great-grandfather who was a cantor in Russia, she says.
Special Concentrations is intended to be a "safety valve" for "students whose interests would not otherwise be accommodated in the normal framework" of the college, says Professor of Applied Mathematics Anthony G. Oettinger, chairman of the Standing Committee on Special Concentrations. "It's an option available to students who have exhausted all the options," says Special Concentrations Director and Head Tutor Georgene B. Herschbach.