Confessions of a Group III History Concentrator
Ididn't come to Harvard to study. I admitted this on my application too, so no one can say I didn't give fair warning. On the essay asking how I envisioned my stay here, I wrote a lot about working on The Crimson and schmoozing with friends. As I look back, that seems as fair an estimation of my Harvard career as any.
I don't think my casual approach to academics is unusual here. Reading period is, after all, designed to encourage students to goof off splendidly throughout the semester. Most non-science concentrators spend fewer than 15 hours a week in class, and Harvard doesn't exactly have an attendance policy.
This institutional mellowness toward academics is always fresh cause for horror to neophyte editorial writers who came to Harvard expecting Athens on the Charles. Columns beginning with "At this great institution of higher learning.." appear every fall with the regularity of Undergraduate Council election scandals. A few years ago a bunch of hard-working students even started what must be the first support group for academics at an Ivy League college, the humorously titled "Society of Nerds and Geeks."
Behind this facade of intellectual indifference, of course, some undergraduates study furiously. Senior year is when these industrious academics reap their reward; a few of my friends have spent more time applying for fellowships than I have no entire Core classes.
If often seems that Harvard is made up of two kinds of students: those who call actually define words like "dialectic" and "apotheosis," and those like me, who mostly view classes as they do green vegetables--no doubt nutritious, but to be skipped whenever possible.
So I find myself at a disadvantage when it comes to editorializing about academics "at this great institution of higher learning." When a New York Times reporter called to ask me how accessible I thought my professors were, I had to admit that usually my professors were trying to find me, not the other war around. And when the topic du jour is grade inflation, I'm a less-than-objective pundit.
To top off my reputation as an academic tortoise, I did, indeed concentrate in history. With relatively lax requirements and a reputation for a high baseball cap quotient, the History Department is often regarded as the perfect repository for those taking the slow lane through Harvard. I have long suspected that more than one of my more academically inclined friends (particularly those in the honorsconcentrations of Social Studies and History and Literature) think of me as the archetypical history concentrator.
As an advanced-standing first year, concentrating in history was the first serious choice I made at Harvard. I have been affiliated with the History Department longer than I have written for the Crimson and longer than I've known almost all of my friends here. The two best classes I've taken at Harvard were my sophomore and junior tutorials.
While I've certainly enjoyed history's painless demands, my reasons for choosing history were never pragmatic ones. I had first thought of doing a joint concentration with government but found myself constantly frustrated by the theoretical structures discussed in the government course I took. I didn't care what some Ph.D. hypothesized about 20 years after the fact; I wanted to know what had actually been going on. Or at least what people at the time thought was going on.
Since then, I often explain to people that I like history (the discipline if not always the department) because it is the only social science that actually values the opinions of its subjects. Put another way, historians rely far less on theory than do their fellow social scientists. Bernard Bailyn's brilliant classic, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, investigates the roots of late 18th century American political thought. Had it been written by a professor of another social science, the title might have been something along the lines of Dissent and Its Other: Theoretical Explorations of the 18th Century American Psyche.
It's nothing personal. I am, after all, the daughter of a Social Studies concentrator and a Gov jock. My sister concentrates in Women's Studies, surely one of the most theory-ridden fields at Harvard. But I tend to break out in hives at the merest whiff of theory. The word "epistemological" is enough to make me leave the room.
History's battered image as something of a lesser social science is also due to a mistaken notion that "anyone can do it," More than any other area of study, history seems like the same sort of thing we all did in high school. (English is a close second, but find me a high school sophomore who knows what "deconstructionist" means), As a biology concentrator and former roommate once said to me, "Gosh, Lori, I don't see why you're so bad at remembering facts. After all, you're the history major."
While history certainly encompasses far more than lists of constitutional amendments and dates of admission to the Union, it is equally true that there are times when "just the facts, ma'am" is a noble and difficult path to pursue in and of itself. Regardless of whether they think it comes in objective or subjective forms, historians are, at the core, interested in finding out the truth. It is, in some senses, journalism of the past. It thus no surprise to find that much of then history of the present is being written by authors trained as journalists.
I've often wanted to write the evaluating of the History department for The Crimson's Confidential Guide, but as almost professor in the American wing knows, I'm not good at deadlines. The Confi Guide has, year in and year out, proclaimed the department an isolated bastion of old-white-maleness, relucant to change and unwilling to tenure.
Much of this is true. Yet, while I'm certainly no apologist for the department (memo to Bisson: hire some 20th century Americanists and offer tenure in the American wing more than once every 20 years), I often feel picking on the byzantine bureaucracy of Robinson Hall misses the point. I am a History concentrator because I like history, not because I like the structure. If a friendly and flexible group of mentors had been my first priority, I wouldn't be at Harvard.
I will remember my career at Harvard mostly for the editorials I wrote and the friends I made. My diploma will not have any Latin on it. But on my rare excursions into academia, I had the joy of studying a subject I truly loved. And in that, I suspect, I am very lucky indeed.
Lori E. Smith '92-'94 was associate editorial chair of The Crimson. She wants to thank Jessica Marshall for reminding her why she fell in love with history in the first place.