No Sense to Excessive Reading
What are they thinking? I ask myself this question during intersession, as I wearily look at the piles of books and papers hiding the floor of my room. I allow myself to address the question only after my last final, when my answer is less likely to be biased by the stress of exam period.
Yet, even now, as the spring semester begins, the question still lingers. As I flip through syllabi and browse reading lists, I question the professors of this fine school. What are my professors thinking when they assign such overwhelming amounts of reading? Do they honestly think it feasible to read, understand and appreciate 150 pages of dense reading each week? Are they not aware that Harvard students are enrolled in other courses, that students also have a life outside of academia? Since when did more become synonymous with better when it comes to education?
Like many Harvard students, I used to spend endless hours studying before finals and midterms. I tried to absorb every bit of information assigned, in the hope of avoiding any unpleasant surprises on the exam. Although mastering all of that knowledge was feasible, the cost, I realized, was too high--and not worth paying.
I was not alone in my agony. I looked around during exam period and watched other students as they walked through the Yard on their way to take a test. I observed them as they entered the library carrying a bag almost half their weight. I noticed their expression as they sat in agitated silence in the classroom prior to taking an exam while ensuring that they had all the crucial information memorized. What I heard or saw was not curiosity but anguish, not excitement but anxiety, not active pursuit but passive resignation.
Does the pain, at the very least, lead to meaningful gain? What is the nature of our relief when we look back upon a semester, or a year? When the semester is over, do we acknowledge and appreciate the significance of all we have learned, or are we simply glad to be done?
It took me a while, but I finally decided that for me the pain just wasn't worth it. I started looking for ways that would make my academic life here tolerable. I divided and conquered material through study groups. I discovered the succinct summaries available in bookstores (better known as Cliffs Notes). I mastered the art of skimming and learned how to gauge what my TFs and professors wanted. For the first time since coming to Harvard, I was able to devote more time to material that I found interesting.
Yet the initial question still resonates strongly and remains unanswered. In a stressful environment, is there any room for reflection, let alone creativity? Is this the essence of good education? How much of what we memorize for a test actually stays with us?
Considering the current situation, it is not surprising that we constantly hear sarcastic remarks. "Half of what you learn in college is not important, the other half you forget." Or, "people enter school as question marks and leave as periods." Sometimes, "it doesn't matter what we think but what our professors are thinking."
To this, our professors might respond, "we don't expect students to do all of the reading. Our goal is to provide students with a wide array of sources relevant to the subject matter we are teaching. It is the task of students to identify what they are passionate about. It is their task to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant material and to separate it from the insignificant and irrelevant. We want our students to be well-rounded and to prepare them for the real world, a world that is characterized by overwhelming amounts of information."
This, I admit, is a valid argument and there is no doubt that our professors have good intentions. Obviously, there is no conspiracy to make students suffer.
The problem, however, resides in the inconsistency between intention and action. If we are encouraged to identify our passions, if we are expected to isolate the important and the relevant and to focus our energy primarily in that direction, then why are we so often tested on the irrelevant and unimportant? Why is it that in order to do well on a test we must familiarize ourselves with minor facts and extraneous knowledge? How can the memorization of titles and dates of 200 paintings in an art class be considered important? How does an entire section of ID's on a history test allow students the liberty of focusing on their passions? Is this what constitutes a well-rounded education?
Some might say that in my support for less reading, I am endorsing the easy, short route. This is not my intention. I am merely suggesting the application of Occam's Razor to our reading list--assign as much as necessary and as little as possible. It is time our teachers start favoring quality over quantity.
Only after our teachers begin to expect reasonable amounts of work from us will passion replace indifference, mindful reflection replace mindless memorization and creative expression replace mechanical regurgitation. Then, perhaps, the beginning of the semester will no longer be a time for fear and trepidation but for eager anticipation.
Zeev Ben Shachar '01 is a psychology concentrator in Kirkland House.