Janus-Faced Harvard

Old habits die hard. Consequently, after two years of writing editorial columns about undergraduate life at Harvard, I can’t resist one final go before critical introspection turns into wistful retrospection. When trying to categorize the Harvard experience, though, it is strange to think how Harvard means so many different things to different people, both within and without the University. That range of perceptions reflects the ways in which Harvard has changed over the past few decades, moving away from its roots as a college serving the elites of New England towards its new role as the undergraduate portion of the world’s foremost research university. Doubtless, the shift will continue, and will probably accelerate—but administrators, alumni and students alike should recognize that Harvard abandons its past at its peril.

From the outside—and, indeed, sometimes from the inside as well—Harvard today can appear much as it was 50 years ago. Certainly, there is more diversity than ever before, but the College remains the home of countless black tie balls, lavish dinners and drunken garden parties. As a result many observers seem to think that spoiled students can idle away their time here, thanks in large part to rampant grade inflation, before slipping effortlessly into the upper echelons of American society.

For others, the Harvard experience seems quite different. As John Rockwell put it, writing in last Friday’s New York Times, “If Harvard still deserves its image for snobbery now, it’s a different kind of snobbery, the snobbery of a perhaps excessively self-aware meritocracy.” Moreover, with its hefty workloads and half-hearted emphasis on anything other than academics, the College not only acknowledges the cutthroat nature of Harvard today, it encourages it.

In practice, of course, Harvard is neither an aristocratic finishing school nor a meritocratic hothouse. Or, to be more precise, it’s both. Indeed, the College often reminds me of Janus, the two-headed god of classical mythology: Harvard constantly looks back to its storied past without ever losing sight of its glittering prospects and lofty ambitions for the future. The resulting blend can be somewhat strange, as anyone who seen tuxedoed students rushing back from House formals to work on physics problem sets can attest.

Nevertheless, some mixture of studying and socializing is not just inevitable, it is also highly desirable. It is self-evident that top-tier colleges should force students to engage with their studies; it should be similarly obvious that a college career spent doing little away from the library or the laboratory is also something of a waste. In many ways, Harvard’s superior reputation comes not just from its academic prowess—students at MIT or the University of Chicago, for example, are forced to cram far harder than Harvard undergraduates—but for the way it has traditionally fostered excellence both inside and outside the classroom.

There are worrying signs, however, that the current Harvard administration may be seeking to force future generations of students to spend more time on academics and less on non-intellectual pursuits. In the past incoming students were counseled by then-Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68—one of the most intelligent and sympathetic individuals it has been my good fortune to meet over the past few years—to slow down in order to get more out of college. In August 2002 Lewis wisely wrote to Harvard undergraduates, “The human relationships you form in unstructured time with your roommates and friends may have a stronger influence on your later life than the content of some of the courses you are taking.”

But less than a month after Lewis’ letter, new Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby struck a distinctly different tone when addressing the incoming class of 2006. “You are here to work, and your business here is to learn,” he commanded. Last March, Lewis was summarily forced to step down by Kirby and University President Lawrence H. Summers. Subsequently, Summers has insisted that the removal of Lewis in no way reflected changed administrative priorities, moving away from a holistic conception of college life towards a more intense focus on academics. Does he mean it? Only time will tell.

As things stand, however, Harvard itself seems—to me, at least—to have gotten the balance more or less right. Consequently, students here have the wonderful opportunity to make what they want of college. Everyone is forced to crack their books—and to crack them seriously. Indeed, many students choose to make academics the focus of their college careers. Many others, though, pour much of their energy into activities as diverse as athletics, acting, student government or, dare I say it, journalism. To suggest that all those students would have been better served by spending extra hours every week nosing around musty libraries is nonsense.

Harvard right now might strike an awkward balance between the old and the new. Still, I worry that by the time the Class of 2004 returns for its 25th reunion, Harvard undergraduates will face a far more serious problem—that the College they attend will no longer seriously value anything other than number crunching and fact absorption. I hope that it is nothing more a groundless fear. But it is an ironic truth that if Harvard totally discards its aristocratic heritage, the College that remains will be a meritocracy of limited merit.

Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04, a history concentrator in Lowell House, was staff director of The Crimson in 2003. He wrote an editorial column from 2002 to 2004.