Harvard’s culture of requirements limits genuine curiosity

“You’re concentrating in history and science and taking my class?” my molecular biology professor asked. “So that must mean you’re pre-med, right?”

“No,” I responded slowly. “Actually, I’m not.”

“Wow! I’m really impressed!” he exclaimed, with a genuinely surprised expression on his face. “You’re taking this class because you’re interested in the material!?”

At that moment, I honestly, truly wanted to cry. There I was, sitting in my professor’s office at the end of his weekly office hours, and I could hardly hold back my tears. I had a test the next day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that my own professor expects to teach to an audience whose primary goal is not to explore an interest, but to fulfill a requirement. I had never felt as disappointed in the meaning of a Harvard education.

I came here after having incredible science research mentors in high school, who had fostered my interests with scrupulous care and good humor. I had known early on that I was unlikely to pursue science as a career path, but I arrived in Cambridge freshman year determined to explore molecular biology during my time here. I had no career interest in the field, but I was intellectually passionate about the ideas I found.

So I took

Chem 15.

And BS 50.

And Chem 20.

And BS 52.

In those classes, I encountered an incredibly driven pre-med population. They worked exceedingly hard in class, often forming study groups on Friday and Saturday nights. I was impressed by their diligence, but I was also continually frustrated by their unabated emphasis on grades. They memorized lectures and regurgitated textbooks in hopes of an extra two points on an exam, but I found that few of them were ever truly excited about the material they toiled over. And slowly, disturbingly, I found that my own interest in molecular biology was waning.

So here I am, beginning my fourth semester at Harvard by shopping zero science classes. I still love learning about how life works, but I can’t stomach the thought of continuing to learn it with the attitude that I’ve encountered here.

My conceptions of my peers, as well as of intellectual life at Harvard, have been thrown into turmoil. I now question the value of intellectual passion in a world that seems increasingly to be based on grades, course requirements and career prospects. I question the effectiveness and sensibility of our cutthroat GPA and exam-based academic structure. But I also question the mindset of science professors and of my fellow students. At what point did professors automatically expect that their students studied their subject matters because of career requirements rather than intellectual appeal? Why are so many of my fellow students so hell-bent on requirements instead of passion? What happened to that sense of academic adventure, excitement and curiosity?

Even more disturbingly, I suspect that this is not simply a phenomenon in the sciences. Economics majors obsess about consulting and banking jobs, government majors go to great lengths to foster connections and even history majors obsess early and often about the LSATs. Harvard now spews out so many pre-meds, pre-laws, pre-bankers, pre-politicians and pre-consultants. In this world of “pre’s”, it seems that we’re at a loss for students.

As I was preparing to leave my professor’s office, he said, “You know, you have your whole life ahead of you. You can do anything you want. You’ve kept your options open.”

I know I’ve kept my options open, dear professor, but I can’t help but feel that you—and, more importantly, the mindset you represent—keep trying to close them.

Irene Y. Sun ’07, a Crimson design co-chair, is a history and science concentrator in Mather House.