Nothing To Fear...

Postcard From Cambridge, England

I came to Britain with thoughts of the Core far from my mind, thinking instead about research in making big molecules, going to as many music festivals as possible, and how best to gain an appreciation for the River Cam. But unexpectedly, my encounters have got me thinking about my education and that perhaps the real value of a liberal arts education lies somewhere beyond the traditional claim that its value is in having a broad field of knowledge.

On one of my first days in the other Cambridge, I went to morning tea with some people in the lab. As we sat down with our drinks and snacks, the conversation drifted to comparisons between Harvard and Cambridge. A postdoc offhandedly commented that a friend of hers, a graduate student from America, knew less chemistry than the typical British undergrad because American students spend so much time taking classes unrelated to their major. That mild complaint sums up the American “liberal arts education” belief that a broad education is beneficial to the development of the student as a scholar and a citizen.

Sitting in the dining hall or hanging out in the college bar, conversations with first or second-year Cambridge students flowed from British TV to the limitations placed on American history by its relative youth, and from the theory behind my chemistry research to the mannerisms of British men. One conversation I remember vividly was about Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – not because of what was said, but because I had it with a math student. It became clear to me that the students of Cambridge are well-educated and well-read with a broad field of knowledge, even without the guidance of the Core. This should be no surprise – students as driven and ambitious as the ones at Cambridge or Harvard are often curious about fields other than their own.

But the surprising thing I keep hearing whenever I’m asked about my classes and I mention that class in, say, moral reasoning, is a few groans and mumbles of sympathy, then a declaration of fear. When I told a girl studying natural sciences (something abbreviated and pronounced “natsky”), she looked at me in pity, then said, “Thank God I don’t have to write papers anymore. I stopped at 16, and I can’t write them anymore.” Paper writing suddenly sounds like an unfortunate affliction with a tortured history and a feared presence. Similarly, a history student who heard about the quantitative reasoning requirement shuddered and mumbled, “I would never graduate if they had that here.”

This is where they are wrong. These are the same students who have Saturday morning lectures from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., a feat I can’t even fathom. These are the same students whose grades for the entire year depend solely on the five or so finals they take at the end of their Easter term; the same students who, faced with the pressure of consecutive finals for a whole week, are nonetheless friendly and relatively calm – they clearly can survive a literature paper. Their way of education does have a benefit: total immersion in their subject of choice, narrowed down gradually over their three years here (from natural sciences to chemistry, for example, or from history to modern European history), is the central focus that demands all of their attention. But it also has a clear downside.

I am convinced that writing papers and doing problem sets are neither bad habits to be dropped at 16 nor something fatal to one’s academic career. Perhaps the Core doesn’t provide a broad field of knowledge, but what it does is force us to overcome certain trepidations about our academic weaknesses. We lose that focus, perhaps, but we also shed that element of fear that my friends on this side of the pond can’t seem to shake.

M. Patricia Li ’07, a chemistry concentrator in Lowell House, is an arts editor of The Harvard Crimson. She a, longs for Glastonbury and b, didn’t take any Core classes this year.

Recommended Articles