Like many other American liberal arts colleges, Harvard encourages students to dabble until they can select what makes them most passionate. Yet, as many members of the Class of 2009 must by now realize, the merits of Harvard’s freshman year are equaled by its defects; from the academic to the social sphere, freshman year cheats first-year students of the full range of possibilities available to them and makes adjusting to Harvard a more difficult experience than it need be.
Freshman year is introductory by its very nature, and, like all classes before it, the current freshman class is using its first year to join student organizations, find a concentration, and, not least, enjoy a social life. Yet unlike most other liberal arts colleges, at Harvard this process of discovery is compressed into the space of only two semesters. Our professors believe that students need an intensive three-year program in a specific field, complete with its own course of tutorials, which must start at the beginning of sophomore year. This adds a specific pressure to Harvard’s freshman year that is not felt by students at other programs across the country.
Even as they attempt to decide on three-year programs of concentration, first year students are crowded with other requirements. First of all, there is the much-maligned Expository Writing requirement. If all goes well under the present Curricular Review, Expos will be subjected to a number of intelligent changes, making it a more integrated part of the first-year academic experience and giving more weight to the role of “preceptors,” currently among the lowest-paid teachers at Harvard. Although Expos may not be a fun course, it is a crucial part of how freshman year equalizes students’ future opportunities, simply by helping all students develop a similar capacity to write argumentative essays.
The real headaches begin with the Core Curriculum. In order to start fulfilling Core requirements, many students are encouraged to take the classes that least reflect their interests—that way they will be sure that whatever concentration they may pick, the classes will count for Core credit. These classes, however, are no help in understanding what one’s primary academic interest will be. On the other hand, those who ignore Cores freshman year are persecuted by requirements for the rest of their college career. Under pressure to take classes that will count towards a requirement, far fewer students enroll in a spring freshman seminar than do in the fall, because these seminars, which do not have letter grades, count only as elective courses.
Beyond the direct effect of Core requirements, the underlying academic flaw of freshman year is that students are encouraged to take classes which do not actually represent the bulk of Harvard’s offerings. Many students spend two entire terms without taking a regular, 100-level departmental class. Distracted by Cores, freshman seminars, language classes (a requirement for many), introductory classes such as History 10b, or big science lectures that are often requirements for medical school, first-year students do not get their teeth into the kind of classes they will be taking throughout the rest of their academic careers. These introductory offerings are often watered-down experiences for which one really doesn’t need to come to Harvard. Furthermore, students trapped in introductory lectures are left to choose a concentration without full knowledge of what awaits them in regular departmental classes. Except for the rather unique freshman seminars, there is not a lot about the average Harvard freshman year that makes it Harvard-specific: much of the learning could have taken place in an environment far less particular (and particularly less expensive).
The difficulty of making good first-year academic decisions is compounded by the fact that freshmen are separated from upperclassmen, the only people who might be able to give them an insight into the complex Harvard College experience. Instead, their advisors are usually residential proctors, who, unless they themselves were undergraduates at Harvard, have only a foggy idea of the challenges facing freshmen. As it stands, freshmen give each other bad advice and grow up more slowly and separately from the rest of the college. As much as we dislike praising Yale, their system of placing integrated groups of motivated juniors and seniors into the freshman dorms is not at all a bad idea.
Looking back at my own freshman year, I can’t think of one of my friends for whom the experience was not difficult. We felt much pressure and were uncertain about how to confront the new challenges. As we moved through college, we all gained confidence; each of us gradually developed clear academic interests and friendships which gave us grounding. And in the meantime, we observed with a newfound sense of our own expertise that there was a new set of novices struggling to make things work.
Nevertheless, the fact that there is a happy outcome for most students does not mean that their first-year suffering is justified. On the contrary, Harvard College should do a lot more for its first-year students. Certainly, a “sink or swim” mentality produces accomplished individuals, but the costs are far too high. If the Curricular Review lessens freshmen’s requirements and increases their chances of mixing with upperclassmen and taking real Harvard classes, being a student here might not involve so many growing pains.
Alexander Bevilacqua ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Leverett House.