Far too many Harvard students find themselves in an agonizing situation on study card day: they have to choose between several really bad classes. Because they have to take their Core Curriculum courses and finish their concentration requirements, all while every good class seems to meet at the same time in the spring term (has anyone else noticed that it’s hard to find any good classes in the fall but that it is a struggle to pick between them in the spring?), they are compelled to take classes that are uninteresting, poorly taught, full of busy work, or some combination thereof. Even in the midst of all this misery, many dream of pursuing a secondary field, an attractive complement to their primary area of expertise
For those of you in that situation, I have some sage, seniorly advice: don’t bother. That’s right. Your diploma may have one less line printed on it. Your mother who wishes you went to a college where you could triple-major might be angry. You may even worry that your chances of landing a consulting job will be in jeopardy. But you will be a happier and better person if you cut the secondary field loose.
Why? One word: electives. You already have to take enough courses you don’t like (thank your concentration and/or the Core). Electives provide the rare opportunity to try something at which you might be terrible (that’s what pass/fail is for) or something that will have value outside and beyond the call of a career (in other words, don’t think I’m encouraging you to cross register in a class on hedge funds at MIT). You might even enjoy doing the reading.
In three-and-a-half years, my favorite classes (perhaps beyond a few advanced courses in my concentration) have been classes in which I never expected I would find myself. They did not count for Core credit, certificates, or anything else—they simply caught my eye while I skimmed the Courses of Instruction or CUE (Q?) Guide at 2 a.m., and I firmly believe that I am a more interesting and educated human being because I have taken them. These are the hidden gems, the type of unusual, valuable experiences that the Core attempts—and often fails—to force upon students. If you have a secondary field, you will not have the opportunity to take those special classes—you just won’t have the slots.
You may also ruin your senior spring. As a senior working tirelessly on my thesis, I can assure you that you that when you reach this point, you will want to take one or two fun, interesting classes that are a complete diversion from research. Because I’m done with everything but Historical Studies B, I’m spending the term getting cultured taking both music and art history.
Far too many of my friends, on the other hand, are going through “complete your secondary field” syndrome—they already took a few courses in a department and feel like they might as well grind out those last required courses to finish a “Harvard minor.” Or perhaps they always planned to take a secondary field but put off some particularly ghastly requirements until the very end. Either way, their last taste of Harvard academics will be sitting in lectures they would rather not be in, reading things they don’t really care for, and writing dry papers.
That’s not to say that secondary fields are entirely bad. There are some people whose interests really do lie in two disparate fields that cannot be combined with a joint concentration. And, as was pointed out when secondary fields were introduced, the option does add some flexibility to an all-too-unforgiving system.
But far too many students take a secondary field or a certificate for the wrong reason—their resume. In truth, that extra line on your resume will matter far less than having enjoyed and profited from your classes in college.
Adam M. Guren ’08, a Crimson editorial chair emeritus, is an economics concentrator in Eliot House.