The Roof, The Roof Is On Fire
“In case of a fire alarm take only your exam copy and exam booklets. Proceed to the closest exit and assemble at [designated meeting location]. Stay together but do not discuss the exam. Keep your exam booklets closed.”
By the time you graduate from Harvard, you have heard these words at least a dozen times. As the litany of rules are read—from bathroom breaks to going “incommunicado” to University Health Services—we never pay attention.
In the minutes preceding my last exam at Harvard though, I began to imagine...
The fire alarm goes off in the Science Center, and one-by-one, the 250 people in my class have their attentions pulled away from the behavior of eukaryotic cells. The head TF gets on the microphone, “Everyone keep your exams with you and head to your nearest exit.” And still, everyone remains calm as they slowly head up the aisles—a few people are still working.
When the first group reaches the doors, they open them to find the Science Center literally ablaze (something involving the Indian food at the Greenhouse Café). As rafters fall from the ceiling, and freshman start taking cellphone pictures of a melting MacBook, I try to make my way out of the building, pausing occasionally to try and help a fellow classmate. The whole time I’m thinking—“If only I didn’t have this goddamn exam booklet in my hand.” I look around me to see others waving their burning tests like Fourth of July sparklers and struggling to save themselves with only one free hand. Somehow, we all make it out alive, and Gawker has a field day with it. Under media scrutiny, Harvard finally has no excuse but to build a real student union atop the ashes of the Science Center.
I snap out of my daydream 30 minutes into my final, but keep thinking...
In many ways, this pseudo-amputee circus has come to be a symbol for everything I see as awful (and admirable) about Harvard. No matter what time of day or setting, Harvard encourages a culture where its students must have the proverbial exam booklet in their hands at all times. It starts with issues like the emphasis of grade point average and the disincentive for academic risk taking, and it ends with a handicapped, competitive groping toward the models of Success and Glory.
To begin with, Harvard has been overall unsuccessful in its attempts to provide a liberal-arts education. The burden of unexciting, core survey courses combined with fairly strict and rigorous concentration requirements provide for very little room to truly experiment. On top of this, the cutthroat environment around letter grades and GPA, which is perhaps unwittingly fostered by departments, the administration, and the Office of Career Services, ensures that even if we do test uncharted waters, we won’t really have the courage to do anything with it. Our hands are full—or at least one is.
Just literally, if you’re missing a hand, it makes a lot of things difficult, especially building something from scratch. Without that extra hand, Harvard students fumble their own imaginations. As a result, creativity exists at Harvard but only in trace amounts. With that exam booklet always in hand, most people only have time to create a persona rather than their masterpieces. We get walking, talking works-of-art rather than artists. We all have things to say, but even the best fall victim to the environment and the little Type-A sixth grader huddled inside their souls. For this, I’ll blame Harvard:
When I’ve gone to OCS to talk about jobs in arts/entertainment/media, the response I usually get is like when I was nine and told my parents I wanted to play in the NBA with Michael Jordan—“Oh, I’m sure you could, sweetheart.” Yes, Harvard has Visual and Environmental Studies, creative theses, literature magazines, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, but this comes nowhere close to meeting demand on campus, especially compared to resources for non-humanities and finance. Harvard has implicitly stifled creativity while not fostering it in those who are willing to take the risk.
Perhaps the worst part of our handicapped environment is how little Harvard focuses on undergraduate extracurricular life—and how that translates into the way we treat each other. The lack of student free-space (coupled with the constant bad weather), the bad dining hall food, the lack of university-planned events, the lack of unique house identity, and aggressive dorm and drinking rules have placed the responsibility of Harvard’s social life in the hands of student-run extracurricular organizations and clubs. The result of all this is a derisive and dividing Culture of Exclusion through which students seclude themselves in autonomous micro-nations who are all at-odds with each other.
Harvard, loosen up, so that your students can do the same. Get rid of GPA incentives, the Core or Gen Ed, and make it easier for students to use their imaginations for things besides financial models. Make your students a real home-away-from-home where they have plenty of space to relax, and they don’t have to beg members of the Delphic for a beer. Let them leave the exam room without those meaningless pieces of paper when it’s all burning down. Because when we finally face the flames, whether that means incredible, unseen opportunity or unfortunate, life-questioning failure or just a lonely, great idea, we’re going to need both of our hands to make it through to the other side.
Andrew F. Nunnelly, a Crimson arts writer, ’10 is an English concentrator in Lowell House.