Three Classes, One Semester

Dissenting from the “six class elite”

On a Tuesday afternoon several years in the future, Noone U. Noh ’18 momentarily regretted his decision to enroll in three classes.

He had the entire day free (after all, he doesn’t have class on Tuesdays, Thursdays, or Fridays) and was looking for someone to go to the American wing of the Museum of Fine Arts with him.

“No one had time,” he said. “One of my friends was crashing on Adderall because she had a take-home midterm, and another takes six classes and actually laughed in my face when I asked him.”

So Noh went alone—a seemingly dismal prospect that turned into an “amazing” afternoon when he met a group of Boston University students who were on a class field trip to the museum, one of whom he exchanged numbers with.

“Most of my friends will complain that no one at Harvard ever goes on dates, that everyone just hooks up. Maybe that’s because in general people don’t do much for fun other than go to parties.” He laughed. “My Tuesday date with myself turned into a date with a girl who seems way cooler than me—not a bad deal.”

Noh reports that taking three classes has also led to many remarkable academic experiences in those courses. Last week, Noh was working on a paper on “The Education of Henry Adams” for an early twentieth-century American literature class he is taking. In lecture (which, he noted somewhat pointedly, he was “able to attend every time, unlike the rest of my classmates”), the professor described the book as having “changed his life.”

“The boy sitting next to me in class, who’s an editor on the Crimson, wrote down ‘life-changing’ in his notes. Hopefully when he reads the Wikipedia summary, it has the same effect.”

In the same class, Noh came across William James’ description of “exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success” as “our national disease,” which leads to a “moral flabbiness.”

“That applies really well to Harvard, too, I think,” he said. “I really believe that education can make you a better person, but worshipping academic success qua success doesn’t seem like the way to do that.”

Noh acknowledges downsides to his decision to take three classes. “There are many, many courses I wish I could take and things I wish I could learn about. Deciding to take only three classes meant giving things up, but I wanted to see what I could gain by giving things up. Admittedly, this isn’t a very ‘Harvard’ way of thinking about the world. But I’ve found it a really rewarding experiment.”

A growing body of education theory and sociological research supports what Noh claims by intuition: by stepping back, paring down, and focusing effort, students can become happier and more engaged in what they do. But few students internalize that advice to the point that they change their lifestyles. Part of the reason may not have to do with conscious choice: Experiments by researchers at University of North Carolina and Duke have shown that young people are significantly less realistic about over-committing time than money, for instance, even when they claim to consider carefully their options.

To Noh, the problem, at least at Harvard, has more to do with a culture of competitiveness, which emphasizes indicators of merit (which can be compared and judged) over intimations of deeper meaning (which are purely personal pleasures). The hero of this culture is the ambitious academic jerk, the student who wants his friends to know that he works harder and stresses more than any of them.

Aside from students who are completing their degrees on an expedited track for financial reasons, “taking as many classes as you can handle is one manifestation of this attitude,” he noted. “Obviously, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with taking six classes. The bigger dilemma is whether making a decision like that means that having taken six classes—or, frankly, three—should define who you are Harvard. Where else would taking six classes in and of itself be an academic achievement? An academic achievement is having a paper published or contributing significantly to a body of scientific knowledge.

“Without wanting to sound too gushy,” Noh said, “I’ve just come to realize that life isn’t boring, that there are always an infinite number of new ways to engage. ‘Exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success’ is one way, for sure. And I suppose someone has to valorize those people, because I know that what worshipping success means is that you end up mostly just feeling failure. But if you actually do your reading—or even if you just push yourself to try to look at life through the broadest lens possible—I think you see that there are plenty of other altars to pray at, and plenty of other, higher gods to spend your life following.”

Julian Baird Gewirtz ’13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears biweekly.

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