The Gravity of Extracurriculars
Extracurricular life and a professional atmosphere exert pressures at the expense of academics
In the aftermath of the Government 1310 cheating scandal, much attention has been paid to student-teacher relationships at Harvard and to the terms of collaboration policies and Administrative Board protocols. Among others, Sarah Lawrence College professor Nicolaus Mills ’60 and former Dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis ’68 recently presented their critical appraisals of Harvard’s predominant campus values in interviews with the Crimson, finding faults with a culture of academic overachievement, with administrative proceedings, and with the scant efforts paid by some faculty members in the teaching of undergraduates. We at The Crimson believe that it is critically important to examine the pressures exerted by extracurricular life and pre-professional attitudes on students in all extracurricular groups, including our own.
The idea that an air of excessive seriousness surrounds extracurricular pursuits here at Harvard is not an entirely new one: As early as 1957, The Crimson pointed out the growing professionalism of student groups, warning that activities taking place outside of the classroom could end up demanding more and more of the efforts and dedication of undergraduates at the severe expense of academics. “There is evidence that the leisurely quest for…constructive relaxation…has been transformed into an intense drive for the kind of competence that has always been held more characteristic of the business world,” Steven R. Rivkin ’58 wrote in the year before his graduation.
Extracurricular life at Harvard is certainly rich, but also intense, time demanding, and not insulated from pre-professional pressures. True, many of us will have been partly motivated in our extracurricular endeavors by the desire to strengthen credentials for future job or graduate school applications. In this mix of passion and aspirations, however, lay the seeds of a culture of extracurricular over-commitment, which businessman and journalist James Atlas cogently described in 2011 in an op-ed for the New York Times, in which he talked of an increase in “striving, working, doing” at colleges around the country. At its best, such a campus culture fosters entrepreneurship and hard work. At its worst, it causes students with overly hectic schedules to resort to academic shortcuts.
While there is no hard-and-fast response to the culture of over-commitment that surrounds extracurricular life at Harvard, we would like to quote the words of Harry R. Lewis, who wrote an open letter to students in 2004 about such matters: “Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled: It is the thing that enables the other things on your mind to be creatively rearranged,” Lewis wrote. “Like the empty square in the 4-by-4 puzzle which makes it possible to move the other 15 pieces around.”