​A Tip From Einstein

Why our schedules—and our lives—should stop running on Harvard time

The Far Side

When Albert Einstein received a message from a bellboy at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, the great theoretical physicist, who was traveling in Japan for a 1922 lecture tour, reached for a tip—and found his pockets empty. Improvising, Einstein grabbed a scrap of hotel stationery, scribbled a short note in German, and gave it to the bellboy. “A calm and modest life,” the tip read, “brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

As new policies relativize Harvard space and Harvard Time—with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’s move to Allston in 2020 and the new class schedule slated for next fall—students protesting these changes could use this tip from the man who first coined the idea of space-time in 1905.

Harvard’s current timetable, now largely made of back-to-back hour-long classes, will change next fall to four blocks of 75 minute class periods with three 15 minute passing periods between each block. Longer labs and seminars will have meeting periods at designated times during the day. The upshot: The class time required by a normal minimum course load (four classes meeting three times per week) will increase from 12 hours to 17 hours and 15 minutes—three hours of added class time, two hours and 15 minutes of passing periods.

Left out of these revisions, of course, is the College’s unofficial seven minute time dilation between classes—affectionately known as Harvard time. As members of the Harvard habitus quickly learn, every class, social event, or extracurricular club meeting begins seven minutes after the scheduled start time, giving students with color-blocked Google calendars time to travel from one seamlessly scheduled event to the next. Harvard time is a storied tradition and a way of undergraduate life. (It’s even a YouTube channel.) And it’s not going down without a fight.

Crusades to rescue Harvard Time from the administration’s new schedule have ranged from Google Form petitions, to plaintive editorial laments, to fiery statistics-spewing op-eds. The arguments are compelling—not so much for their persuasive force, but for their wholesale devotion to “constant restlessness” over any pause in the Harvard schedule. But Einstein would disagree with most of these protestors. As his tip to the bellboy makes clear, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of passing periods.

The most serious arguments against the new schedule, leveraged in the key terms of Economics 10, claim that the current schedule maximizes efficiency and minimizes the opportunity cost of idle passing periods. They charge that the modified timetable is only efficient for the minority of students commuting from Cambridge to Allston, and otherwise wastes 22 years of student time—and encroaches on meetings for extracurricular organizations.

But what do we mean by efficiency? To many Harvard undergraduates, efficiency means back-to-back-to-back commitments squeezing every last ounce of overextended activity into the daily to-do list. We don’t seem to mind that seven minutes of class time are lost in the logistical maelstrom. We want lectures, sections, lunch dates, practices, and club meetings to run bumper to bumper, so our schedules will be as “efficient” as commitment traffic jams.

But is that why we came to Harvard? We talk about the opportunity cost of extending classes and adding 15 minutes of passing time in between, but what about the opportunity cost of spending four years at a top university, too busy to take full advantage of its intellectual resources?

We become so obsessed by “constant restlessness” that we forget the critical value of passing periods. Moments of reflection—of in-between, unoccupied time—give us the space to digest ideas, chew on questions, strike up conversations, and reflect on what we’ve learned. If we’re too busy always dashing from one contiguous lecture to the next, we’re too preoccupied to let the last sweet notes of a thought, presentation, or discussion hang in the air.

Practically speaking, the new schedule gives us room to do this. The extra minutes before and after class, as well as the time leftover from lectures that don’t take the entire 75 minute block, are opportunities for fascinating conversations and lively debates. The “wasted” minutes in between classes can help us maximize and internalize what we learned during those classes.

The importance of passing periods, of course, isn’t limited to the time between class blocks. The sound-bite “transformative experience” may have become a penniless platitude, but it’s still, fundamentally, what we’re after in our undergraduate careers. But when was the last time a midterm paper or problem set was a transformative experience instead of a box to check before moving on to the next pressing thing? When was the last time we so internalized a lecture, idea, or conversation that it changed the way we think about the world?

Being busy isn’t bad, but relentless occupation with too many things keeps us from having the space and time to make the most of those things that we’re truly passionate about. Constant restlessness is anything but efficient. Transformation requires reflection, which is something an overpacked schedule running on Harvard time can’t give us.

With his special and general theories of relativity, Einstein changed the way we think about space and time. With his note to the bellboy from the Imperial Hotel, he should change the way we think about those same two media in the context of intellectual growth. We need a new system of mechanics if we’re to make the most of our Harvard education. We need both space on our calendars and time between commitments for the thoughtful reflection necessary to really learn. We need rest from constant restlessness to take full advantage of our intellectual opportunities. It’s time we took a tip from Einstein.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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