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The QRR: A Harvard Rite of Passage


By Terri E. Gerstein

ITRIED TO think of it as an integral part of my education.

I tried to think of it as an introduction to a new mode of thought.

I tried to think of it as a uniquely Harvard rite of passage, one that my unfortunate friends in New Haven never experience.

But sitting in front of a computer in the basement of the Science Center along with 200 other liberal artsy procrastinators trying to fulfill Harvard's draconian Quantitative Reasoning Requirement all I could think was: This is really stupid.

I have nothing against computers. I was even contemplating taking a course in Basic. After all, several years ago the personal computer was Time's Man of the Year, and just about every other periodical in circulation has proclaimed repeatedly that this is the Age of the Computer and that knowing how to use one will soon be as necessary as tying a shoe.

I didn't want to find myself left behind or outdated or out of breath--or breadth. I didn't want to become a relic of the past. Now I don't have computer phobia. I even take science courses. And I passed the computer part of the QRR on my first try; it's now a part of my past.

BUT I STILL wonder: Why do we have to go through with it at all? According to the Core Curriculum pamphlet, the purpose of the computer exam is "to teach students how to use a computer, enabling them to understand its capabilities and limitations." Does it fulfill its purpose?

Most definitely. I now fully understand a computer's capabilities: the six commands which will work on a computer are Let, Print, Goto, If...Then, Input, and End.

My 30-minute cram course from a neighbor provided me with exceptional training. "There's a thing called a loop," she said. "Don't worry about how it works. You don't need to know that for the test."

My computer education continued. "Just define your variables, make the computer print whatever statements they tell you to, and input one variable." Then she told me I would have to use something called an "If...Then " command. I didn't understand what the command did, but I didn't need to, so I just memorized what I would have to type in.

But why?

She was a good teacher. My test question was about seven waiters who, in order to compensate for the peculiarities of their individual tables on this night, share all the tips collected. I had to write a program that would tell how much money each one should receive. Using the commands I had memorized, in the order I had memorized them, I wrote the program without a flaw. Then I went to the computer and typed in the program, logging into Harvard's system by using another series of memorized commands.

My program worked. I ran it with a sense of pride, and, with the help of Harvard's computer system, was pleased to discover that if each waiter received $1 that night and wanted to split the total evenly, then each waiter would receive $1.

I now know the six necessary commands and will continue to do so for the rest of the week. But when I sit in front of a computer, I'm still helpless. When an unfamiliar statement appears on the screen, I still have to roam the halls of Pennypacker in search of a computer wizard. Last week I was one of the great unwashed; today I am a QRR graduate. Yet in the end I am still computer illiterate.

NO ONE really learns anything from either section of the QRR. Most freshmen prepare for both in a 30-minute cram the night before the test. They stuff the few necessary facts into their minds, spill them onto their papers and into the computers and, after the test, promptly dispose of the excess information. The phrases "median" and "standard deviation" once again are absolutely meaningless. Along with tours of Widener and parties at Weld, they are nothing more than bad memories of freshman week.

College graduates should know how to use a computer and how to interpret statistics; quantitative reasoning is just as important as clear writing. Yet because of the QRR's structure, it is possible to graduate from Harvard without the ability to think quantitatively. Harvard doesn't make us use both sides of our brains. And it should.

If the committee on the Core Requirement really wants students to achieve computer literacy, as well as competence in dealing with numbers and statistics, the QRR should be restructured. The Committee could incorporate quantitative reasoning skills into the Science A core requirement, or as the Undergraduate Council has proposed, add a computer and math option to the Core. Or perhaps a series of required minicourses could be established. In any case, the QRR should be either intensified or abolished. As it is, it serves no purpose and merely wastes time.

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