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Separate And Unequal Academies

By David A. Plotz

AH, TO be a first-year student again--the scum at the bottom of the academic pond.

At an undergraduate seminar I was shopping this week, the professor explained to the 20-odd students in the room how she planned to cut the class down to its 15-person maximum: "Since this is a course where class discussion is very important, I am going to take only upperclassmen."

As it happened, none of the students at that first meeting were first-years, and no lottery was needed, but the idea is disturbing nonetheless: a professor rejecting an entire class of students because they are new, young, and therefore inarticulate.

Worse yet, the phenomenon is all too typical. The academic isolation of first-year students is part of a larger Harvard trend of exclusion and second-class citizenship of its newest members. By limiting first-year students to the intellectual airiness of big Core classes and learning-by-assembly line introductory department courses, Harvard immediately alienates students from academic curiousity.

And the low expectations of the first year become a willingness to accept mediocrity later on. After a year of carrying stadium binoculars to see the professor in Sanders, students happily accept "small" 50-student classes. After three terrible cores in the first semester of one's first year, the prospect of one terrible core junior year doesn't seem so bad.

SOME offer the standard argument that first-year students gain coddled, preferential treatment for courses: they have first-year seminars and receive occasional favoritism in Core lotteries. But these small perks are the exceptions that prove the rule. The academic system for Harvard undergraduates seems designed to frustrate intellectual curiousity and to keep first-year students safely in monstrous, impersonal, general introductory classes and exclusively first-year classes like Expository Writing and seminars.

Harvard first-year students almost invariably take only four kinds of courses, and it's easy to imagine never meeting a professor or upperclass student in any of them.

The Monster Cores. Don't those lottery policies look great! Preferred admission to seniors and first-years. Oh boy! Preferred admission to a class with 700 students, 600 first-years, 10 section leaders, no papers, a big-name professor with one office hour, and a topic as broad and shallow as the Mississippi Delta. That's my idea of intellectual excitement.

The Prerequisite Precluders. Equally bad are the introductory departmental courses: Chem 10, Math 1b, Physics 11, Anthro 10, English 10. Every bit as big and impersonal as monster cores, these first-year ghettos are designed to separate the concentrator wheat from the dilettante chaff. Especially depressing is the perverse encouragement that Harvard advisers give their impressionable charges: "Take introductory courses!" they say, concealing their ignorance of Gov 10's mediocrity. "Fulfill your requirement and get a bird's-eye view of the subject! Get a feel for what the department is like!"

Expository writing and language requirements. Necessary requirements, no doubt, but not ones that encourage first-years to meet upperclass students.

First-year seminars. These enriching, intimate classes are the lone bright spot in first-year academics. But they, too, limit students to their own cohort. They also provide an excuse for professors to exclude most or all first-years from their own enriching, intimate departmental seminars, the logic being that first-years should be satisfied with what they have.

THESE four first-year academic ghettos crush first-years' intellectual energy and turn them into typical Harvard cynics. Harvard undergrads, having escaped the perils of Sanders, are all too willing to make sure that the littlest ones can't get a seat in their seminars, conference courses and departmental courses.

Once we've taken a few finals and gotten poor grades on a couple of experimental papers, our eager sheen wears off and we understand the requirements of Harvard's megacourses: glibness, footnotes, Macintosh and an unwillingness to bother TFs.

Core courses and introductory departmental courses impose a leveling mediocrity: they are too big, too impersonal and too general to accomodate much original thought. We soon learn to take the midterm, write on one of two "suggested paper topics," take the final, and get a B-plus. Go directly to concentration jail. Do not pass go, do not collect $20,000 tuition refund.

In short, we become ideal fodder for concentration courses--smart enough to fulfill the requirements, cynical enough not to do the reading, glib enough to get a laugh and blase enough not to rock the boat.

Academic isolation is a sad and terrible thing. But it is not surprising in a school that locks its first-year students in the Yard, shovels them into the trough of the Union and gives them a separate and unequal alcohol policy. We are two schools, one of 1600 students, the other of 4800.

I do not want to deny the thrills that Harvard first-year students share in the Yard or in Expos or in seminars. But they could be much richer if they were not limited to 1600 students. Engineering more academic contact between first-years and upper-class students could only do good things for Harvard's neophytes. With any luck, the eagerness first-year students bring might rub off onto those of us whom Harvard has worn thin.

Until that time, it is no mystery why so many Harvard students arrive one September with bright eyes and bushy tails and depart four years later with cynical, jaded smirks.

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