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Examine The Past

Harvard tradition should not prevent calendar reform.

By Brad EDWARD White

For years, Harvard students have complained about the College tradition of holding fall semester exams after winter recess. The winter vacation rings hollow as students frantically attempt to study for January exams, while also completing papers and problem sets assigned for the January reading period. After this ordeal, students must rejuvenate themselves during the few measly days of intersession.

Meanwhile, our friends at less prestigious colleges have the luxury of actually enjoying their break from academia--with ample time to prepare for the work of the approaching spring semester.

Now, it appears that the Undergraduate Council might be able to improve the situation. The council has endorsed a revised calendar plan which would schedule fall semester exams before winter break, with a longer intersession and significant Reading Periods. The student affairs committee is now negotiating with the Committee on Undergraduate Education to establish a proposal to submit to the Faculty Council this spring.

The council's calendar requires foregoing only a couple of one-day holidays and starting classes in early September. That's certainly not too much to pay for a real winter break.

Many members of the Harvard community, however, continue to argue for the status quo. Out of a deep respect for tradition, they feel a duty to maintain Harvard's unique identity. And it would seem that January exams are as old as John Harvard himself--or at least have existed" as long as anyone can remember," according to Associate Register Thurston A. Smith.

Yet a quick peek into Harvard's provocative past reveals that January exams are a relatively new development. As Samuel Eliot Morison '08 explains in his highly-acclaimed Three Centuries of Harvard, there was no winter vacation at Harvard College until 1749. In fact, only late in the 17th century did Harvard even establish a summer vacation--and that lasted at most six weeks.

Founded in the tradition of the best English colleges, Harvard originally "kept" throughout the year. But by 1749, Harvard decided to establish a winter recess in order to allow poorer students time to earn money for their tuition. This vacation lasted five weeks and began the first Wednesday of January.

Also, originally, exams were administered only once per year (orally!) in June and only to "senior sophisters," the members of the graduating class, In fact, when the College began to require final year exams for sophomores and juniors, students rebelled.

The day of the first examinations, in 1791, mischievous Harvard men tossed a large amount of "emetic" medicine into the container used to boil water for undergraduates' breakfast. Nauseous students vomited their way through their first examination period. (Administrators were not pleased.)

And our current system of requiring written 'finals' for each course began only in 1857. Some faculty members protested, including Professor Sophocles who burned all of his students' exams.

Also, the current two-semester system, which inevitably requires mid-year exams, is relatively new. As late as the nineteenth century, the Harvard calendar included three terms. Of course, this was a time when the specific courses were mandatory and included such tantalizing subjects as Livy, Horace and English Grammar.

Harvard's past is instructive, and tradition merits a certain amount of respect. But blind allegiance to (recent) tradition serves no purpose. If it did, perhaps we should all perfect our fluency in Latin and Greek.

Brad Edward White's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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