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Unite for Calendar Reform

By David H. Goldbrenner

Having sworn a solemn oath to see Harvard's calendar change before I die, I'm alarmed by the marked lack of anticalendar sentiment evident on campus these days. What follows is my attempt to fan the smoldering flames of the noble struggle against the great hated bourgeois calendar.

The main reason for calendar reform is, of course, the fact that we have finals after Christmas break. Most normal U.S. colleges (roughly 3,600) have finals before break. Only about 50 colleges, including Mother Harvard, are brave enough to break the mold by retaining a schedule that seems as outmoded as the Model T.

The advantages of switching are numerous. To begin with, we'd have a reasonably-sized winter break, long enough to relax or even acquire gainful employment. And we wouldn't have to return to face the whistling axe of final exams. Reading periods would be shorter, but since these are nothing more than ill-disguised extensions of the semester, good riddance. And our spring break might actually have a chance of coinciding with those of our friends at other colleges.

Many of you are aware of all this, of course. But how many know the true history of the struggle? According to Secretary of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and former Dean of the College John B. Fox Jr. '59, the first strong impetus for this change came during the early 1970s--but not from the students. Alarmed by rising oil prices in the wake of the OPEC shortage, many U.S. colleges decided January was just too expensive a month to run heating equipment. So they gave students the month off. Harvard debated the matter and decided against switching--but the seeds of change had been planted in undergraduates' minds. The 20 intervening years have seen an almost steady stream of attempts to give Harvard students a reasonable calendar, as reform sentiment waxes and wanes in a cyclical manner.

The most recent of such attempts took place two years ago. In the spring of 1994, the Undergraduate Council proposed a calendar which would have shortened reading period, placed finals before Christmas and left a month--that's right, a month--between semesters. (A poll conducted a year before indicated that 70 percent of undergraduates favored such a change). As a transfer student, I've personally tasted the nectar of this type of calendar--and trust me, it's sweet.

In April 1994, the proposal charged nobly through the Committee on Undergraduate Education only to be cruelly slain by the Faculty Council a month later. According to Fox, two main reasons for opposing the change have persisted throughout the years. The first has to do with the argument that a longer semester gives students a better learning experience because they have more time to reflect upon their classes.

But the counter-argument, which seems to be overwhelmingly prevalent among students, is that the longer semester drags on interminably and is unduly stressful. Heading into spring semester still frazzled from the fall is hardly productive. The educational question is mostly subjective--but what is very real is that our long semesters drain students.

The second reason for opposing reform is that faculty members would have to deal with disruptions to their lives. For instance, one argument held that changing the calendar would require professors to grade fall-term finals on Christmas Eve. But this problem could be solved by simply making grades due a week later. In short, calendar reform would benefit students with little long-term detriment to the faculty.

The strongest argument in favor of the plausibility of a new calendar is the simple and undeniable fact that most colleges in the nation use it. Registrar Georgene Herschbach was perfectly willing to move to the new schedule when it was proposed two years ago--and in fact estimated that it could have been implemented in as little as two years. Yet Harvard stodginess--combined with some genuine, if misguided, concern for the quality of our education--prevented it from advancing.

Obviously, the topic of calendar reform is more complex than I've been able to present in this short column. This is meant to serve as a call to arms--unite, comrades, and cast off the yoke of schedule tyranny.

David H. Goldbrenner's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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