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The Bottom Line

By Ethan M. Tucker

Seven pages. With illustrations and an annotated bibliography. That's what one student presented in a class I am taking this semester. Though the presentation forms a nebulous part of the course grade and no clear standards were ever laid out for how thorough and researched it needed to be, he out-did himself.

Why does this academic engagement seem so out of the ordinary? Why is it that in so many classes students just try to close their eyes and hang on until the ride is over? We have all, at one time or another, calculated exactly how little work we need to do to get the minimal grade we could accept. Among seniors, this turns into speculation over how many credits can be frittered away before endangering our Harvard diplomas.

Unfortunately, that kind of bottom-line attitude seems to characterize much of academic life here. Rare are the courses where all of the enrolled students pore over the material and graduate the course feeling wiser, broader and maybe even transformed. I think the reason is simple:

Harvard students are too busy.

From the moment we were accepted, we were deluged with packets describing Harvard's extracurricular treasures. Campus opportunities in drama, music, athletics, journalism and community leadership eagerly called to us while Fields of Concentration accumulated dust in the corner of our bedrooms.

When most of us got here, that pattern continued. We quickly filled our schedules to the brim, packing them with comps and shows and political study groups, figuring that academia would always be there for us, but that we needed to seize these fleeting extracurricular opportunities.

Harvard life outside the classroom is certainly very enriching. When I look back on my time here, my extracurricular memories will no doubt leave a more vivid imprint on my mind than will a great section leader. And I would argue that I learned just as much, if not more, from my experience with student organizations as I did from my professors.

The question is, has all of this gone too far? Last year, Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris lamented on this page that Harvard is not sufficiently academically rigorous for its students. He cited the copious amounts of time spent on extracurricular activities as a serious impediment to creating a culture of scholarly learning. My English professor this semester has begged us over and over again to find quite spaces to sit and read poetry, lest the contemporary distractions of college life overwhelm us.

In addition to interfering with academic intensity, pursuits outside the classroom can fragment our perceptions of undergraduate life.

Extracurricular activities have mushroomed nearly out of control in the last decade or so, as the blurbs allotted to each in The Unofficial Guide annually shrink. The result is that interests have so diversified that the student body is becoming somewhat balkanized, with students forming almost every type of interest group under the sun, and with each tub on its own bottom.

The generic Harvard experience may be in danger. Of course, if the generic Harvard experience is preppy, snooty and New Englandy, few will miss it. But we should all graduate with some sense of having gone to the same institution, having shared some of the same memories, having more in common than having gone to the Harvard-Yale game and the Primal Scream.

There probably is not much that can or should be done about this. Surely the Dean of Students shouldn't clamp down on new student activities; those activities are the lifeblood of this campus and they often change people's lives.

But perhaps it is time for administrators, faculty and students to emphasize the shared aspects of the Harvard experience, be they academic or social. Demand more time from us in our classes. Provide a sense of community by strengthening life in the houses. Encourage us to work together through campus-wide days of public service. Most important, give us memories that we all can share.

Ethan M. Tucker's column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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