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I'm always amazed by the extracurricular life at Harvard. While by day students attend lectures and sections and listen to learn about life, by night the College transforms and students actually experience life. Students wonder why an energetic social life is absent; it's because all that energy has somehow been funneled into extracurricular activities: plays, magazines, newspapers, orchestras and more. And while some may decry this experience and the funneling of student energy into extracurricular life, this is really one of the most important parts of Harvard life.
That Harvard undergraduates can maintain such a diversity of organizations so solidly over the years is amazing. Unlike high school, there are few non-student members at the highest levels of the organization to lend stability. Just the turnover of staff would have doomed most businesses. But organizations here have managed to exist for years and through hundreds of students based only on the sheer will and motivation of students. The intense energy and self-motivation is incredible. And whether or not resume-building plays a part at the start, ultimately most students accept huge amounts of responsibility, sometimes at a cost that no line on a resume alone could repay. Although the common sentiment expressed is that students should be focusing all their energy and strength on academics, I think that it is misguided. Perhaps in the days of yesteryear, when students at Harvard were small in number and elite in status, they could ignore the world outside and concentrate on great books. But today, most students will leave this place to enter the real world where real knowledge matters less than acquired skills that are often gained through extracurricular activities.
Although the Core is supposed to each us approaches to knowledge (an admirable goal, no doubt), we achieve the approaches to knowledge not in the Core, but in our extracurricular activities. We learn how to maintain an organization, coordinate with people, work in a team towards a common goal, balance the other parts of our lives with these responsibilities as well as countless other lessons we could never learn passively in Core classes--or any others.
I'm not saying that we should all suddenly stop attending lectures or reading sourcebooks. But we should acknowledge that extracurriculars contribute a valuable experience in preparing us for the world beyond the Ivory tower. It is true that we will never get this chance to plunge into academics and learn without any outside interference once we leave here. But it is precisely because the outside world is different from academia that we need extracurriculars. The form of learning they impart is something no class can teach us yet will be immensely useful once we leave these hallowed walls.
We often express dissatisfaction with the College in many areas--its large classes, large sections, lack of choice in the Core and lack of quality advising. However, these factors are out of our control. Where we are in control is the world of extracurriculars. There we can influence policy, change structure, and do what we want. Of course, such student maneuvering brings about bad as well as good effects because students are bound to make mistakes. But we need extracurriculars for our lives to give us a place where we can listen and act and see results.
Extracurriculars bring a diversity into the student body as well as impart a certain diversity of experience. The path of academia, like any other future profession, is for a chosen few. Extracurriculars provide opportunities for many other students to do what they like and do well. They provide diversity in our own experiences so that life has more flavor than the daily bread and butter of lecture. All these activities do sap energy and time that could be used for academics, but that may be a fair price to pay for the good we receive. The administration should be glad that so many extracurriculars exist to absorb the energy of undergraduates--otherwise, they would have to cope with a far higher number of summa degrees.
Tanya Dutta's column appears on alternate Mondays.
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