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Romance and Love at Harvard

By Harry R. Lewis

Otempora! O mores! What can it mean when The Crimson argues for greater involvement by Harvard in students' personal lives, and the dean writes to argue the opposite viewpoint?

The Crimson reported the results of a survey showing that on a 1 to 5 scale, students rate Harvard's academic life at 3.89, extracurricular life at 3.9 and social life at 3.46. These are presented like three legs of a stool, with one leg a good deal shorter than the others, leading the editors to characterize the result as a "far from pretty picture of Harvard life" (Editorial, Feb. 4). Never mind that 3.46 is a good deal above the midpoint of the scale; it's lower than the other numbers. How serious a problem is this inadequacy of Harvard's social life?

Well, where did this design for a stool originate anyway? Is a good social life for students an institutional responsibility akin to their academic experience and their educational extracurricular activities? Of course human interactions are important here; the residential system and extracurricular activities are designed to promote interpersonal learning and the development of teamwork, leadership skills and other kinds of social development. But what is "social life" as a separate item that is Harvard's responsibility?

No doubt the Houses, the Yard and student organizations can better promote organized social activities. Events like the Leverett House 80s Dance show that the Houses can serve as the locus for successful events drawing students from across the College, and more events of this kind would be welcome. But it seems that the implied definition of "social life" is unreasonably narrow and would not include skating on the Boston Common with your boyfriend or girlfriend, going to the movies or to an inexpensive ethnic restaurant a T-ride away in Boston or watching a Saturday afternoon game at Bright Hockey Rink between the top two women's hockey teams in the country. I wonder if it even includes going to a show at the Loeb Ex or the fabulous Hanlon-Ford Ball last weekend, where hundreds of ballroom dancers graced the floor of the Wonderland Ballroom.

"No one--we repeat no one--should feel forced to study on a Friday night," thunders The Crimson. Never mind that the antecedent data reports merely that 64 percent of students say they study on at least one weekend night every other week. Is studying two weekend nights per month, by less than two-thirds of the students, really too much? How do they survive in New Haven, where students have to take a fifth course during half their terms? Is feeling that one need not study on Friday nights a basic right of students that the institution should strive to maintain? Should the Dean of the Faculty perhaps impose a no-homework-on-weekends policy, as happens in grade school?

I exaggerate The Crimson's intent, but the underlying message seems almost this patronizing. During college, students learn to take responsibility for their own actions, to make choices and to live with the consequences. Sometimes these choices require compromising conflicting goals and values. So it is in later life. How can it be helpful to students' development as adults and as citizens for the College to assume responsibility for seeing to it that students do not feel they need to study on Friday nights? To quote a young professional, featured in The Crimson the following day, on his progress in his career: "Sometimes you just have to dig inside and find the strength to get out of bed in the morning. Mentally it's demanding, and coming from Harvard I knew I could do it." Did Harvard do this fellow a disservice, by not empowering him to feel that he need not work nights?

Most troubling is the concept that it is the institution's responsibility to see that every student--every single one--feel a certain way. Harvard is a land of opportunity and tries to help students make choices; the help is not as good as it should be, I think, and better advising is an important objective. But ensuring that students feel a certain way about their choices does not seem to me a rational goal.

As befits the season, let us move from feelings about studying to love, or, as The Crimson puts it, "romantic relationships." Another piece of the less than pretty picture that The Crimson calls on Harvard to rectify is the following: "Close to 40 percent of our classmates have never had a romantic relationship that lasted longer than a week while at Harvard." In not making this possible, The Crimson goes on to say, "Harvard does its students a serious disservice."

I have pondered this statistic for some time, trying to get the sense that it shows that something is dreadfully wrong with Harvard. Never mind, once again, that a quarter of the respondents had been at Harvard only four months. Is the 40 percent figure terribly high, and if so, how low should it be the College's objective to make it?

It depends, of course, on how The Crimson meant the question to be interpreted. I don't suppose The Crimson meant to ask about being in love and being loved in return: having a genuinely romantic and committed relationship. Idealistic as I know The Crimson to be, I am sure it recognizes that having a single truly romantic relationship in an entire lifetime is a hard goal to achieve. So I imagine the question referred to something more casual, a romantic relationship lasting more than a week as opposed, I guess, to a romantic relationship lasting less than a week....

Is it Harvard's responsibility to make romance easier than it already is here? Intermarriage among Harvard students is at pretty high levels already. Does The Crimson really feel that institutionally we do not provide adequate opportunities and incentives for our students to fall in love with each other?

Harvard provides remarkable educational potential. Not all of what we make available is purely academic by any means; it is an essential value of this place to learn to value and respect people who are different from ourselves, to learn to work as a team while taking responsibility for our own actions and to develop habits of excellence in everything we do, not just studying.

But there are some things that Harvard cannot give its students, that it must rely on their inner strength, their character, their integrity and their vision and imagination to provide. We can provide the foundations and the raw materials from which to build a life, but students must make that life for themselves. An enduring love for another human being is among life's greatest joys, but it requires both good fortune and hard work. I wish that happiness for every student.

Harry R. Lewis '68 is Dean of Harvard College. He has had a romantic relationship going for about 35 years now.

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