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This year, 21 students entered the selection process for a spot on the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE). Rohit Chopra ’04, chair of the committee which selects student CUE members, told The Crimson that 21 was, by far, a record high, and “the sheer number of high-quality candidates means there’s a grassroots interest in the future of the College.”
I had the opposite reaction. I wasn’t struck by the fact that 21—or 1 in every 300—Harvard students ran for the CUE; I was struck by the fact that 299 out of 300 did not.
After all, when we deal with the CUE, we are not talking about whether or not there will be an Outkast concert in Sanders Theatre this year; we are talking about issues like whether or not there will be a Core Curriculum at Harvard. And the student members of the CUE play a very active and influential role on the committee. As Mark Schiefsky, assistant professor of the classics, recently told me: “When the CUE students speak at general FAS faculty meetings, what they say is taken very seriously.”
Sure—that only 21 people actually ran for CUE spots does not per se mean that, of those who did not run, none care about educational and academic issues, or that none are interested in the CUE’s activities. But I am fairly certain that very few of the 299 out of 300 people could even report, if asked, the names of the CUE members, or what their priorities and platforms are.
If the student body really gave a hoot about educational issues here, then things like the CUE elections would be public, and much discussed, affairs. But they are, instead, conducted in private, followed with even the slightest interest by very few, and particpated in by even fewer.
I’m not saying that there is anything necessarily wrong or, at any rate, unusual about Harvard’s high level of apathy about such things. But this apathy can, and does, go a long way in explaining what the student body’s general opinion about a given educational issue seems to be.
Take, for instance, the case of Harvard’s Core Curriculum and its study-abroad policy, both of which underwent change last year and will likely be changing much more radically in the near future. There is a remarkable degree of homogeneity in opinion across campus about these two issues. “I hate the Core, it’s too intrusive” is a common sentiment expressed about the former, and “It’s really bad that Harvard makes it so hard to study abroad” about the latter.
These attitudes can be explained, in large part, by the well-traveled road between apathy and laziness. Here at Harvard no less than elsewhere, when people are apathetic about things on an ideational level, their first, if not their only, concern is what will make their life easiest.
When the Core requirement was reduced from eight to seven last year, nobody—of course—complained, and most were quite happy. Likewise with the easing up of strictures on study abroad.
Were people happy because they thought that Harvard could provide a better liberal arts education to future students by lessening the Core, or were they simply relieved that they no longer had to worry about that annoying Foreign Cultures class?
There are perhaps some reasonable grievances that could be levied against the current Core, and there are certainly some very good reasons why a relaxation of Harvard’s very tight study abroad policies might be the right thing. But these reasons, whatever they are, are not the ones that underscore most people’s complaints about these and other such issues.
People are concerned with what is good for them, and not with what is right for Harvard, as an institution of higher learning and an example-setter for all universities, to be doing.
Again, this apathy—and the laziness-generated opinions which it tends to produce—is only human nature, and indeed it is hard to imagine its being any other way. But it does have one very important, and not necessarily obvious, implication: when Dean Kirby, the students on the CUE, and the Harvard Faculty make important decisions about the future of academic life here, they should do so based almost entirely on their own instincts, and on however many thoughtful individual responses they receive to their solicitations of student opinion.
In contrast, the general opinion of the student body, the pulse of the campus, or whatever you want to call it—to the extent it can be measured—should be taken with about a pound of salt, and perhaps even considered a reverse barometer of the right course.
Zachary S. Podolsky ’04 is a classics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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