Fools Rush In

The Academia Nut

Last week, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby appointed a new head of the newly created Office of International Programs. Jane Edwards will be joining Harvard this summer from Wesleyan University, where she oversaw an International Studies program that sends nearly half of undergraduates overseas at some point in their career. In honor of this appointment, here are my thoughts on study abroad.

Though it is immensely popular—or, perhaps, because it is immensely popular—study abroad is something that, in its current form, should generally be eschewed by a responsible administration.

The old, stringent rules governing study abroad were made for a good reason: that most study abroad programs are taught by faculty far less distinguished than Harvard’s, offer classes far less rigorous than Harvard’s and essentially consist of a four month drunken rave through a European (or Asian, or Latin American) city.

It’s no small wonder that so many people want to study abroad, and that everyone who does so seems to love it. Who wouldn’t want to coast through easy classes while doing little work and enjoying sunsets on the Rhine, the Rhone, the Tiber or the Yangtze, rather than grinding out tough problem sets on the bank of the pedestrian Charles?

The measures to make it easier for students to study abroad are often couched in terms of the intrinsic benefit of experiencing a foreign culture firsthand, the increasingly globalized nature of the world community and any number of other empty shibboleths and platitudes. The timing and abruptness of the shift, though, indicate that there may be some less-than-principled practical considerations that have also played a large, if not a decisive, role in the new policies.

Pop quiz: What’s a convenient way for the administration to fix an unprecedented housing crunch in the upperclass houses without taking the unattractive steps of spending money on new housing or reducing the size of incoming first-year classes?

Answer: Change the College’s decades-old study abroad policy and attribute it to a sudden lofty desire to become more “international.”

Pop quiz number two: When the Department of History decides to grant an absurdly high number of its professors leaves of absence for the 2002-2003 academic year, what’s a great way to get rid of some students to make the dearth of teachers less apparent?

Answer: Take some questionable steps—including scrapping the spring junior tutorial requirement and lifting the obligation to pick a specialized historical track—that serve to water down the intensity of the concentration in order to enable more students to study abroad.

In fairness, I do realize that most of the Faculty who seek to liberalize study abroad policy do so for nothing but the most legitimate and sincere reasons. I also realize that it is theoretically possible for study abroad programs to be academically rigorous and worthwhile. But I find it bizarre that well-reasoned and longstanding strictures on study-abroad are being lifted in an alarmingly fast and haphazard manner, at a time when more students abroad just happens to serve some very practical interests of the University and some of its academic departments in particular.

Given, for instance, all the rhetoric about study abroad being an integral way of learning about a foreign culture, it is puzzling that the College has decided that would-be study abroad students no longer need to have studied the language of the host country in advance of their trip.

Some stickler traditionalists might argue that it is rather difficult to get much of a sense of a culture without learning its language. They might even contend that learning, say, French at Harvard provides a better introduction to the culture of France than barhopping through Paris with a homogenous group of privileged Americans and taking guided tours—in English—of the Louvre every now and then.

Fortunately, it’s possible to have it both ways—that is, to allow many more students to study abroad while at the same time not compromising the College’s academic integrity. To achieve this, Harvard will need to ensure the integrity of abroad programs—not by rubber-stamping students’ petitions, but by actively participating in, and running, its own programs.

Some initial gestures have, in fact, been made in this direction; right now, a pilot study-abroad program—Harvard’s first—is underway in Santiago, Chile. Though the students are not being taught by Harvard faculty, the college—through the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies—is coordinating many aspects of their academic and extracurricular lives while in Chile.

This is a fine start, but we are, obviously, many years away from seeing a broad network of Harvard-sponsored study-abroad opportunities. In other words, we are many years away from seeing the current liberalization of study abroad strictures being justified.

For now, the new policies—in the absence of sufficiently rigorous, Harvard-run study abroad options—constitute more a license for Harvard students to waste their time than anything else. And, yes, time poorly spent is time wasted—even if it’s on the Riviera.

Zachary S. Podolsky ’04 is a classics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.