It came as no surprise last week that Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. “Dick” Gross ’71 was appointed to a new position at the helm of Harvard College. Last month, after Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby ousted the current Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, many expected that Gross—Kirby’s teammate in the upcoming curricular review and University President Lawrence H. Summers’ tennis partner—would be selected for the role.
It is not yet clear what effect these changes will have on undergraduate life at Harvard. Certainly, with the removal of Lewis, the College has lost an advocate for extracurricular activity on campus and a proponent of social relaxation time for students. In his letter to incoming first-years this summer, “Slow Down: Getting More out of Harvard by Doing Less,” Lewis writes: “flexibility in your schedule, unstructured time in your day, and evenings spent with your friends rather than your books are all, in a larger sense, essential for your education.” Emphasizing the importance of non-academic life at Harvard, Lewis sent a memo to the heads of the upcoming curricular review in February, attacking the view that making Harvard better required making its academics more rigorous. Older alumni, he argues, tend to remember their friends and extracurricular mentors more than their course work.
Summers and Kirby have a different take on undergraduate academic life—arguing that it should be more demanding. Summers, while speaking to house tutors, is rumored to have used the phrase “Camp Harvard” in expressing distaste for the focus on extracurriculars at the College, although he says he doesn’t remember doing so. Kirby stressed in a speech to first-years this fall, “You are here to work, and your business here is to learn”—encouraging them to put their academics first.
It is essential for the College leadership to be working to improve undergraduate education at Harvard, especially with the curricular review on the horizon. And Summers, Kirby and Gross are more likely to see eye-to-eye-to-eye on this issue than they would have with Lewis in the mix. But without a strong voice for non-academic life—like Lewis’ tenor—the College will be missing essential points of view. Summers, Kirby and Gross might all want to improve academics at Harvard—but if they try to do so by demanding more of students’ scarce time, they will be inflicting more harm than good.
Certainly there are ways to improve the Harvard education without forcing students to spend more time doing it—better taught sections, less busywork and fewer “I’m checking to see if you did the reading” response papers are examples. But for students with already-heavy course loads and full schedules, an increase in the amount of time spent on work of an academic nature inherently requires a shift in time away from other activities—activities that are just as valuable and are already under-represented at the College.
According to an online survey of 324 undergraduates that I conducted last semester, students at Harvard already spend seven hours a day (49 hours a week) involved in academics—including class, work and study. This is the lion’s share of daily activity for almost every student—not counting sleep, of which students report getting almost seven and a half hours a night on average.
Extracurriculars, which seem to be under attack—no one has claimed that Harvard students sleep or relax too much—only amount for an average of three hours a day per student. And time spent in these activities often doubles for social time as many students participate in extracurriculars with their close friends.
Only 62 percent of students reported working for income at Harvard for an average of about two hours per day for those who do.
Time spent on social relaxation, including showering, eating, exercising and relaxing with friends, amounts to nearly five and a half hours a day—or only 38 hours a week, less than the average corporate work week. This social relaxation time—for which Lewis has always been a strong proponent—is especially vulnerable to demands on student time. According to the survey responses and my analysis, when other activities demand more time, students who have jobs and are financially able spend less time at work; the rest tend to give up their social relaxation time first.
As Lewis has argued, social relaxation time is essential to helping keep students emotionally and physically healthy and happy. But with Lewis out of the picture, the school’s leadership might not realize the extent of the damage they can do by demanding students spend much more time devoted to academics. More time studying will mean less time relaxing and sleeping—necessities for health. Results from a recently-released University Health Services study indicate that 46 percent of students have felt depressed over the past year, a mental health problem that is often linked to factors like stress.
Improving academics at Harvard is a valuable goal. But if making it more rigorous implies more student hours devoted to course work, Summers, Kirby and Gross must consider the cost—even with Lewis out of the picture.
Judd B. Kessler ’04 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.