I find trips to Office of Career Services frustrating. It’s not that the officers there don’t mean well. Interested in teaching? They have a nice little stapled booklet they give you. Interested in the corporate world? “Hello! How are you? Have a piece of cake.” Suddenly, you’ve been invited to luncheons and brunches with Morgan Stanley and Goldman-Sachs. It seems the only jobs that they can guide you towards are in investment banking, consulting, and the like. Feh.
My biggest problem is that these fields have come to almost monopolize the attention of Harvard students, generating a thoroughly anti-academic, anti-intellectual attitude. In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly called “The Truth About Harvard,” Ross G. Douthat ’02 argues that one of Harvard’s biggest flaws is its failure to provide “a general education, a liberal arts education to future doctors and bankers and lawyers and diplomats.” Douthat has it all backwards. The real failure belongs to the students, many already wealthy, who neglect their classes in their pursuit of mindless, mercenary careers.
Harvard’s failure then, is in allowing the recruiting process to dominate so many juniors’ and seniors’ lives, encouraging these students to continue along this path, rather than engaging them academically. One needn’t look hard to find examples of students who totally ignore their classes in order to prepare for their interviews. Instead of studying Plato, or the human genome, or Beethoven, they are practicing cases or manipulating the fonts on their resumes (which, as I understand it, is both an art and a science).
If students are only interested in these careers, they should go to Wharton, or some other pre-professional business school. Douthat has missed the point of a liberal arts education. The classes should not be tailored to meet the pre-professional needs of the students. Our classes must set the standard—a high standard of academic enquiry—and students must strive to meet it.
Harvard’s Core Curriculum frequently fails to meet this standard and Douthat is right to criticize it. He is wrong, however, to insist that Harvard College become Harvard High. College students—at Harvard or anywhere else—are not babies. This is not high school anymore and students cannot be forced to learn, or to be engaged academically at all.
Douthat writes of the wonder he had as a freshman poring over the course catalogue. What he fails to realize is that there are tons of great courses out there—even in the core—but students are simply not taking them. This fall, I took Literature and Arts A-53: “Athens and Jerusalem” as an elective. Eight other undergraduates took the class with me. We rigorously compared the Hebrew Bible to Ancient Greek literature in one of the more enjoyable academic experiences of my Harvard career.
There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other classes like this, in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Should we blame the University for not taking out full page ads in the course catalog to entice students to take them? Or should we blame the students for not enrolling—or not caring when they do enroll?
We can’t all be academics. Obviously, not every history concentrator will go on to be a history professor. Still, I admire the department for preparing each of its students for this route. At its core, the University is and must be treated as a place of academic learning. We are here to learn in our classes, from our professors, above all else—or at least we should be.
It would be impossible for every student to be thoroughly engaged in each and every one of his or her classes. Nonetheless, total academic stimulation should be the University’s goal. Call me an idealist—or call me a nerd—but in my academic utopia, no student should ever be able to say: “I don’t care about my classes. I just want to graduate and get a job.” Ideally, English majors should cry in ecstasy with every reading of Keats; physics majors should orgasm with every particle separated. Instead, many students haven’t been to class—let alone done the reading—in weeks because they’ve been flying off to New York for job interviews.
This is an unrealistic goal. But it is a noble one, worth pursuing in the name of the University’s true educational mission. The “recruiting process” whereby companies impose their will on campus life and suck students away from their classes, encourages an anti-intellectual attitude. What’s worse, it renders those who participate in it completely dull at cocktail parties. Forget about being a corporate whore—how about being a corporate bore.
I’m sure many seniors have had this experience a million times:
“So what are you doing next year?”
“I’m going to be I-Banking in New York.”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” I would say, pretending to be interested. But I don’t say that anymore. Because it’s not interesting. It’s thoroughly uninteresting, and nobody should be led to believe otherwise. Harvard can’t force students to become good conversationalists—but it can attempt to reduce the corporate world’s stranglehold on conversation.
David Weinfeld ’05 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears alternate Thursdays.