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The Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard College has striven over the past four years to impart on us a breadth and depth of knowledge that few institutions of higher learning could rival. From freshman seminars to sophomore tutorials to senior theses, we have all worked incredibly hard in our own fields, reading, writing, doing problem sets, and pouring blood, sweat, and tears into our academic experience. We have also taken what amounts essentially to distribution requirements (as dirty as the phrase might be) in other disciplines, learning how magical numbers can be or how the dinosaurs lived. However, while, for the most part, Harvard sets the bar for the academic side of education, we have learned far less in life matters than our peers at less esteemed and admired institutions. The “Harvard Bubble” is real, and we are insulated by it from reality. Too much coddling from the College is harmful and has been detrimental to our overall education.
House life at Harvard is wonderful and provides many unique opportunities for interacting with and learning from our peers, but it completely insulates us from the worries of everyday life. It is possible to graduate from Harvard never having cleaned a bathroom, never having cooked a meal, and never having had to look for an apartment or pay rent. All of these things are taken care of by the houses, and while the shared dining halls bring students together, and dorm crew prevents us from having to clean up after our disgusting roommates, the sorts of life skills that would be gained in the absence of these privileges are important. Most of our peers have already learned them by the time they graduate from college and enter the “real world.” I have no doubt that most Harvard students will learn how to cook and clean once they graduate, but the complete isolation from such necessary tasks makes much of our education less grounded. While we have been absorbed in the concerns of academia, other aspects of “life” have been taken care of for us. A better balance would be beneficial.
Harvard further insulates us from the outside world through the easily-obtained extensions on assignments and exams that are offered to students. Many professors and teaching fellows grant extensions to students here, sometimes for legitimate reasons such as illness, and sometimes for less legitimate reasons such as procrastination and poor planning on the part of the student. While these extensions might be beneficial in the short term in allowing students to receive higher grades, they are in the long term detrimental. There are many aspects of life here that promote procrastination, particularly assignments stacked towards the end of a semester, but possible extensions make procrastination even worse and create incentives for poor time management. Students will learn the same amount of academic material regardless of the deadline, but there is something to be said about teaching time management and the ability to meet deadlines in the first place. I am not arguing for a greater degree of paternalism on the part of the University, but rather that expectations should not be so flexible with the bar being lowered on a case-by-case basis.
Another area in which Harvard fails to teach more important lessons is in the area of criticism. There are far too many teaching fellows and professors who fail to criticize students when they make mistakes. It would be entirely possible to go through a course, especially a larger course in the Core, and make completely inane, off topic comments throughout the sections without ever being told that the comments were “wrong.” Perhaps TF’s consider it rude or insulting to tell students that their arguments or insights are incorrect, but this does the students a grave disservice. Rather than learning from mistakes, students do not even know when a mistake has been made in many cases, and so discussion sections become essentially useless as the good arguments are often not separated from the bad.
And while the hesitancy with criticism affects us negatively academically, it has far more profound an impact outside of the classroom. In particular, harsh, honest criticism is so rarified that students do not learn first how to accept and learn from criticism, and second they do not learn how to support and modify their positions. When criticism is encountered in outside contexts, it is either rejected or shied away from. Further, there is a sort of “perfection complex” that develops as a result.
An example of this is a fear of telling outsiders that one is from Harvard, the so-called “dropping the H-bomb.” Doing so creates high standards and expectations, and many are not prepared to face potential failure or criticism. As Conan O’Brien described in his Class Day speech in 2000, once one is identified as a Harvard student or graduate, it is even more difficult to make mistakes because the immediate response will be, “Didn’t you go to Harvard?” The high standards from the outside world come from Harvard’s own inflation of its image, and this creates a fear of mistakes or inadequacy. Even within Harvard, many are overly modest because they are fearful of their peers’ talents. When someone says that he plays an instrument but that he is not very good, it means he has only appeared at Carnegie Hall once. This heightened modesty is good in the sense that it minimizes arrogance, but it is damaging in so far as it undermines individuals’ self-confidence and keeps them from even trying in the first place. The sheer sense of intimidation that many freshmen feel is incredible, and Harvard does not do enough to help students learn that it is okay to make mistakes. The exploration and risk-taking that should occur do not; GPA and perceptions matter and stifle openness.
Harvard undoubtedly has provided us with an amazing academic opportunity. Writing coherent and compelling 20 page papers 4 years ago would have been unthinkable. Those in the sciences have an understanding of complex material that they certainly did not have before. But for all the knowledge we have gained, there is much that we did not learn because we attended Harvard. Useful life skills, reasonable expectations, and the ability to accept and learn from criticism are all lessons that many learn in their college years, yet we were largely isolated from these lessons by Harvard and its focus on academics and success. The whole college experience should be focused on much more than academics, and Harvard should strive in the future to focus as much on the non-academic aspects of growth and learning as it does on the learning in the classroom.
Shai D. Bronshtein ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.
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