Why So Focused?

Harvard’s competitive club environment runs contrary to the liberal arts

Harvard embodies a pretty strange contradiction. Everyone here is great at something, from the fastest runner in New England, to the best Starcraft player outside of South Korea, to the guy who seemed kind of lame until he invented a multibillion-dollar website. Contrary to what you thought right after that painful midterm, the Admissions Office did, indeed, pick you for a reason, and you almost definitely have a major talent you've nurtured for years.

And yet, in the academic arena, we are told day in and day out to not rest on our laurels and to try new things. Administrators and our advisors tell us of the importance of a broad-based liberal arts education in the Harvard experience; we are urged to test out unfamiliar concentrations and take eccentric Gen Ed classes. Members of the class of 2014 will remember President Drew G. Faust's compelling answer at prefrosh weekend to a question regarding the difference between Penn and Harvard. She communicated that while Penn gives you an education that prepares you for a specific career, Harvard gives you an education for wherever life may take you.

Particularly in their extracurriculars, freshmen are unknowingly caught between these two poles; we try to follow our established talents but also want to branch out and explore new things. The problem with trying a new activity at a place like Harvard, however, is that many extracurricular activities are populated by those who were accepted to the College because of their success in said activity. Students who have had more than a decade of vocal coaching join the a cappella groups, the leads in high school plays fill the roster of Antony and Cleopatra, and national champion debaters join the debate team.

While there are plenty of introductory classes, “intro extracurriculars” are often either nonexistent or hard to find. Many students find themselves pigeonholed into what they already excel at, instead of being able to explore new interests. This is not to denigrate wholesale Harvard’s extracurricular scene; students definitely benefit from elite extracurriculars bringing together the most talented young people in their fields. I would prefer to see an improv show featuring experienced improvisers, like we have in the Immediate Gratification Players and On Thin Ice, than a show of newbies. At the same time, it is unfortunate that many extracurriculars at Harvard follow a vicious cycle: You need experience to get in, and you can’t get that experience unless you get in.

I, myself, have fallen into this trap. I had no trouble getting involved in the many political offerings on campus, but after doing improv in high school in a troupe with no auditions, I wasn’t up to snuff to get involved in Harvard’s more elite comedy scene. I certainly don’t begrudge these hilarious groups their duty to get the best performers for the job, but at the same time, it would be great to have a low-stakes environment like I had in high school. Similarly, a friend of mine who has done theater his whole life—and did get into improv here—has been trying to explore creative writing, but doesn’t have the experience to be accepted into Harvard’s high-quality publications. Something’s wrong with this picture.


Every Harvard student, since orientation, is told about the theory of a liberal arts education. But we must do a better job putting that theory into practice in extracurriculars, which serve as every student’s essential informal education. If students don’t have to declare a concentration until sophomore year, why is it that we can go through all four years without experiencing an off-the-road extracurricular simply because we don’t have the qualifications to get in and can’t get those qualifications because there’s nothing less competitive in the same field? Focusing on what you’re good at is all well and good, but at Harvard—especially at Harvard—students should have the option to break that focus and be a novice in a new activity.

Will F. Poff-Webster ’14, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Canaday Hall.