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Most freshmen arrive at Harvard having succeeded in a variety of subjects in high school. Those who preferred their math classes often also had significant interests in history and English, and vice versa. Under Harvard’s academic system, however, students do not maintain this same academic balance during their undergraduate careers. The College should abolish the antiquated and misleading concentration system to better adhere to the ideals of a liberal arts education.
When Charles W. Eliot became University president in 1869, he eliminated all requirements for undergraduates, turning Harvard’s education system into one that was entirely elective based. Many students graduated having only taken introductory classes on a variety of topics.
In 1910, however, President A. Lawrence Lowell introduced the concentration system, which is now a cornerstone of the Harvard education and the educations of many other institutions internationally. Presumably, Lowell’s intentions were to allow his students to focus on one area and develop a mastery of its subject matter while gaining a broad base in the arts and sciences. This was an admirable goal, but in today’s educational context Harvard must change the way it pursues it.
Concentration requirements both narrow the scope of our education and allow some students to graduate without ever immersing themselves in the intellectual experience. Some concentrators make the most of their degree, writing theses and even going on to graduate school. Others fulfill only the minimum requirements and have a shallower understanding of their discipline than motivated students from other fields. For example, an art history concentrator could take Economics 1011a and have a deeper understanding of microeconomics than an economics concentrator who is on an easier track.
Our campus culture is increasingly pre-professional, and there is a fear that prospective employers will not look past our concentration at the classes we have taken, to realize that the gaming one’s concentration classes occurs. That alone encourages students to take the easiest of the required classes in their concentration and discourages them from taking difficult classes purely out of interest. Indeed, under the current concentration system some of the only students receiving a truly well-rounded liberal-arts education are pre-medical students concentrating in the humanities or social sciences.
Harvard has tried to combat overspecialization by mandating that students take Gen Ed classes in eight different areas, but this does not combat the central problem that many students simply will not take challenging, engaging classes if there is a risk of getting a low grade. Even the most motivated students crowd into the easiest Gen Ed classes, all the while complaining of these classes’ simplicity or boasting of their ease.
Moreover, the College does not logistically hinder students from taking difficult courses outside their concentrations. Few departments are exclusive in their enrollment, and as the success of CS 50 shows, it is possible to engage students out of their concentrations.
It may be argued that the presence of secondary fields and language citations is meant to encourage students to venture outside their concentration fields. However, few students seem to continue language classes after earning a citation and few students seem to take classes beyond their secondary field requirements.
Abolishing concentrations may make the College look overly permissive to outsiders, but with a strong advising system it could work well. Without concentrations, more students would explore freely, take a wider variety of more difficult classes, and still be able to pursue recommended departmental structures, if they really wanted to. Should a student want to focus in a field and distinguish himself or herself for employers and graduate schools, prospective employers would be forced to look at the content of a transcript, rather than the meaningless titles on a diploma.
Students need not take introductory classes in every single discipline. However, abolishing concentration requirements will enable undergraduates to explore different fields and develop and expand their intellect.
Jaehyuk You ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Cabot House.
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