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Six Classes, So What?

We should respect the academic achievements of our peers, not belittle them

By The Crimson Staff

Last week, The Crimson ran a piece that described in great detail the academic experiences of students taking six classes. This semester, out of over 6,400 undergraduates, there are only 20 such students. They have a variety of motivations: Some are propelled by the desire to explore specific academic questions, others by the prospect of exploring different concentrations, and others by the need to achieve more breadth in academic study.

It seems innocuous enough—less than one percent of the student body making the personal choice to take on extra work. But the article, viewed around 3,600 times online, has received a vitriolic response from some students. “Taking 6 classes does not make you a better human being,” wrote one online commentator. “Articles like this remind me why I hate being at Harvard.” This sentiment was echoed across campus, whether as a reaction to the article’s apparent glorification of students who take on extraordinary workloads or to the very presence of these students at all.

Such a response is unwarranted. So what if some students want to take six classes? So what if they perform very well in them? As illustrated in the article, many of the so-called “six-class elite” seem to take more courses because they are intellectually curious, not because they wish to compete with their fellow students.

Of course, the response to the article reflects the reality that Harvard students have the potential to be insecure and competitive about classroom results and choices. Talking about GPAs at the dinner table is about as great a social taboo in this community as is expressing a hatred of small children, and talking about academic accomplishments—even to an inquisitive reporter—is automatically interpreted as bragging.

However, we should not be unable to appreciate (much less unwilling even to hear about) our classmates’ accomplishments. Success is not a zero-sum game, and, when our peers manage extreme course loads, it does not reflect poorly on anyone else. If anything, it should make us further aware of what an extraordinary community we are in and grateful to be at a school in the company of such talented peers.

In the end, everyone finds their own balance of class, extracurricular activities, and fun. There is no one “right” course load. As one interviewed student, Sam J. Bakkila ’11-’12, said: “I feel that no one should take six [classes] just to prove that they can, and no one taking four classes or less should feel any pressure to take more than four.”

It’s easy to be oversensitive about classes around midterm time, but we shouldn’t respond by insulting the good-faith academic efforts of our peers.

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