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Does Harvard Place Enough Value on Academics?

By Daniel E. Backman, Nicholas T Rinehart, Timothy Tsai, Kathy K. Wang, and Charlene Wong

This is the sixth instalment in a series of online-only Roundtables. This new content form from the Crimson Editorial Board seeks to present a diverse array of high-quality student opinions on thought-provoking issues.

If you would like to submit an opinion for this week's Roundtable topic "What was Hugo Chavez’s most significant contribution?" please e-mail your 200-300 word opinion to before Wednesday, March 6th at 11pm.

It’s Our Fault

Frankly, I was not exactly surprised to discover that about half of my classmates in the now infamous Government 1310 were being accused of violating the College’s policies on academic integrity. Although I sincerely sympathize with those individuals who were falsely accused, I do not think that the University is entirely at fault here.

To directly answer the question, no, Harvard does not place enough value on education. Although institutional change at the top maybe necessary, I would argue that the root of the problem truly lies with the student body itself. The scandal in Government 1310 last spring is not the first time a widespread cheating has occurred on campus, nor will it be the last. This problem is not caused by the Harvard faculty’s supposed apathy for undergraduate education, nor it is only a matter of institutional flaws within the system. Quite bluntly, the answer is human nature.

Unfortunately for many students, academics is simply not regarded as a worthy pursuit or a high priority and, as a result, students will choose to spend less time finishing their problem sets and completing their readings to make gains in the other areas in their life. Of course, those who are passionate about their field of study can invest most of their time in their academic pursuits; the problem is that many students do not. The vast majority of college students, not only those at Harvard, want to have everything: leadership positions, good grades, a prestigious internship, a vibrant social life, etc. without having to make the necessary personal sacrifices to reach those goals. Instead, some may turn to cutting corners and “collaborating” with others to finish their work on time, for as long as they get the grade they want, nothing else matters.

Yes, the university should attempt to evaluate not only faculty members’ contribution to academia, but also how well they perform in the classroom. Nevertheless, there is nothing the university can to do to help students from acting in their self-interest.

Timothy Tsai ’14 is a government concentrator in Leverett House. He is the former Director of the Inter-Collegiate Model United Nations Team.

Opportunities Outside Academics Prove Fruitful

As a graduating senior concentrating in Government with a secondary in Economics, I have enrolled in classes that have run the gamut from academically intense to those considered “joke” courses. I confess that I am guilty of having enrolled in several courses not out of rapt interest in the topic, but in an effort to balance out the substantial workload of extracurricular activities. Although, in my experience, Harvard has not placed enough value on academics, it is only because the University offers experiences that go far beyond the classroom.

From connections to internships across the globe, to opportunities to manage and run conferences for thousands of attendees, Harvard’s vast resources for its students serve as much value as its classes in educating the next generation of working adults. Undoubtedly, the academic reputation of Harvard contributes to the existence of these opportunities. However, having a schedule comprised entirely of academically rigorous classes would limit the ability of many students to take full advantage of Harvard’s extracurricular learning opportunities. We are students, but our role is not only to study—but it is also to learn, and Harvard offers extraordinary resources outside of academics to do so.

Charlene Wong ’13 is a government concentrator in Currier House. She is the Secretary General of World Model United Nations.

A Necessary Balancing Act

Whether Harvard places enough value on academics is an irrelevant question that neglects to address exactly how Harvard students and professors navigate their commitments on campus.

Now, the real issue here is a question of balance. Both students and professors maintain a fragile balance between two primary activities. Students divide their time between academic coursework and extracurricular engagements, which include jobs, internships, and fellowship hunting. Professors divide their time between teaching and research.

The primary complaint implied by the supposed fall of academics at Harvard is thus twofold: First, students do not pay enough attention to their academic coursework, instead overcommitting to extracurricular engagements, including pre-professional concerns. Second, professors do not pay enough attention to their teaching, instead overcommitting to their respective research agendas.

Reality check: It is impossible for anyone to dictate exactly how anyone else should spend his time. It is also almost impossible to produce the kind of cultural change beckoned by this ongoing lament for the fall of academics. And not just that—it is absolutely necessary that students and professors sustain this double life of competing professional and personal interests.

Among the primary benefits and salvations of studying at a research university is that you do not simply take a class with a professor who knows a lot about something and can teach it to you. You’re taking a class with someone who is also actively shaping and driving the future of that field. We cannot simply ask that professors teach more and research less, since it is their research commitments that make Harvard the academic powerhouse that it is.

And more—what makes Harvard’s undergraduate culture so intense and chaotic is that we must uphold our own double lives: taking classes and leading organizations, producing plays, founding start-ups, and the rest. Harvard is boot camp, and it is boot camp precisely because we, for whatever reason, require ourselves to do everything and be everywhere at the same time. Of course, some will devote their lives to schoolwork (especially those for whom this work is actually pre-professional). Others would not take any assignment seriously if it meant more time to work on their pet projects. To each his own: If anything, Harvard’s undergraduate and professional culture appears to be encapsulated by this attitude.

Nicholas Rinehart ’14, a Crimson arts editor, is a literature concentrator in Lowell House.

Where Has All the Academics Gone?

Academic rigor, as of late, seems to be sliding downwards at Harvard. Many students who emerge from this institution cannot confidently name themselves as “scholars” and “academics,” but as “pre-professionals,” despite all the rhetoric of the liberal arts curriculum. Our conversations tend to be less deep and academically focused than they might be—perhaps this is a reaction to the stresses of a busy undergraduate career packed with extracurricular activities. Therein may lie another problem. In my experience, debates over politics, philosophy, and intellectual issues appear to be on a downward trend and students are no longer focused solely on academics, choosing to also split their energies on sports, organizations, and other activities.

Harvard, as of late, is doing little to stymie this decline in intellectual curiosity, using grade inflation to boost contentment with minimal levels of effort in the classroom. Although it is true that time spent in classes and on coursework varies differently among our many concentrations, in general, it seems like students are spending less time in libraries, looking up supplementary resources, and engaging in academic dialogue. This is, of course, not to say we have lost all respect for academics, but that the culture at Harvard has shifted quite markedly from where its focus should be: academics.

We have over 400 official student organizations and each student boasts a leadership position of sorts, using these titles to pad resumes for life after college. But Harvard should stress that students should continue their love of learning and that there is no shame in the pursuit of garnering arcane knowledge and obscure facts. Although it is true that the world is changing and becoming more competitive and that extracurricular activities do provide outlets for application of academia and networking opportunities, Harvard should move towards again standing, first and foremost, firmly and proudly behind academia.

Kathy Wang ’14 is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

“Learning for Learning’s Sake” Is the Privilege of the Few

Society tells us that education is an investment in our future. And not just ours—after all, “human capital” increases growth for the economy as a whole. Like any investor, we students, and our parents, expect a return. The majority of students here, for whom entering the middle class or at least remaining in it is not a guarantee bequeathed to them, naturally expect those returns to be denominated in dollars. Truly, as long as we as a society view education as an economic good or a commodity, only those who have enough other commodities to begin with will rationally use their education for something as, unfortunately, economically worthless as “learning for learning’s sake.”

Although Harvard’s financial aid program has succeeded in allowing students of nearly all socioeconomic backgrounds to attend this university, we cannot pretend that the demands on all these students once they get here are the same. Some have to work two, three jobs just to pay for such luxuries as cell phone service or detergent, not to mention a meal in the square once in a while. Even those students whose families can afford to pay for these basics are expected to graduate with an income to support not only themselves but eventually their families, who are often breaking the bank to send them here. “Academics,” as distinguished from merely getting good grades, good recommendations, and other resume-padding accomplishments, can only ever be the top priority for students insulated from these economic pressures. And that is very few of us.

As if these individual circumstances were not enough to force us to make education a means, not an end, society too promotes the narrative of education as economic necessity. President Obama frequently touts the economic importance of higher education in the globalized economy, where “skills” earn a growing premium. Politicians like Governor Rick Scott of Florida propose giving more financial aid to students in science, math, engineering, and technology fields—providing an economic incentive to study what will earn you more money and better the economy regardless of your academic interests. The common scorn against “useless” liberal arts degrees reflects a larger social value: Education should be directed toward immediate, monetary benefits, not such worthless tasks as, say, thinking critically about the world in which we live. Academics, not just in the humanities but all theoretical fields, are by definition distinct from the pragmatic, not tied down by the material here and now. Academics are transcendent.

Students attend college, Harvard especially, to gain access to the material world, to get at least a modest return on their significant monetary investment. Professors are here to help us do that—just look at grade inflation, which makes us more likely to get jobs and them more likely to keep theirs. And Harvard cannot hate the reputation, not to mention the donations, that comes with producing the most billionaires of any school in the world.

No, Harvard does not place enough value on academics. The students do not, the professors do not, and the administration does not. Why would they?

Daniel E. Backman ’15 is a social studies concentrator in Mather House.

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