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Where I Learned

When you boil it down, the main goal of the college experience is, quite simply, to learn. Sure, a shiny diploma is nice, as is a lifetime of H-bombs (or “going to school in Boston”); an impressive GPA or extracurricular accolade may help land that sweet job post-college. But at a fundamental level, it’s about learning, broadly defined—about yourself, about your passions, and about the world around you.

And so as my four years at Harvard wind down, it’s natural to reflect upon what, and where, I learned.

Admittedly, my views on learning at college are somewhat skewed. As president of The Crimson, I, like many others before me, spent an unhealthy amount of time at 14 Plympton Street. Without a doubt, the most important lessons I learned came not in a classroom but in a newsroom.

Yet, while my specific case may be somewhat unusual, it speaks to a larger truth: At a school known best for and, in large part ruled by, academics, the most enriching learning experiences of an undergraduate’s career can often come in a different place entirely. Certainly for some, academic settings are the sites of greatest learning, yet for others it’s in their houses interacting with peers, or it’s running a club, or debating. For others still, it’s competing as part of a team.

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“This is a small classroom, to be honest with you,” longtime Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith told The Crimson for a 2013 story on athletics’ place in the College. “Yes, we’re trying to win, but … the way you win is to develop all of those life skills … and what better way to develop all those life skills on a daily, repeated basis than by being on a team?”

It doesn’t matter particularly where the learning happens. Sure, different activities will teach different lessons and enhance different skills. But Harvard’s greatest luxury is the number of paths it affords its students to learn—a byproduct both of the school’s sheer number of opportunities and the people who fill its classes—and importantly, each of these paths has its own value and importance.

Yet there is, at times, a prevailing attitude that schoolwork must be students’ main focus. As one professor told The Crimson in the same 2013 story, “If that pressure [to devote less time to academics] is real, then there is a serious imbalance, because Harvard should be a place where academics are the priority.”

This over-prioritization of academics can be seen in other places too, like the perennial reluctance to fund more travel for student groups, or Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay Harris’s recent announcement that the Q Guide will no longer post course difficulty. Harris’s move both bespeaks the notion that students should take classes independent of difficulty and downplays the idea of balancing schedules.

Thanks to enterprising Computer Science students and their separate course guide, this decision likely will have little to no impact on course selection. Yet, it is intended to push towards a more single-minded definition of what “learning” constitutes, as determined by faculty members—long removed from their college days—who, by evidence of their occupation, likely found that type of learning most productive.

Yet going down that road limits the school’s tremendous variety. It’s not that academics are not important—they certainly are. But the extent to which they are differs for everyone. For the prospective math professor, they matter and are more exciting, a more fertile ground for learning, than for, say, the average president of The Crimson.

Not only is that OK, it’s the way it should be. It’s an attitude administrators would do well to foster and students would do well to embrace. The more paths available and encouraged, the better off the student body will be, in both the short and long term. For it is in this way that we discover our passions, what makes us tick, and thereby begin to answer the ever-looming question of what it is we plan on doing once our Houses cease to be our homes.


Robert S. Samuels ’14, a former Crimson president, is an economics concentrator in Leverett House. His email is robertsamuels@post.harvard.edu.

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