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To the Editor:
Several years ago, a colleague I had recruited to serve as a freshman advisor came to my office after meeting an advisee for the first time. “What do I do now?” the professor asked. “This fellow says he no longer wants to study computer science. He wants to do studio art. I haven’t a clue what to tell him.”
“Start by telling him, ‘Congratulations,’” I suggested. “He’s figured out before taking a single class what many Harvard students don’t realize for years—that once they get here, they don’t have to keep doing something they no longer love, just because they think it’s what got them in.”
I thought of this while reading “One in Four Class of 2020 Athletes Quit Varsity Teams During Their Time at Harvard” (February 21). The Crimson’s coverage seems to suggest that 27 percent is a high number, and that students who have changed their minds about what to do at Harvard have violated some institutional norm or expectation. But athletes aren’t bound to do athletics, any more than high school violin virtuosos bear a moral burden to play the violin at Harvard or pre-meds to do medicine after graduating. Ivy League athletics is premised on the freedom of athletes, like other Harvard students, to rethink their interests and commitments. That is why, unlike in many Division I institutions, Harvard financial aid is not tied to continued participation in athletics, to studying any particular academic subject, or even to achieving an honors GPA.
A college where everyone who had been devoted to a particular political, musical, dramatic, academic, or athletic activity at age 17 was still pursuing the same activity with the same intensity at the age of 22 would be a college full of dull, narrow people. The freedom to change your mind and to acquire new interests — that is, the right to an education in the full sense of the term — belongs to athletes at Harvard every bit as much as it belongs to other Harvard students.
Both 0 percent of athletes leaving and 100 percent leaving would be problematic for different reasons. That 25 percent of varsity athletes (some of whom were walk-ons) leave varsity athletics over four years seems to be happy evidence that Harvard athletes learn new things here and think for themselves about how best to use their time. I did exactly that myself some 55 years ago, swapping out lacrosse for computer science research. I learned something valuable from doing each. It is a rare privilege in America to be free to do what you want to do in college — and still to graduate debt-free.
Harry R. Lewis ’68 is the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and a former Dean of Harvard College.
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