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Gems at Harvard Are Just Fake Treasure

By Andrew L. Cheng, Crimson Opinion Writer

In the midst of an add-drop period that many students are treating as the shopping week they’ll never have again, the pressure to find classes that are simultaneously interesting, requirement-fulfilling, and chill enough for students to catch a breath is intense. With Harvard offering more than 3,700 courses in 50 different undergraduate fields of study, students here should have their pick of the litter of classes that satisfy their personal trifecta of interest, requirements, and acceptable workload. There are more than enough classes for every Harvard student to logistically achieve the well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education that the College so prides itself on delivering to students.

Yet in practice, few Harvard students pursue such a liberal arts and sciences education, even as the College encourages it with requirements and special programs. One such program is the General Education program, containing courses that, in the College’s words, “pose enduring questions” and “frame urgent problems.” Gen Ed courses have the greatest potential to be valuable and life-changing, investigating pressing issues that other courses may shy away from. But in truth, most students don’t treat Gen Eds like the College envisions. Students take easier courses or “gems,” like Gen Ed 1038: “Sleep” or Gen Ed 1074: “The Ancient Greek Hero,” purely to boost their GPA.

There is nothing inherently wrong with taking classes for one’s GPA. Students set on graduate school, medical school, or other avenues where their grades will be scrutinized for acceptance are entirely reasonable in their inclination towards “easy A” Gen Eds. But the fact that this attitude is shared by students whose futures are GPA-agnostic suggests that this is an institutional problem: that Harvard simply lacks dedication when it comes to supporting students’ intellectual curiosity and multidisciplinary learning. For a college that tells students to “venture into new territories and chart your own path,” a large percentage of students here seem to be venturing only in search of an additional one or two points to their grades.

Classes are the crux of a Harvard education; if they cannot instill a passion for learning in students, the entire education has failed in its mission of intellectual transformation. In order for Harvard to succeed in training the citizens and citizen-leaders of tomorrow, students and faculty must take two steps in tandem and bring academic passion back to the General Education program.

First, the College should require all Gen Ed courses to use pass-fail grading. If the main objective of these classes is for students to explore perspectives from other disciplines, why put extra strain on an already stressed-out college student juggling grades, extracurriculars, and recruiting? Students can’t be expected to prioritize broadening their horizons when faced with academic incentives that reward sticking to what they know. Currently, students can only take one of their four mandatory Gen Eds pass-fail. By moving all Gen Eds to pass-fail, students are nudged to grapple with personally intriguing questions in unfamiliar disciplines — instead of just finding the easiest class to pass.

Second, students must find for themselves the intrinsic value of learning. This requires significant self-reflection. As an Asian American child in a family of sticklers about grades, I empathize with students who still believe in the traditional definition of success in education as obtaining that coveted “A+” or scoring a perfect 100 percent on an exam. But you shouldn’t limit your perceptions of academic success to that number scale. College is a time to break boundaries, leave your comfort zone, and discover interests that will last a lifetime. It’s a limited four years where students all over the globe come together to innovate, obsess, and dive deeper into a multitude of unfamiliar subjects. Don’t waste your time taking a class that you know you won’t find intellectually stimulating — it only excludes you from academic fields you could’ve explored and novel ideas you could’ve learned.

Some might argue that making all Gen Eds pass-fail would only reinforce students’ definition of academic success as numeric grades: If Harvard students are only grade-driven, they would put no effort into their newly pass-fail Gen Eds, learning even less than before. That’s why both the pass-fail change and the intrinsic valuation of learning must happen together. If one happens without the other, students will either end up disillusioned about subjects they are passionate but inexperienced in, or discard their sense of intellectual curiosity altogether. The two proposed actions must be taken in tandem to ensure both student happiness and growth.

Attending one of the most rigorous and renowned colleges in the world is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As students at Harvard, we shouldn’t waste this opportunity out of fear of getting a low grade. College is a time for growth and an invitation to try something completely new. So learn about American food, acoustic engineering, East Asian cinema, or whatever else you find intellectually fascinating, and as long as you’re learning, don’t stress about a final grade.

Andrew L. Cheng ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House.

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