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Columns

In Support of Low-Stakes, High-Impact Learning at Harvard

By Amanda Y. Su
By Jonah S. Berger, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jonah S. Berger ’21, a former Associate News editor, is an Economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

The typical admonishment from almost every elder to his 18-year-old college grandchild is the same: “Take advantage of these four years; it’s the last time you’ll be free to pursue what you love.” Yet at Harvard, students are severely limited in their ability to do just that.

For many Harvard students, four years pass without ever being able to experiment with something new, potentially missing the opportunity to find a lifelong passion. From poetry to painting to creative writing to cooking to public speaking, students are itching to explore new terrains, without the grades, competitiveness, and narrow curricular scope of the Harvard classroom.

For centuries, Harvard has viewed its highly structured and rigorous courses as the primary stage for instruction and learning. Yet for many students, this system leaves much to be desired.

Many classes — either because they require sleepless nights of studying, turn out to be duds halfway through the semester, or are simply required courses that are unappealing to students in the first place — just don’t give students a feeling of deep fulfillment and joy. Of course, college isn’t supposed to be all fun and games. But to supplement the rigor and pain of the classroom, Harvard needs to help students pursue their passions outside of it.

So what should be done?

A potential solution could center on low-stakes workshops and discussions catered to various broad subject areas, such as music, photography, and cooking: an instructor and perhaps a dozen students meeting once a week in the evening to learn and explore.

Literally hundreds of thousands of Harvard alumni with countless unique skills could contribute as instructors. Professors with expertise in arenas sometimes far from their focus of research could also offer to teach. To give just one example, Comparative Literature professor John T. Hamilton was a rock music star before entering academia.

That is nothing to say of the wealth of talent on Harvard’s campus beyond just among faculty members. Might dining hall managers and chefs, many of whom have extensive backgrounds in the food industry, be willing to hold cooking workshops for students, and be compensated accordingly?

And if skills in certain areas of interest can’t be found among those already in Harvard’s orbit, the College could contract with experts in the Boston area to hold campus workshops.

The atmosphere of these workshops and discussions would be completely different from a typical Harvard class. Every student would be there for the sake of learning, not for grades or pre-med requirements.

The proposal would help bring about a fundamental shift at the College: Skills developed outside of the classroom would begin to be seen as equally important as those developed inside.

On top of helping students explore new pursuits, it would give them the opportunity to interact with these world-class professors, globe-trotting alumni, and talented staff members in a more relaxed and informal setting, fostering conversation and most importantly, a sense of fulfillment for both parties.

Currently, enrollment in art and photography classes at the College is usually capped at just 10 to 15 students, and many require an application to weed out beginners. For students concerned about their GPA, perhaps for a future graduate school application, taking one of these classes out of purely intellectual interest can seem risky.

And for those just looking for a taste of a subject, most of these art and visual studies courses are just too narrowly focused and have overly burdensome workloads. In contrast, low-stakes workshops and discussions could have broader and potentially even fluid parameters of exploration.

There may already be models on campus for this proposal. Prior to the pandemic, multiple Houses regularly held workshops for students, whether woodworking classes in Mather House, wine tasting in Winthrop, or pottery in Cabot.

Yet these programs are either not available to the wider student body or are prohibitively expensive (up to $100 for Mather’s class).

The College's lack of focus on helping students find new hobbies and talents stands in stark contrast to its boundless professional programming. For those who want to learn how to conduct themselves in a job interview, the Office of Career Services has countless resources and appointment slots, pretty much anything one could hope for.

Yet when it comes to an institutionalized system for learning outside of the classroom, the College is currently nowhere to be found. Well, what are they waiting for?

Jonah S. Berger ’21, a former Associate News editor, is an Economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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