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So close, but Yet So Far

Harvard needs to combat the conflict between liberal arts and engineering

By Tessa A.C. Wiegand

Nearly two years ago, I sat in Sanders Theater for the first time, surrounded by future freshmen, and listened to President Drew G. Faust address the potential class of 2015. In her speech she talked a lot about different aspects of Harvard and Harvard life, but one story stuck out. In response to a parent’s question about the lack of vocational education at Harvard, Faust told us about a recent Slavic languages graduate who finished at Harvard as one of the world’s leading minds in the field. She then went on to explain that he was currently in medical school and planned to become a surgeon. Clearly, at Harvard you could concentrate in anything and leave being able to do anything you wanted.

Most of my experience at Harvard has only reinforced this. My roommate is a Romance languages and literatures concentrator who plans to go into public policy. Another friend is a joint math and English concentrator. However, there seems to be an exception to the anti-vocational oasis that is Harvard. Where does the most notoriously vocational concentration, engineering sciences, fall in the surrounding ocean of liberal arts concentrations?

The answer is that it doesn’t. It simply can’t. When a student graduates from most concentrations, he or she is an educated individual ready to learn how to be successful in any career. When a student graduates with a Bachelor of Science in engineering, he or she is a qualified engineer. Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences preaches to prospective undergraduates that students can “enjoy the intellectual energy of a liberal arts college where they can engage in scholarship spanning the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities” and pursue an engineering degree. However, in the introductory meeting of this spring’s sophomore engineering forum, recently declared concentrators such as myself were told that we had to “make choices” and that we couldn’t expect to concentrate in engineering and also pursue a secondary field, study abroad, and write theses.

For students like Stephanie R. Warner ’15, who chose Harvard because she “wanted [her] undergraduate experience to be one that was truly interdisciplinary,” or Rishi Goel ’15, who said he transferred from the University of Texas to Harvard because he was “not just getting an education for [his] career; [but rather] getting an education for [his] life,” this statement came as quite a shock.

I too am tempted to rail against this statement and demand that Harvard engineering live up to its promise of a liberal arts education. However, such a demand would be unreasonable. In its current state, it is impossible for Harvard engineering to also offer a true liberal arts education, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

To earn a Bachelor of Science in engineering sciences, one must take between 20 and 24 half-courses. The unaccredited Bachelor of Arts degree in engineering, at 14-16 half-courses, still requires more than most Harvard concentrations. It is barely possible to have what could be considered a liberal arts education within the S.B. program.

Sophomore Leah P. Gaffney ’15 will graduate with an S.B. in biomedical engineering and a secondary field in global health and health policy in four years, but only because “[she] came in knowing that [she] was interested in engineering and with a math background through multivariable [calculus].” For most others, like alumna Sarah Campbell ’12, wanting a Harvard liberal arts experience meant giving up the validity of an S.B. degree and “choosing the A.B. track because it allowed for [her] to pursue a secondary and/or citation.”

During sophomore fall, I faced a similar decision between pursing an accredited and more legitimate S.B. degree or an A.B. degree—three years without a single elective as opposed to a path where I could take other Harvard classes and potentially study abroad but would forfeit my ability to work as an engineer without significant make-up work in graduate school.

Harvard is consistently ranked first in the U.S. News and World Report’s best universities. But in 2012, Harvard engineering ranked 19th among undergraduate engineering programs, falling well below Ivy competitors such as Cornell and Princeton, at eighth and 10th, respectively, and MIT and Stanford, ranked first and second.  Despite the discrepancies in rankings, prospective engineers are picking Harvard. In just five years, Harvard number of Harvard engineering concentrators has doubled in size, testifying that engineering students are increasingly seeking the balanced education Harvard promises. Yet a balanced engineering education does not exist in the form promised.

Harvard is one of very few institutions that attempts to make a liberal arts engineering degree a viable option, but it hasn’t quite succeeded in doing so.  As long as engineering concentrators have to make choices between becoming an accredited engineer versus pursuing a secondary or studying abroad, we cannot truly become liberal arts engineers.

In the current system, this is impossible, but change is possible. Perhaps it means that Harvard needs to let engineers stay for five years or accept AP or IB math and physics credits to give engineers a head start on their requirements. Harvard’s engineering program is close to becoming the liberal arts oasis it promises to be—I urge the College and SEAS to push for changes that permit every Harvard student to pursue both engineering legitimacy and liberal arts breadth.

Tessa A.C. Wiegand ’15 is an engineering sciences concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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