So, you made it into Hahvahd.
You may have already taken the tour. You’ve seen the Statue of the Three Lies, and maybe you even rubbed the foot, poor thing. You’ve talked to the endlessly cheerful folks in Byerly Hall. Before you decide for sure, though, you need to delve deeper than the glossy brochures and the shiny Harvard name. A Harvard diploma can open doors, but if you’re not happy in the process, then you might as well have gone to Yale. (Almost.)
Here’s the real Harvard, complete with terrible teaching fellows, intermittent social life and weird naked rituals. But there’s also amazing housing, absorbing extracurriculars and fascinating fellow students.
You might expect that academics to be the pinnacle of your Harvard career. After all, it can’t be the dining halls’ savory baked tofu that win Harvard top honors in the U.S. News & World Report survey every year.
The dirty little secret about Harvard is that you can read Aristotle anywhere for $8.99 and the price of a bookmark. But that’s not to say there aren’t real advantages to Harvard’s academic life. You might not be able to track down Af-Am guru Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. or former Reagan economic boss Martin S. Feldstein `61 in person, but you can sit in on their lectures. How much personal contact you’ll have with them depends on how hard you’re willing to try. Most professors, and a few students, claim that office hours are a treat and doors are always open. But most undergrads are too busy — or intimidated — to ever bother.
Most courses with the superstars are huge core classes, often with several hundred students. In these classes, the real teaching is done by teaching fellows (T.F.s), who range from the superb to the non-English-speaking. Other times you’ll find yourself in seminars with only a handful of other students. These can be excellent, unless you haven’t cracked the binding on your overpriced books. Believe it or not, students can be notoriously unprepared for class, choosing one more slice of pizza rather than reading the last hundred pages of Bleak House.
Advising is a lottery. Some lucky souls land the jackpot, scoring an assistant dean, but don’t count on anything but a confused graduate student. Start thinking soon, because at the end of your first year, you’ll have to choose a concentration (“majors” are just too plebian).
Harvard is best known for its largest departments, Economics and Government. These departments are vast and impersonal but have blessedly lax requirements. An alternate route is the make-Mom-cry concentration—Folklore and Mythology, anyone?
Of course, it’s not as important what you study as what you do. The lifeblood of Harvard is its extracurricular universe; with more than 250 independent student groups, everyone gets to be president.
There are those students who plunge their very souls into their extracurriculars. (We at The Crimson wouldn’t know anything about that). One minute you have perfectly normal roommates, and the next they’ve vanished to produce the Hasty Pudding Show (Harvard’s annual drag extravaganza), plan cultural fairs for the Asian American Association (the largest group on campus) or dress up as stags for midnight rituals of the Science Fiction Association. Some activities generate their own characteristic “types”: the smooth-talking future senators of the Institute of Politics, the do-gooders at Phillips Brooks House Association, the umbrella community service agency, and the much-maligned windbags of the Undergraduate Council.
Sports teams have little trouble getting money, unlike student groups. Surprisingly, Harvard even has a few good teams: the women’s hockey team won a national championship this year. But only a brave few of the rest of us actually make it to games — if you want enthusiastic fellow fans, try the Big Ten. Facilities for athletes across the river are fantastic, but here in Cambridge, pungent crowds and dated equipment are the rule at student gyms. Harvard devotes its money to collecting not brand-new treadmills but timeworn treasures.
Legend has it that Harvard is inhabited by a tribe of pasty-faced “former” geeks for whom social life consists of reading Nietzsche into the wee hours and checking e-mail obsessively. That isn’t true, of course…or, not entirely.
Social life begins at home, first in randomly assigned entryways, and from sophomore year on in up to 16-person blocking groups (the core group of friends with whom you receive your housing assignment). For students in a rush, grab-and-go lunches in Loker Commons are the norm, but it’s not so unusual to linger over an empty tray in your House dining hall through three cycles of conversation.
Don’t worry, Harvard does have parties. Extracurricular groups and House committees plan dances (ranging from the tragically lame Bare as You Dare to the pleasantly lame Leverett ‘80s Dance). The calendar is sprinkled with formals, especially in the spring. Room parties are fun, particularly if you know the hosts; other times they’re just loud, sweaty and invaded by the cops at 1 a.m. But for the athlete elite and the first-year girls who love them, final clubs – exclusive all-male artifacts from the Roosevelt era – offer late-night festivities.
Interrupting the routine are a few marquee social events. Though a shadow of its former self, the Harvard-Yale Game in November is the only time you’ll see an outpouring of school spirit. Head of the Charles, a regatta weekend in the fall, is more fun for the legions of tourists than the students they inconvenience.
Harvard Square is a magnet for young people in boring suburbs. The Pit People are only the most colorful example—they’re the flock of pierced, dyed, leather-clad youths next to the T stop. The Square is actually fairly cosmopolitan, with an abundance of restaurants and shops; it’s also pricey and corporate. “Good Will Hunting” hangout Au Bon Pain and the ubiquitous Store 24 and CVS are down-scale retreats.
The winter snow is oppressive if you live in the dreaded Quad. The three Quad Houses are roomy, clean, attractive…and 15 minutes from the rest of campus. The Quad does at least offer an element of solidarity that the River Houses have lacked since 1995. Students used to pick their upperclass digs, and each House attracted a different personality. Now, Houses are little more than ordinary dorms, albeit particularly nice ones.
We’ve heard Boston is a fabulous city, with museums, concerts, clubs and great restaurants. Too bad you’ll never go. The real world does occasionally intrude on campus, though. After a several-year lull in student protest, activism roared back this spring when a three-part rally descended on University Hall calling for a living wage, an end to sweatshop-produced goods and sterner protections against rape. Curmudgeonly professor Harvey C. Mansfield ‘53 called the protest “idiotic,” but most are glad to see the student body shedding its apathy.
Many activists are also frustrated by the lack of faculty diversity. Part of the problem is Harvard’s missing tenure track — most assistant faculty members will spend less time at Harvard than you will.
Students are an incredibly varied lot — while prep school alums are common, they no longer exclusively run the show. But one thing virtually every student has in common is ambition. Even the debauchery is ambitious — during Primal Scream, the night before final exams, hordes of streakers run naked around the Yard, often in sub-zero weather.
But when you peel away the intensity, your fellow Harvard men and women are surprisingly normal. You’re just as likely to bond with your peers over Saved by the Bell and Molly Ringwald as philosophy or politics.
In a way, that’s what your Harvard career will be all about—balancing Shakespearean sonnets and Sixteen Candles. Don’t forget—Harvard is still college. You’re here to have a good time, and you probably will.
But don’t buy everything you hear in Byerly Hall.