Although much of the first semester has already passed, students are still guaranteed to ask the most typical start-of-year question:which courses do you take? This attempt to get to know each other through our course load has become the news How are you? To forge the connection, we naturally seek overlap. Linking on shared classes is an easy way to connect with someone new. It is therefore not surprising that frequent answers to this question include Econ 10a, a variant of Stats, CS 50 and Sleep GENED (“for balance”). But this uniformity should shock us. For a supposedly the most intellectually diverse student body in the country, why are students all studying the same things?
Each class accepted at Harvard is organized to bring new perspectives on a variety of different topics, acting as a beacon of diverse thought. According to admissions statistics conducted by the Admissions Office for the class of 2025, the areas of concentration considered varied widely, with 28.1% intending to study social sciences, 25.9% studying biological sciences and physics, 18.4% choosing computer science and engineering, and 15.3% following a course in human sciences.
Yet the output data tells a whole different story. 63% of the 2020 cohort entered the job market in finance, consulting or technology. Although it started out with a diverse pool of interest, Harvard has converged the myriad of student passions and aspirations into one cohesive result. These so-called “sheep” of our generation succumb to the herd mentality and fall into the same few areas.
Concentrating in a lucrative field is a practical decision, but it goes against the whole premise of Harvard College. We are a liberal arts institution, not a pre-professional training program. The beauty of liberal arts education, as Harvard claims to regard it as the central tenet of its mission, is that learners should not be limited to one discipline.
First year Robbie Owen ’25 began his studies in the UK, where he had to major at age 16 in math, chemistry and biology. His career aspirations, however, lie outside the lab. Owen wants to pursue a career as a director. As for the mergers, he “has no fucking idea.” When people ask, he tells them, “something in biology” – but he admits, “maybe I’ll find something else that I like”. Owen says, “Part of the reason I wanted to do liberal arts in America is to understand what I want to do without having to commit to a degree.” The flexibility of a liberal arts education allows students to pursue or explore career paths independent of our daily classes, a luxury that many students around the world do not appreciate. The purpose of our stay here is to discover what excites us, even if those passions do not correspond to an assuredly lucrative career.
One possible explanation for the convergence of concentrations at Harvard is careerism – moving away from true academic motivations for getting a well-paying job. Particularly for students from low-income backgrounds, career income can play an important role in discerning concentration choices. “In the United States, people who focus on the humanities have lower incomes for life than those who do other things,” concedes Professor Jay Harris, head of the Humanities 10 course. However, he does. The same is not necessarily true for graduate students at Harvard. and other major universities, he said. Harris notes the importance of differentiating between different types of institutions when discussing the value of a concentration in strictly careerist terms.
Focusing entirely on the future can often lead students to give up their present academic interests. This move towards results-based learning has given rise to a phenomenon known as “dying concentrations” in the humanities. With so much emphasis on acquiring technical skills during our undergraduate years, concentrations like folklore and mythology have dwindled in number. Students seem to embrace the teleological imperative, a phenomenon often studied in humanities courses that describes the tendency of students to sacrifice means (choosing a concentration you genuinely enjoy) to achieve goals (getting a well-paying job).
But careerism is short-sighted. “It doesn’t work because the job market changes every five minutes,” explains Doris Sommer, professor of Romance languages and literatures and African and African-American studies. “If you think that you are in the process of training as a mechanical engineer and everything turns into quantum mechanics, you have no more work.”
The assumption that concentration outside of STEM fields prevents students from entering high-paying industries has measurable effects on the demographics of the department. Harris attributes the theory “that you have to be an economic hub to get to Wall Street” to a host of problems in the humanities, including the disproportionate representation of white, wealthy and female students. The idea that certain concentrations are a prerequisite for high incomes is dangerous, as it limits the learning of students who place great importance on job prospects. The vast majority of students who choose to study the humanities can focus on the experience of their studies at Harvard rather than a potential salary.
Not only does the profitability assumption limit diversity, it is fundamentally wrong. While he was dean of undergraduate studies at Harvard College for ten years, Harris met with many industry executives and recruiters. When recruiters described their preferred qualities in recent Harvard graduates, “almost invariably, they started with a range of qualities in which humanities concentrators are sure to excel, such as communication, writing and collaboration,” explains Harris.
In fact, Big Tech companies need concentrators of the humanities. A recent visit by Brad Smith, vice president and president of Microsoft, to Harvard’s CS105 course sparked a discussion about the importance of highlighting the perspectives of people with expertise outside of IT. His discussion focused on communication between technology and government, emphasizing the need for interdisciplinary conversations and broad understanding as we tackle seemingly intractable problems in the future.
Perhaps the most authentic and rewarding curriculum involves a combination of passion and practicality. Sommer emphasizes that “the only thing to do in education is to acquire skills and to learn curiosity”. Engaging in interdisciplinary studies gives students the opportunity to acquire practical skills for the industry of their choice without giving up a genuine interest. These initiatives also allow us to look at innovation from several angles. An example of Harvard’s efforts to cross academic boundaries is Embedded EthiCS, a recent program launched to “teach students to think about the ethical and social implications of their work”. Led by Professors Barbara Grosz and Alison Simmons, the program combines the expertise of professors in the departments of Philosophy and Computer Science to create programs for various classes. Another such program is Renaissance Now, led by Professor Sommer as well as Professors Tarun Khanna and Francesco Erspamer, which advocates the intersection between science and sociability, calling for a collaborative approach between the humanities and fields STEM.
“The university is at a crossroads, it really needs to rethink what the future of a good education is,” says Professor Sommer. Hopefully this future includes equal representation from various fields of study, with each student following a path they are truly passionate about.
Carli Cooperstein ’24 ([email protected]) is the symbolic person of the humanities among his friends.
Maddie Proctor ’25 ([email protected]) can’t do math.
Thanks to Professor Jim Waldo for helping us access the referenced data and for hosting Brad Smith in his CS 105 course earlier this year.