This weekend, I was dragged along by my friend Van to a birthday party at MIT. I got into a discussion with a nice bloke there, and I, of course, had to ask the ultimate question of self-absorbed Ivy League-ers: So, what brought you to MIT?
His immediate response was: The Quality of the Undergraduate Education.
I think my immediate response was some sort of confused look. Education? What is this thing called “education” that brings one to a particular college? Maybe it’s me, but from an informal polling amongst my friends, The Quality of the Undergraduate Education does not seem to be among the list of reasons of why YOU should go to Harvard.
What is the correct response to: So, what brought you to Harvard?
Besides, the satirical “because it’s Harvard,” the appropriate response is: The People.
1) Why not The Quality of Undergraduate Education?
Because unless you’re math, romance languages, classics etc., the quality of the undergraduate education here does not sit up and smack you with its brilliance.
- The Core: A crippled system of half-heartedly taught classes, indifferent and incompetent TFs, topics that would interest no one but concentrators in that particular field, the lack of departmental courses that would count towards the core requirements, reduction of electives that would actually interest individual students, confusion, and some perpetually delayed move to some other Core-like requirement system that may or may not learning about religion — and you’ve got yourself a headache.
- Large Introductory Classes: While Harvard notes that all classes are taught by professor, this does not mean that one learns the most from one’s professor. It is true that Gregory Mankiw teaches the “Ec 10,” but we see his lovely face about once a month. Most of the teaching is done in section where the learning experience is highly dependent on the language abilities of your section leader.
2) We the People?
The most fantastic (and sometimes damning) aspect of this college is the people who go here. You’ve got your math geniuses, your Swedish fencers, your literary super stars, your inventor of the AIDS vaccine. It is amazing to be around so many people who are dedicated and talented in a diverse array of interests. Chances are you’ll be able to find someone who is passionate about sheep farming, chocolate making, or airplane flying.
I was talking to a senior who was graduating. She was accepted to a very solid Medical School, however, it wasn’t a “brand name” school. She clarified her position as: I want to go to a school where the people make the institution great, rather than the institution makes the people great.
What exactly is this distinction?
- A school can make you competitive, but that does not mean you enter the school as a competitive student.
- You gain more from the classroom (The Undergraduate Education) rather than from your peers.
What are the implications?
- At a school that emphasizes The People over The Undergraduate Education, your outside of class life is much richer. That is why Harvard has its thousand and one clubs, its world class hockey players, cultural festivals every month, events bringing in notable politicians and brilliant minds.
- At People-strong school, you will probably learn the most from talking, working and being with others, rather than working on that 20 hour problem set.
- At a People-strong school, you might end up focusing most of your energies on non-educational but beneficial pursuits. Aka, this blog is an example of me NOT studying for my Chinese test on Friday.
- At a Education-strong school, you will learn what you will need to learn in order to be competitive in the area of which you are studying.
- At a Education-strong school, you will most likely focus much of your energies on academics rather than non-academic pursuits.
- At a Education-strong school, chances are the people while spectacular at studying, may not also be spectacular at other arenas.
Because I am biased, obviously, you have been given fair warning that I am a Harvard student coming who considers and appreciate the fact that Harvard is a People-strong school.
3) Why I Wouldn’t Want to Be Anywhere Else
Being at Harvard has opened my mind at the possibilities my life can hold. If I want to, I can start up the next Facebook. If I want to, I can earn six digits upon graduation (and not do much else). It sounds silly, but I didn’t really think that I could actually wrangle a trip to study the culture of plant domestication in East Asia (and get Harvard to pay for it!)
Being around a set of people who have a grasp of so many things I’ve never given a thought to is well, amazing. If I want to find out the basics of Topology, I can ask my math concentrator blockmate. If I want a breakdown of the presidential candidates with a complete appendix of historical events, I can ask my roommate. If I want to ask Mankiw why his textbook is so expensive, I can stroll right into his office and demand my moneys back.
4) It’s About Who You Know
The longer I’m here, the more I realize that the world is run by the maxim of “It’s who you know.” For better or for worst, you will get to know the people that you should know in the coming years here.
Yes, it is true, as that nice MIT bloke pointed out, that the reason why Harvard is full of great people is because of the name. Who would go to a school with a mucky-ish education system if it wasn’t “Harvard?”
But honestly, you may get a Harvard education at any of the other top 20 or so schools on the U.S. News and World Report list, but you ain’t gonna get that many Harvard-quality kids in one place but at Harvard.
(Note: This already partially assumes that you would prefer to get your learning from your peers rather than from your classes. For some, another school would be more appropriate. And you’re going to get your share of amazing people at pretty much any Ivy League-quality school.)