Alexander Heffner is a junior at Harvard College.
This is a warning to parents and prospective college students: be careful what you wish for.
For nearly the past three years, I have been a student at Harvard, a university whose formula for undergraduate prestige has created an international reputation far beyond that of even its closest competitors. But as any undergraduate who actually attends the school knows, the Harvard education is overrated. Harvard's traditional emblem of Veritas, in practice, is a one-dimensional search for truth that weds students more to cold facts than to their teachers or classmates.
Yet all high school seniors in America feel the allure of the nation's most-sought-after degree, and believe it is the top prize because of the unmistakable notion that Harvard leads to superior advantages throughout life. That unmatched endowment, generous financial aid, world-class faculty—and who can forget that consistent top ranking?—guarantee it.
For three centuries, Harvard has led a masterful public relations campaign to claim the mantle of what is best in American education, even if that means less community, less intimate interaction with professors and classmates, less "we" and more "me." In reality, more often than not, faculty here are inaccessible, students are unengaged interpersonally, and two way education is an anathema. After a recent class, I remarked to the tenured professor that I had completed more in-depth research papers in high school, where I had possessed unrivaled access to my teachers and unlimited guidance during the research process, than I had in my time in Cambridge. "That's the problem with this place," the professor grinned, not in the least surprised. "There is not enough contact between professors and students."
In many classes, the acceptance of minimal faculty-student interaction has limited the scope of investigation and depth of assignments. Arranging office hours with professors—let alone securing thesis advisers—can be difficult. The lecture-based academic climate that pervades Harvard does not usually provide seminar-style discussion until weekly sections led by recent graduates. That is, its intellectual pulse is invariably from the top-down and never from the bottom-up. The examples of Harvard's deficit in undergraduate learning are many--and any reporter brave enough to question the veneer and interview students would find more.
I am as frustrated here as I had been in 2004, when I sought to escape from the standardized scholastic culture of a top-ranked public school on Long Island. Its statewide recognition for achievement bore no meaning for me in classrooms where my fellow middle-schoolers mocked me for my interest in discussing material and its relevance in current events. Around that time, I learned about an age-old boarding school—and the collaborative nature of its student body. I remember being impressed by the student-teacher ratio—small classes, sometimes just four or five people—and by learning so much about and from each other. I often feel obliged to tell people, even if they don't ask, that it was Andover (not Harvard) that taught to me to think and write critically.
And many liberal arts colleges do what my present school does not. Still nostalgic for high school, my classmates and I have wanted to relive high school—a realization shared by many us who departed for large universities that we belong in seminars, not lecture halls. This brings us back to Harvard, where theoretically there would never be an end to learning, even if there were an end to exchange in the classroom. But without discussion based discovery, there is an end to genuine learning.
If its undergraduate experience is objectively inferior, conventional wisdom is that Harvard on your C.V. will still reign supreme. As one commenter on a college-news blog wrote last year in response to an applicant who was accepted at all but one of his Ivy League prospects, "In my opinion, Harvard trumps all the other schools. In this economy, being part of the Harvard brand might open doors. Congratulations, young man."
The blogger's attitude underscores what's wrong with perceptions of Harvard and higher education, broadly speaking: The quality of one's education derives from a community of human interaction, not the growing lecture circuit that Harvard embodies. Three years ago, I fantasized about attending Harvard—and when that dream was realized, I anticipated I was in for one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences of my life. Instead, I got one of the least.
Don't make the same mistake. If you receive a notice of acceptance from the Harvard admissions office next month, enjoy the moment, but consider how disappointed you may be three years from now. If you aren't accepted, or if you never applied, consider yourself fortunate: you will receive a better education in the bargain.