Op Eds

The Dangers of Drinking from a Firehose

An MIT president once likened an education from our Cambridge rivals to "trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose." Harvard may not require this firehose approach to learning, but it certainly permits it. Many of my peers will remember at least one semester that left them gasping for air, and many would be hard-pressed to remember a semester that didn't.

There's a romanticism to the idea of jumping headlong into a challenge and reaching our limits as we just try to push through. There are also genuine practical reasons to be drawn to the firehose approach, and it's worth reflecting on those before we condemn it. Ultimately, though, overcommitting does erode curiosity in dangerous ways that are easy to overlook when we’re filling our Crimson carts and comp schedules.

In the real world, we can't possibly be expected to fully understand every fact or tool we put to use. Programmers don't exegete every library they import, and engineers don't demand proof for every theorem they use. The same applies to research, where getting to the frontier requires tolerating a very incomplete and pragmatic approach to learning. Certainly, it would be absurd to require fully understanding Plato (whatever that means) before moving to Aristotle. It follows that working with incomplete knowledge of overwhelming information is a valuable skill.

Even more practically, if the biggest limit on your productivity is external motivation, then that’s another good argument for overcommitting. If you more than double the work assigned to yourself, then even if you only truly grasp half of it, you’re still better off on net.

In our list of ever-less-respectable reasons to overcommit, we eventually reach ego. If I can show how smart I am by taking a harder class, I'm tempted. Even if I don't understand the material particularly well at the end, the ego remains undented; after all, it was an unreasonably difficult class.


Despite these driving causes, some more persuasive than others, the firehose approach has serious costs. I'll focus on only one: getting comfortable with partial understanding.

If you're at Harvard, odds are that at some point you were constitutionally incapable of accepting on faith things that you couldn't understand for yourself. It's difficult to do as much academic work as admission requires without this kind of intrinsic curiosity. Likewise, it's difficult to do that work as well as required without the kind of insights (however embarrassingly shallow in hindsight) that come from rigorously questioning what you are taught.

I certainly felt that compulsion for full understanding once. I don't anymore. I know a lot of much brighter friends who have undergone similar transitions.

The mechanism is very simple. By sufficiently overcommitting, it becomes impossible to learn the material of each class or extracurricular fully. Instead, you're forced to learn just enough to fulfill your commitments. If you do this for several years you will, unsurprisingly, become accustomed to understanding things only as much as is necessary to do your work well.

In my case, not only did the need for full explanations start to fade. I became actively impatient with such explanations because I became used to not having enough time. Now, even when I do have time, that impatience remains ingrained by habit.

It would be inappropriate to blame Harvard. Firehose learning often starts well before enrollment, and besides; what could Harvard do? Cut its most rigorous classes? Limit the number of commitments students can take on? Such blunt responses would entirely misunderstand the problem.

Instead, the responsibility lies broadly with us. If I've made any progress, it's in realizing that a general “need to know” is deeply valuable. Even in the best case, where drinking from the firehose leads to learning more material in the medium term, it chips away at that need to know in the long term.

Surely, we can strike a balance. Some firehosing is useful to build the skills necessary to eventually do real work or research. It will occasionally be necessary to use a result we can’t prove or quote a passage we don’t fully understand. But we can plan our commitments at Harvard so we only have to do so rarely. And at the very least, we should feel a little guilty whenever we do.

Aurash Z. Vatan ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Mather House.

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