All Harvard students signed up for a liberal arts education when we decided to attend the College. But what exactly does this mode of scholarship entail?
A liberal arts education is about developing a self — about figuring out who you want to become by immersing yourself in timeless texts, having conversations that open your eyes to previously-unconsidered perspectives or those you outright disagree with, and living in a campus community defined by common values. A liberal arts education involves admitting on a day-to-day basis that you came to college to grow, not to declare that you already know all the answers.
We attend Harvard because we are all on a journey to discover who we want to become and how our passions and inclinations harmonize with the broader world. This journey involves academic exploration — hence, the General Education program, a uniquely flexible course registration system, and perhaps the most crucial academic element of all: the process of choosing our field of study.
After three semesters of pure exploration, we declare a concentration, a roadmap which serves to orient us for the rest of our Harvard years. Most students are satisfied by pursuing a single field of study: They explore all the options, and decide that focusing on one field is their best academic path. But some students discover passions in two fields. They might be fascinated by Latin American politics and astrophysics, or ancient folklore and computer science.
Unfortunately, the current joint concentration system often fails to encourage students to pursue their authentic interests. The joint thesis requirement, under which students must write a thesis that integrates the methods of two fields, is a significant burden that discourages many students from pursuing their preferred course of study. Students who do pursue joint concentrations are often caught between multiple advisors with different priorities for their joint theses, or find that they have to constrain their true interests to fit the requirement that the thesis combines both fields.
To solve these issues, Harvard should introduce double concentrations and allow students who fulfill the course requirements for two fields to concentrate in both. Peer schools like the University of Chicago — a top-notch research university widely praised for its commitment to the liberal arts — have allowed students to double major for decades, providing a model for what this could look like at Harvard.
It might appear that allowing students to concentrate in more than one field would incentivize students to pursue endless academic credentials. Any time the ceiling for possible achievement seems heightened, pressure increases for students to do and accomplish more in turn. However, better that some students take more classes and feel free to explore their interests than be railroaded into a single field that they feel obligated to engage with for its professional value.
More and more students are coming to Harvard with expectations to pursue a course of study that leads directly to a lucrative job. These trends do not seem likely to reverse soon. Student interests are shifting rapidly; the number of Statistics, Computer Science, and Applied Math concentrators increased over fourfold from 2008 to 2019. In contrast, the number of sophomores declaring an arts and humanities concentration decreased from 263 for the Class of 2013 to 115 for the Class of 2023.
As student interests change, the best way to preserve the liberal arts is not to suggest that it does not matter at all what field you study, but rather to encourage students to make authentic choices in the face of outside pressures. If a student feels pressured to pursue a STEM concentration but discovers a love for philosophy in their first year, they ought to be able to pursue both fields, not give up their newfound interest altogether.
Although students can always take courses outside their concentration, in practice, students will feel more connected to a field of study when it is formally part of their degree program. It might be a flaw of human nature that we want to be publicly rewarded and recognized for our efforts; nevertheless, we have to design systems that recognize the realities of our humanity.
Instead of forcing students to twist their interests to fit the joint thesis requirement, or pushing students to give up and just pursue one field that seems more remunerative or prestigious, Harvard should give students the option of a double concentration — which will strengthen, not cheapen, the liberal arts.
The Faculty Council should immediately approve a double concentrations proposal.
It is not the case that having more choices is always better; sometimes it feels like we have so many choices that we don’t know who we are. But to preserve the possibilities of a liberal arts education in the face of rapidly changing interests and technological developments, allowing double concentrations is common sense.
Michael Y. Cheng ’22, a History and Mathematics concentrator in Quincy House, is president of the Undergraduate Council. Emmett E. de Kanter ’24, an Integrative Biology concentrator in Winthrop House, is the vice president of the Undergraduate Council.