On (Transformative) Experience, Or: The Hot Take Column

How else to end a column than with a Montaignian flurry of opinions?

William Faulkner theorized that every novelist is a failed short story writer, and every short story writer is a failed poet. Similarly, in the words of a respected historian, most books should be journal articles, and most journal articles should be footnotes. You get the point: Most columns should be tweets.

Indeed, for this column, which I’ve been writing off and on since Sept. 2016, I’ve found that the sub-headline usually captures 90 percent of an article’s point. The 1,000-odd words that follow dress it up in examples and statistics, wasting your time, dear reader, and mine. With so many topics to talk about at Harvard and beyond, why should we bother? If Michel de Montaigne could write one 60-page essay about death, doctors, defecating, and seemingly any other topic that occurred to him, extensively quoting classical writers and rarely bothering to segue, why can’t my own column be a series of loosely connected hot takes until I run out of space? Montaigne couldn’t even use hyperlinks. So let’s get started.

Like nearly every other school, Harvard should let students at least rank their housing preferences. Some people want to be in the Quad, and many don’t. Mather House should house people who prioritize singles over classical architecture and proximity to the Yard, and vice versa for Adams House.

Speaking of architecture, as Matthew B. McDole, Kennedy School alum, wrote in these pages, the Yard’s Georgian style is both aesthetically and morally superior to the imposing, ostentatious, and pretentious brick wall of Eliot, Winthrop, Leverett, and Dunster Houses that faces the Charles. Whether or not you buy into the justifications of brutalism as anti-bourgeois or even heroic, you have to admit that Mather and Gund Hall look more interesting than those derivative posers. Vive le béton brut!

Harvard should recognize its role in the process of letting powerful people get away with horrible things. By giving fellowships to Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski, for example, the Institute of Politics set a precedent that people who aided and abetted the Trump administration’s horrors will be received warmly in polite (even liberal) society. Oh, and they keep inviting Henry A. Kissinger ’50 to speak. Bad.


Harvard should abolish General Education and foreign language requirements. They mostly serve to add headaches and complexity to the process of choosing classes, which should be driven by actual intellectual interests or practical concerns. The evidence that students in general remember very little content from their classes makes this a slam dunk. Get real: Few forced to take French 10 and 11 will speak a useful amount of the language even a few months after the final, and even fewer of the hundreds who skate through Ethical Reasoning 18: “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” become better citizens through that process. (How many go straight to Goldman Sachs afterwards, or vote Republican?)

We should adopt Stanford’s “open-door policy” for alcohol. It’s absurd to think that banning alcohol from the Yard will stop freshmen from drinking rather than making their habits more irregular and dangerous.

Harvard undergrads (and the rest of the world) should resist the temptation to think of the College’s admissions process as a judgment on our worth as an 18-year-old. Instead, consider it as a pairing of the school’s resources with specific people who then use them for four-plus years.

Relatedly, as Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker wrote in a 2014 article in The New Republic, Harvard should refocus admissions away from extracurriculars and intangibles and toward academic potential, mostly measured by test scores and grades (even if I would not have gotten in under this regime). It is irresponsible that the institution with the greatest capacity for research — endless library stacks and lab space, world-renowned faculty in every office — gives so many of its undergraduate seats on the basis of who can best ski down a mountain, play the bassoon, or navigate high school student body politics. As Pinker says, why couldn’t future presidents or business leaders go to Amherst or Swarthmore Colleges? Let’s get these Nobels! It’s what we’re best at.

A corollary: Downsize athletics. Harvard has more Division I sports programs than any other American college, and when these programs recruit, they take seats from non-athletes with better qualifications otherwise. (If this weren’t the case, we wouldn’t need to recruit them!) We should first cut the programs that most stack the deck for prep school kids (sailing, skiing, crew) and the ones that oft-injure their players (football).

Finally, despite the successful use of expanding tomato basil ravioli soup availability as a Undergraduate Council presidential campaign issue, the best Harvard University Dining Services food is clam chowder. What candidate will embrace this, the most important cause I have mentioned? The whole world is watching.

Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson Arts Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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