Everyone has heard of Harvard University. It’s where presidents go to swat up on running the USA and where actors hone their skills as world famous thespians. It’s where Bill Gates started his Microsoft monolith, and where Facebook was born. It’s the most selective university in the world, letting only 7.0% of applicants grace its lawns and colleges in 2013 and 5.8% in 2014 (for comparison, Cambridge was 20% in 2014). To be accepted, you have to be intellectually outstanding as the average GPA (Grade Point Average) is 3.85 (out of a possible 4). Some people think you have to be born into the right sort of family and social setting to stand a chance of rubbing shoulders with one of the world's foremost intellectual powerhouses. Regardless, you have to be relentlessly driven.
You also have to be active in other ways. Students often have their own start-up businesses, or perform exceptionally well in other extracurricular activities such as sport and music. To get into Harvard, you need credentials that suggest you would have lived a frenetic and hectic schedule, giving every waking second to productivity and development of yourself in every facet of life. You would, in other words, embody the fast stream, up to your knees in oil and grease, and your nose should be red raw, perpetually glued to the proverbial grindstone.
So why does Harvard tell its students to slow down?
I’ve just finished In Praise of Slowness, By Carl Honoré. He has a chapter dedicated to slow children and allowing kids the time to enjoy unstructured play. But he branches out into a wonderful story about the ex-dean of Harvard Undergraduate School, Harry Lewis.
In 2004, Lewis was at a staff-student meeting, listening to complaints from students who wanted to speed up, to cram more knowledge into less time. Some students wanted to double major and on top of that, do their degrees in three years instead of the usual four. Rather than being impressed by the gumption of these high-octane undergrads, their formidable ambition and drive worried Lewis. He began to ruminate on exactly how undergraduates were approaching their time at university. He decided he didn’t like the way things were going, and the pressure students were encouraged to place themselves under.
So in 2004 Lewis wrote a letter to all Harvard undergraduates telling them to slow down. You can read it in full here. In this letter, Lewis laid out a host of reasons why students needn’t cut down their time at Harvard from 4 to 3 years. Instead of declaiming freshman who didn't decisively map out courses and a career path as a Harvard heresy, he defended them. He also advocated taking time off from studying. Not just an evening, or even a week, but a term or a year.
According to Lewis, Harvard is very tolerant of such deferrals, and provided the paperwork is handed in on time, readmission is often automatically granted with the guarantee of accommodation the following year/term.
He allayed the protests of parents who were wary that time away from university would lead to their sons and daughters recklessly throwing away their hard earned place. Lewis noted Harvard student support services can actually help you plan your time away by developing a constructive plan with students on how to use their time off to do things that complimented their studies. He also cited matriculation rates for student readmission among those who took 6 years to graduate, showing they were very high (around 96%).
Most astonishingly for one of the world’s most selective universities, he suggested doing things because you enjoy them, rather than because they increase career prospects or aid your studies. He also suggests doing less activities than most students already did. If you want to learn the sitar, rather than take an extra module, or joining another debating society then in Lewis’ eyes, that was a positive thing that would pay dividends to student work-life balances.
All in all, he provided solid, slow advice for the frenetic undergraduate at arguably the world’s best university. Most importantly for us, his letter is another badge of honour for the cub scout of slowness, and an antidote to the guilt we are all encouraged to feel as students. The following snippets are things that I’m sure many students have thought and felt while studying.
‘Oh you only joined one society?’
‘You haven’t had a committee position at all? Not even social sec?’
'What do you mean, you have never pulled an all-nighter at the library!?’ How do you fit it all in?'
These sorts of questions often reveal more about the insecurity and anxiety of the person asking than the unfortunate recipient, who is usually left feeling a similar unease about how high their bootstraps have been pulled.
Bollocks. No you shouldn’t. Plenty of research (aptly, some has been done at Harvard) says it’s a bad idea. Since when did not getting sleep equal the new hallmark of hard work? Yet people often pull all nighters before exams and deadlines. Some people are less organised than others, and find themselves in the library at 4am because of this. Others feel cramming is the most effective way for them to revise.
Fair enough. I sympathise massively with these people, butthe urge to do as much as possible, to 'maximise your time' at university has warped from an admirable goal to a freakish, stressful reality that many students suffer from. Look at the rise in the use of Modafinil around exam time. Study drugs may be very useful around exam time, and allow you to concentrate for inhuman amounts of time. All I'd like to point out that there are other, less chemically induced ways of increasing concentration which involve giving yourself a break and taking time off. When the tutors at Harvard are saying it's ok to apply the brakes, then we see no reason why that might not apply back here(making the assumption that most of our readers are British Undergraduates).
So in 2015, is Slowness still practiced at Harvard? In 2014 the president of Harvard, Drew Faust held a talk for high school students [here I am using the American definition of college as university and high school as sixth form, as that’s what the below quote uses]. She encouraged students to go to college because it allowed students to access slow learning. She says that in relation to the urge for speed and profit, we can think about a different kind of profit that education provides:
“There is a different kind of profit, a more lasting one, available to those willing to slow down and bear down on a difficult problem. College can help you learn how to think, more than what to think. And you will learn, perhaps, the great value of humility in the face of all we still don’t know.”
Harry Lewis is also still kicking about, although he is no longer dean of undergraduates. I can only hope that subsequent deans have had the good sense to send similar emails to their undergraduates.
There is one important caveat that Lewis makes. Undergraduates often rush to finish their degrees in 3 years at Harvard because it’s cheaper. That’s understandable, and money and finances present difficulties that the something the slow movement has had to deal with more broadly. Who can actually afford to be slow today? Is the Slow Movement reserved for the affluent middle class? In the same way fast food is often cheaper than its slow equivalent, the need to make ends meet makes people feel that however much they’d like to slow down, life won’t allow it.
These are important issues this blog is struggling to reconcile. Our answer, broadly, is that being a slow graduate and the SlowStreaming process doesn’t and shouldn’t cripple you financially. Referring back specifically to degrees here in the UK, the length of time you’ll be studying is decided for you. The cost is also (for the time being) set. In this piece, all we want to suggest is that taking time away from the library, or freeing up some time from the the hectic schedule you have set yourself is an inherently good thing, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it.
I wish Harry Lewis had CC’d me into his email, maybe I wouldn’t have felt that creeping guilt in the pit of my stomach that set in whenever I enjoyed some down time away from my books and PDFs watching South Park reruns. I'll finish with a quote from his letter.
“By the same token, get away from Cambridge [where Harvard is] over vacations. And don’t come back early. Your academic work will be better and more productive if you are not burned out from having done it continuously for two months.”