I cringe every time I see a parent elbow a college-aged child into a STEM major. It’s not just that I received the brunt of a parental elbow myself. By the end of my sophomore year in college, when I wanted to change my major from government to history and shift my career plan from law to earning a history PhD, I was jabbed by my mother who tended to see her kids as assets, their accomplishments chips in an imaginary poker game with her sister, sisters-in-law, and friends. For her, a law degree had more snob appeal. (Since in retrospect the PhD might not have been the best choice either, no harm, no foul.)
What bothers me most about the STEM elbowers, however, is that they miss the point of college. There’s nothing wrong about majoring in a STEM area, if that’s where your passion lies. But everyone needs to remember that college is not a vocational school. College is about becoming well-rounded, learning about the world, broadening your horizons, and figuring out who you are and who you can be. If the past few months have taught nothing, they’ve taught that democracy is fragile and that it depends upon a well-educated populace.
I spent the winter of my senior year in high school certain that I would be matriculating at Yale the following fall. That December, Yale had informed me that I was a probable admission. Harvard was on the fence and told me that it would only possibly admit me. When the official acceptances arrived on April 1, the Harvard envelope was AWOL. I made some plans to hang out with a current Yale freshman from my home town. On Monday a beat-up fat envelope arrived from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Everyone I talked to advised me to opt for the crimson over the bulldog. A kindly teacher who had mentored me throughout high school told me that I would do well at both places but I would end up married if I attended Harvard. I held out for another week, still smarting a little from Harvard’s coyness.
I arrived in Cambridge scared on so many levels. It was the first time I had been away from home for more than a weekend. Like everyone else, I believed myself to be the dumbest one there.
But I quickly became intoxicated from the aura of intellect that suffused everything Harvard. In high school, like all nerds, I lived on the outskirts, socializing on the fringes. In part, that’s because non-nerds exist on a different wavelength, have different interests and priorities. It’s also because nerds are oblivious. When your nose is planted in a book, you don’t see or hear the social cues that make for smooth exchanges. You don’t even comprehend their value. Harvard was a confidence boost. Everyone I encountered was a nerd to one degree or another. There’s no such thing as a square peg when all the pegs are square. I acquired a feeling of belonging, as if I had become a member of an exclusive club to which few members of my high school had been invited. I began to shed the self-absorption of nerdliness, not all at once, but Harvard set me on the path. I learned that the friends whom I liked the most were givers, listeners, people who volunteered to help out without having to be asked, who turned up with chicken soup whenever someone was sick. I had good role models for the first time and have been fortunate to have been able to surround myself with good people ever since.
Most intoxicating about Harvard was the bloated crimson catalogue filled with seductive course offerings. So many history, government, and literature courses to take, too little time. And that’s where I got it wrong. My intellectual curiosity had tunnel vision. With virtually no distribution requirements, I ate only what I liked and didn’t taste any of the offerings or disciplines that I thought I wouldn’t like. In high school, I had dumped science as soon as I could. Cell walls, mitochondria, neutrons and protons—anything I couldn’t see held no interest for me. But no one at Harvard told me that maybe I should consider taking physics. My advisor was a grad student, a pay check player, glad to sign my registration card and walk me to the door in a matter of minutes, with no interest in dispensing advice. (The pre-law advisor was even worse. He was a law student who didn’t even know himself what he was getting into.) With no core curriculum, I gorged myself on my favorite treats and never left my comfort zone. With a good memory, a good pen, and an instinctive understanding that blue books are places where professors like to hear themselves speak, I didn’t stretch myself at Harvard. That’s not how it should have been. I may have been elbowed to a law degree, but no one elbowed me to learn about art history, poetry, psychology, statistics, religion, physics, or computer science. Today, I feel like there are huge chasms in my education, chasms that I’m upset with myself for allowing to exist. It’s funny in a sad way that almost all I know about art history I learned from novels: Irving Stone’s Agony and the Ecstasy about Michelangelo, Lust for Life (Van Gogh), and Depths of Glory (Pissarro) and Somerset Maugham’s incomparable fictional account of Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence.
Fortunately, I have a second chance, and I’m not going to blow it this go round. This fall it’s back to school online. I’ve already left my comfort zone by taking a one hour course about coding. The course was designed for kindergartners, but it’s a start. In the future, I may head back to the live classroom. I’m committed to new experiences and to plugging away at the holes in my knowledge. I wouldn’t trade my Harvard education for the world. And like my high school teacher prophesized, I did find a husband there, a nice Jewish boy who still makes me laugh after 36 years. I only wish I had used my four years at Harvard more wisely and inquired more broadly. But guess what, Harvard, I’m back. I just started a Harvard religion course online and just as wonderful I’ve discovered my alumni privileges to some library databases. Yes, I’m intoxicated with Harvard all over again. And this time, I’m aiming for some mental stretch marks to show for it.