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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Practically Perfect in Every Way

July-August 2007

In small white rooms lit by fluorescent lamps and littered with empty soda bottles or coffee cups, undergraduates often find themselves heading off to bed—or staying awake through the night—without finishing their reading for section or completing their papers for seminar. What to do, they wonder, as they sit restlessly at their desks, or settle in between their sheets—what to do when, in a few hours, they enter slightly larger classrooms, much larger lecture halls, or smaller seminar rooms? Unprepared and uneasy, some stay home, others go but resolve to be silent, while still others shed their uneasiness on the walk to class and—without regret—fake, pretend, and act their way through the day.

Whatever the reason—the distractions of social life or the commitment of extracurriculars, the joy of performing or the stress of having to be perfectly prepared—students at the College very often find themselves without enough time for the business of college. The pressures to do it all and to do well continue to rise, while students find themselves less and less prepared to find ways of surviving them.

“I don’t think students are making choices. Instead, they are choosing to try and do everything,” says Timothy McCarthy ’93, senior resident tutor in Quincy House and adjunct professor at the Kennedy School of Government. “There’s an increasing amount of pressure on undergraduates to do everything. Students now are better at the performance of engagement than the practice of engagement.” McCarthy, who has co-taught Core classes and led history and literature tutorials, adds, “We see it most in the classroom. This culture of stress and aspiration produces a lot of dissatisfaction. There are fewer and fewer students who love learning for the sake of learning than when I started teaching 10 years ago.”

The pressures to be perfect and do it all are increasingly common at Harvard College, where many students take more classes than is recommended, sleep fewer hours than seems clinically possible, and join more clubs, activities, and sports than there are hours in the day.

“There are definitely a lot more opportunities for students on campus today. There are more clubs, more magazines, and then, even outside of the standard campus publications and organizations, you have people starting their own companies,” says William Marra ’07, who served last year as president of the Harvard Crimson. “Everyone wants to be the next Mark Zuckerberg [creator of the popular networking website thefacebook.com]. You see people doing really well around you, and you wonder ‘Why can’t that be me?’” He says this leads students to take on too many responsibilities for the limited amount of time they have in their schedules.

Marra had to deal with some effects of this hyperambition during his presidential term—corrections ran in the Crimson explaining misrepresentations and plagiarism. “One of our biggest stories was on plagiarism,” he recounts, “and the biggest internal difficulty was plagiarism within the paper.”

But even when ambition does not lead to scandal, it can get in the way of education. Besides the overcommitted students, there are many others whose perfectionist habits leave them both unprepared and uneasy in class. “Many students here struggle with the fine line between striving for excellence and suffering from perfectionism,” says Jennifer Page, a psychologist at the Bureau of Study Counsel who leads a workshop addressing exactly that problem. “In a competitive academic environment such as Harvard, it can be difficult to know when you cross that line, but there are warning signs—procrastination, paralyzing self-criticism, high stress levels, and low productivity.”

“Students often enter the workshop afraid to give up their perfectionist habits,” Page reports. “They’re afraid of not having the right answer in class, of not passing in a paper that meets their unrealistically high standards, and of having their ideas critiqued. Often it’s not even about grades, it’s about how students think others will judge or evaluate them for their work.”

Bass professor of government Michael Sandel agrees. “The greatest cost of perfectionism is [that] students lose their willingness to explore and their freedom to make mistakes, both of which are essential to a liberal-arts education,” he says. Rather than stressing perfection or the right answer, his popular Core course, “Justice” (Moral Reasoning 22), is designed, he explains, “to give students the opportunity to step back and reflect critically on their own moral and political convictions through argument, debate, and discussion.”

“The undergraduate years are meant to be a time when students should feel able to figure out what they believe, what they care about, and what’s worth caring about,” Sandel points out. “It’s difficult to do that in this grip of frenzied pressure to be perfect.” This ambitious and perfectionist culture distracts students, he says, leading them to strive for external rather than internal definitions of success. The vocational pressures of life after graduation have always threatened the undergraduate years, but now, he notes, those pressures have been exacerbated by the stress of the college-admissions process. “Often Harvard students emerge from their pressure-packed high-school years having internalized the drive for perfection,” Sandel explains. “But real learning cannot aim at perfection, because real learning depends on making mistakes, taking risks, and bumping against one’s limitations. Perfection is antithetical to a liberal-arts education.”

William Fitzsimmons ’67, Ed.D. ’71, dean of admissions and financial aid for the College and the coauthor of the article “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” says he has spent the last few years spreading the message that Harvard is not looking for perfect candidates: “Admissions isn’t a hundred-meter dash, it’s a marathon—we look for students with character and personality.” He reports that the admissions office is promoting gap years to applicants as well as to those students who are admitted, and emphasizes that Harvard “encourages students to take time off, to enjoy themselves and their studies.”

But the idea for this column came to me at a time when I was not enjoying my studies very much: I was leaving a section certain that no one else in the room had completed any more of the assigned reading than I had, which was very little indeed. Why none of us could admit that, why instead each of us said some uninformed thing about the assigned reading, I could not immediately understand. Wanting to put the best face forward, not wanting to seem unprepared, or just being too bored to sit quietly—there were many ways of understanding our behavior, but none seemed that compelling, so I started asking my peers.

Students, it seems, really do worry about how they are being evaluated in every minute of every section they attend, with every word of every paper they write. A perpetual nervousness haunts the undergraduate experience, and students’ reluctance to share these worries publicly does not mean they don’t exist. I have noticed it most often in section, but these pressures exert themselves on playing fields, in newsrooms, behind stage curtains, as well as in classrooms. The Bureau of Study Counsel’s well-attended workshops on busyness, procrastination, time management, and perfectionism are unfortunate reminders of the challenges undergraduates face.

And while the message of excellence without perfection may be repeated by every voice of authority within the College, that hardly drowns out the competing voices from outside the gates. Rsums, applications, and interviews all require accomplished and overachieving subjects, leaving many undergraduates without the courage or strength to acknowledge their own limitations. “The saddest part is that the College is producing more corner-cutters than risk-takers,” says Timothy McCarthy. “And some of the most successful people in history were miserable failures, or great risk-takers, or both.

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