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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Subtraction and Decision

September-October 2010

Summer ends, and almost before I’ve settled into my room for junior year, course selection will be upon us. After making it through four of these cycles, you get to be a kind of pro. You don’t have to check where buildings are, like a freshman, and you don’t have to worry about balancing classes from prospective concentrations, like a sophomore. You just look at the catalog, note the time, note the place, and choose. What could be easier?

Except choosing is, to conflate Oscar Wilde with the Lovin’ Spoonful, rarely easy and never kind. Even when the choice has no bearing on your graduation requirements or concentration demands, even when the class is completely elective—it’s hard. And so this summer I found myself doing the same thing I was doing exactly two years before: combing the course catalog online, looking at language classes, and trying, without much success, to decide what, if anything, I wanted to take.

I love learning languages, and when I found the pamphlet on the offerings at Harvard in my admission packet, fireworks went off in my head. Sanskrit! Kikuyu! Uighur! There were more languages than anyone could hope to learn in a lifetime. Would learning Chinese open more doors, or Hindi? Would learning Irish help me understand Finnegans Wake any better? Or should I keep working on my two high-school languages—Latin and French? I was wracked with indecision. I figured that the “shopping week” I’d heard so much about would help me decide.

It didn’t. By the time I’d visited the classes and worked out the competing demands of Expos, freshman seminars, the Core, and potential concentrations, I didn’t have any room left in my schedule. I was a little disappointed, but by the time I’d realized how busy four classes kept me, I didn’t have time for any regrets. Every semester after that, there seemed to be too many other classes I wanted or needed to take. And though I’ve taken some French since then, I still haven’t started a new language at Harvard.

 

“Halfway through college? How did that happen? And when?” one of my classmates asked me this past June. He was echoing the thoughts of a lot of my friends as we left school and headed into the summer between sophomore and junior years. “It just seems like it goes so fast,” someone else said. “Can you believe that two years ago, we hadn’t done any of this?” And two years from now, the summer after our own commencement will be over, and we won’t be returning to the College at all. The amazement doesn’t come from the fact that we’re half done. It’s that the halfway point came so quickly. No matter how many grueling nights and endless weeks were involved in getting here, it’s hard not to think, “It’s half over…already?”

What makes it hardest is the realization that there are so many things you’ll never get to do. In that summer before freshman year, it’s easy to daydream about taking biochemistry and nineteenth-century French art history. In September, you go to the activities fair and imagine how you’ll simultaneously write for the Advocate and refurbish used scientific instruments for third-world hospitals. The world seems to hold limitless potential, and it makes you feel a little omnipotent, albeit in a bewildered kind of way. You think, “I could do any of this!” You may not be able to find Robinson Hall, but being tinker, tailor, soldier, and sailor seems well within your compass: you could be an ROTC engineering concentrator in the knitting and sailing clubs.


 

Two years later, the world feels smaller. The summer after the sophomore year of college is one of those occasions when you become aware not just of the passage of time, but of an uptick in its velocity as it hurtles past. You realize how many remarkable professors there are from whom you might never take a class, and how many smart, talented, kind students graduated before you ever got a chance to meet them. You question the decisions you made about how to spend your first two years, and then you contrive to squeeze the most from the two ahead. Halfway through college is when you truly know—on the level not just of fact, but of unnerving gut feeling—that sometimes opportunities, once missed, never come back.

But it’s not such a melancholy thing. Even though that limitless, unbounded energy you have at the beginning of college is fun, it doesn’t mean very much. It’s shapeless, unapplied, and inexperienced. During the next two years, you start to learn your limitations and, through those decisions, you start to develop a sense of self. When you realize that you find biochemistry duller than you’d imagined, or your smoke allergy gets in the way of your joining the Advocate, these things turn out not to be so bad. It’s a humbling process to learn that you can’t do it all—you can only do some of it—but it’s also what separates you from an incoming freshman. You learn, among other things, that growing up doesn’t mean learning to be good at everything. Growing up is the translation of potential into reality, and decisions are the means by which that happens.

 

Right now, I’m trying to choose among three very different languages that correspond to three different parts of what I do. Should I take Greek, the other foundational language of the West? Or German, which would open up a rich intellectual and artistic tradition that complements the English and French I already work with? Or Hindi, the language of the “jewel in the crown” of the erstwhile empire I study and which has so much of a past of its own, in which so much scholarship remains to be done?

I asked around about language classes this past spring, and I was reassured when a friend who decided to start Spanish last semester told me, “The introductory language classes are great, and you should absolutely take one if you get the chance.” All three languages I was considering now offer “intensive” tracks (which move at twice the pace of the standard courses); I was seriously considering this option until another friend informed me that “taking intensive Greek is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” involving at least two dozen hours of work per week. As much as I like learning languages, I’m not sure there’s a single one I could invest so much time and energy in, especially on top of other courses.

Ultimately, the problem is about not having enough time. At 20, you’re still young—barely out of adolescence—but I hope it’s not too audacious to say that it’s nevertheless the first time you begin to feel the real longing for more time on the clock that can only come with the comprehension of aging. Yes, there’s still plenty of time left, but you start to feel the sting of having to decide between languages—let alone careers or cities, people or principles—because it’s clear that deciding to learn German might mean that you never get around to learning Greek. This is a little hard to accept when, just two years ago, it felt as though anything and everything was possible. But all the possibilities in the world mean nothing on their own. It’s the one you choose that ends up mattering. Those decisions come too soon, and it’s no use rushing them. As Goethe said, “Choose well, for your dccision is brief but endless”—or maybe that was Plato. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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