We are local to Harvard, and quite familiar with the neighborhood and the campus through community events, arts events, and the Extension School. I’ve been in the audience and on the stage (thank you, Revels) of historic Sanders Theatre many times, but sitting in the hall as the parent of an incoming student was a different experience, one of those moments when I felt the fullness of time in all its magical profundity.
Not all my kids went to Harvard, or even wanted/want to go there, and I’ve written before about my thoughts on whether college is necessary for a fulfilling life (short answer, no). That said, if you’re looking for a liberal arts education, Harvard is a great place to be. Listening to Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust speak was a real treat (younger daughter was quite taken with her, and we stopped at The Coop to pick up a copy of her book on the way home). Ditto for Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana (“He was awesome,” I later told my daughter, who replied that according to her peers, I wasn’t the only mom smitten).
I felt little of the elitism or snobbery often associated with the Ivy League. Yes, the faculty members and administrators we encountered were super smart, but they were also approachable, down-to-earth, funny, and caring. They spoke about transformational learning experiences, finding community, and the importance of making mistakes. As I reflected on some of their inspiring and reassuring comments, I noticed some parallels with our homeschooling philosophy.
Khurana remarked that it was important to him that Harvard students are not the best in the world, but rather that they are the best for the world. I like that. Service is a family value that was firmly woven into my kids’ lives.
President Faust stressed that she wants students to stretch their limits and try new endeavors, even those at which they might not excel. Students are not expected to be perfect, she said, and mistakes are a necessary component in learning. I got the feeling that the administration and faculty have to work at getting their student body to believe this, but fortunately my homeschooled daughter has lived it from day one.
Harvard isn’t ditching grades, of course, but at least they take a bit of emphasis away from them by offering compelling freshman seminars that are pass/fail. Parents were also told not to expect their kids to earn the kind of grades they did in high school. In an environment that encourages them to try new things and look to expand their comfort zones, why would they? Fortunately again, my daughter never received grades until she started taking formal classes as a teenager, and by then she had already prioritized learning.
One of the things I did this past year as part of the college application process was to join a few e-lists specific to homeschooling and college. I encountered many parents obsessing about test scores, grades, and extracurriculars that would make their kids stand out from the pack. My daughter had plenty of extracurriculars, but none of them were chosen in service of a college application. Her entire application, and our whole approach to homeschooling, was antithetical to that. Our goals were broader. They included, as we stated in our “school profile,” “intellectual curiosity, creativity, self-reliance, industriousness, resilience, compassion, and happiness.”
What did that look like in practice? Our kids played a whole lot, and hung around people of all ages. Together, we read a lot of books, made a lot of music, and asked a lot of questions. As young children, they tagged along with their father and me to work places, rehearsals, meetings, and volunteer jobs. They became independent on their own schedules, stepping into the world as teens to pursue classes and work that interested them.
Does this approach guarantee admission to the Ivy League? Of course not, but what does that matter when it guarantees a life filled with the joy that comes from learning, loving, creating, exploring, and serving others?
Perhaps I was wearing rose-colored glasses, but that joy is what I saw at Visitas. I left feeling inspired for my personal continued lifelong learning, excited for my daughter and the amazing opportunities coming her way, and hugely relieved by the support and care that she’ll be getting at Harvard.