When the Whining Stops
At the first class meeting of the biology seminar Conservation and Biodiversity, a course with a significant (often cold and wet) fieldwork component, the instructors have one firm guideline for the students: no whining.
Most Harvard students would do well to heed their advice. We attend one of the best institutions in the world. We are adequately housed and fed. On the whole, we are one of the most privileged groups of people in the world and have relatively little to complain about.
Yes, the Coop overcharges us for textbooks. Yes, the Core curriculum sucks. Our phone service is sub-optimal, sometimes our rooms are a little cramped, the advising system is generally inadequate, we cannot get cable hookups in our dorm rooms, the shuttles do not always run on time, our libraries are not open late enough and we have exams after winter break.
Students at many other colleges--some with better phone service, better academic schedules, better advising, better college bookstores--would willingly trade places with us. People in many other parts of the world would trade places just to live in this country, to be well-clothed and fed. Our lives are not perfect, but they are pretty damn good.
As an addendum to their exhortation about whining, however, the instructors of Conservation and Biodiversity are careful to point out that genuine injury or serious pain should not be ignored. There is a distinction between whining about minor, ephemeral discomfort and paying attention to real problems. There are important issues at Harvard that we need to be aware of, despite the general luxury of our surroundings. Campus security and safety can always be improved; students are justifiably alarmed at rapes and armed robberies on or near campus. Cambridge is a dangerous place, however, and security initiatives must involve effort on the students' part as well as on the part of the police and the administration.
Attention to race relations and issues of equality is essential for a functioning community. The rights of all minorities in the Harvard community--all religions, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations--need to be upheld as human rights, as fundamental here as anywhere in the world.
Perhaps most importantly, student public service programs need to be given adequate support from the administration. Public service, however, is important not so much for the sake of the students involved, but for the people in the outside community whom the various service programs help. When we protest the lack of support for public service, we must be careful that we are doing so not for the sake of student power, but out of genuine concern for the future of the programs.
This is not to say that all the minor problems of Harvard students should always be ignored. If we do not protest any of the perceived injustices against us, they will simply grow and multiply until we do have serious problems. We must strike a balance between fighting for every last amenity and recognizing that such amenities are, although sometimes deserved, often quite trivial. Easy changes should be pursued. Inconsistencies and sources of problems should be noted. Like students standing in a cold bog on a rainy day, we should make what minor adjustments we can to improve our living conditions. But, like those students, we should realize that we can deal with the flaws in our situation, and we should not go too far out of our way to remedy them. We should not focus a great deal of our energies on our own problems.
If we do expend our resources trying to squeeze every last drop of privilege out of Harvard, we lose a chance to effect real change of a much more important sort. Like it or not, as Harvard students we have a certain amount of power. People listen when Harvard speaks, even if it doesn't have much to say. If we squander our energy working for ourselves, we lose this voice, a voice with the potential to help people in genuinely grave situations. The underprivileged of the Boston area, human rights abuses worldwide, the environment--these are all worthy pursuits for students seeking to capitalize on the resources and reputation of this institution.
In all honesty, I must admit that I have been part of the problem. For the past two years, as an Undergraduate Council representative, I have tried to address numerous problems, ranging from important issues of personal safety to somewhat less important issues such as calendar reform, Coop textbook pricing and policies for postering on campus. All of these seemed very important at one time. During my first year, I had decided that I would make it my own personal crusade to reform Harvard's academic calendar, that the administration would listen to us because we were right, that we would make some real changes.
In the fall of my senior year, however, I have come to realize how incredibly silly the whole thing is. It is not that we should hesitate to confront the administration, that we should be afraid to take on Harvard--but when we do, we should be sure that we are addressing issues of real importance, not wasting our time with minor battles.
Marco B. Simons '97 is the former chair of the Undergraduate Council's Student Affairs Committee.