My Crimson Key Problem and Ours
It is a harsh yet unavoidable fact that those infamous red shirts represent more than just an uncanny ability to walk backwards while simultaneously spouting University propaganda. Those shirts also help point to some of the more obnoxious people on this campus. Sure, it is true that many Keysters, as they so cleverly refer to themselves, are decent people who joined the organization out of a genuine desire to give back to the community. And, the Key has always adequately fulfilled its ambassadorial responsibilities. Yet it is deeply ironic that the group charged with representing this college to the outside world in many ways represents what is worst about Harvard.
The Crimson Key likes to conceive of itself as a "service organization." In reality it is the perfect embodiment of the pernicious social elitism that once defined old Harvard and still pervades many corners of this campus. It is no coincidence that of the men in the Key, a highly disproportionate percentage, are affiliates of a final club. The women almost all conform to conventional standards of physical attractiveness. If one perused the Key's membership one might draw the conclusion that exceptional bone structure were a prerequisite for recounting the history of the John Harvard statue.
The Key claims to sponsor a merit-based comp, but with all of the bright people on this campus, it is difficult to believe that none of the ugly ones can give a decent tour. Clearly, even if no blatant expectation of beauty and popularity is being employed, some subjective measure of "personality" is selecting for a very particular sort of charm. The consequences of this narrow selection are evident in the consequent internal culture of the organization.
For instance, the Key's annual banquet for new members is more akin to a high-society orgy than a student group induction ceremony. Keysters ply themselves with liquor and, revelling in the maelstrom of their collective magnetism, frantically jockey to pair off with the most desirable newcomers. Granted, what goes on is surely fun for all involved and is certainly no more distasteful than what you find at any final club on a given weekend night. But, because the Key claims to be something more than the Hasty Pudding, and because it claims to represent us and our college, we have a right, if not an obligation, to be concerned with its membership.
So long as the administration continues to employ the Key in an official capacity as the only sanctioned student tour guide and welcome, they, too, should be taking note. In recent years the Key has made an effort to cook the right multi-ethnic stew in its selection process, and this seems to have placated any would-be watchdogs in University Hall. But unless the University has chosen to actively participate in GAP Khaki's marketing campaign, it should be sensitive to other forms of homogeneity among its emissaries.
It is true that the sort of duties that the Key performs does attract a particular type of personality. Admittedly, there will never be too many sardonic introverts who want to spend their time organizing dance parties for first-years. But, glad-handing IOP jocks are not the only ones capable of putting on a positive face and selling Harvard. In fact, the college would do far better in reaching the variety of people interested in the school by presenting a more varied and rich public facade. Aggressive charisma is not the only kind of charisma, and Harvard's reputation might fare far better if it were in the hands of those with less evident self-satisfaction.
As this week comes to a close, the Key undoubtedly takes pride in a job well done ushering a new class onto campus. It is a shame that it will take another few weeks before first-years will get a real taste of Harvard's student body--thankfully, slightly less perky, and regrettably, a little less pleasing to the eye.
Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column will appear biweekly.