When the elevator in William James Hall shuts, those on the inside are privy to a telling phrase, etched in the door’s metal frame by an angst-ridden student: “Harvard Sucks.” Beneath that, a retort: “No, it doesn’t.”
The former expression has become an anthem for Mawuena M. Agbonyitor ’04, a social anthropology concentrator in Mather House. Sitting on her bed to avoid the work building on her desk, she listlessly flips through TV channels. “Cold, gray and tired”—these are the words that describe her day-to-day Harvard malaise. “I honestly don’t know anyone who likes it here,” she says. “Everyone is waiting to get out.”
According to Anna Franekova ’05, the weight of this malaise crushes the liveliness of her peers. “I met up with a Harvard friend in Prague and it’s incredible how different she was in a different environment,” she says. “There are too many people who are happier on the outside.”
If this malaise is as general as Agbonyitor and Franekova suggest, why don’t more Harvard students jump ship? Chris Cowan, a former member of the Class of 2005 who transferred to Stanford, asserts that Harvard’s social mores override student dissatisfaction. “Even with all my complaints, Harvard was a hard place to walk away from,” he writes in an e-mail message. “The culture there is either you love it or you’ll suck it up because the name is worth it. Most people, even those that are unhappy, wouldn’t leave.”
Agbonyitor agrees. In spite of her grievances, she lives by a disheartening philosophy. “Get your degree and hope it’ll all get better.”
Popular culture suggests that Harvard is the place to be. U.S. News & World Report places Harvard at the top of its college rankings. Films like Legally Blonde purport that we can be smart, glamorous and happy all at the same time. Platitudes tell us we should be having the time of our lives. And yet the National Institute of Health reports that in 2002, 69 percent of Harvard students felt exhausted up to 10 times during the year, 65 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do and 48 percent felt things were hopeless.
The Harvard name keeps students here, but what drives this dissatisfaction? Does the University’s lack of concern breed unhappiness? Are Harvard students inherently difficult to please? Or is there simply a culture of discontent that compels students to complain whenever they can?
Richard E. Freeman ’03-’05, a transfer student from Carnegie Mellon, posits that dissatisfaction is simply the nature of the beast, not a result of administrative negligence. “There is a lot of melodrama here,” he says. “Students criticize Harvard as a university, but the problems they cite are typical anywhere. They don’t realize this because they lack a different perspective.”
If the administration isn’t to blame, then perhaps dissatisfaction is attributable to the bizarre overachievers that inhabit the university and promote the culture of complaining. Agbonyitor regularly listens to student complaints—even from students she doesn’t know. During exam period, she remembers talking to a friend in Loker Commons about an upcoming exam when an unknown student butted in. “She told me ‘I have two finals tomorrow and a paper due,’” Agbonyitor says. “She wanted her life to sound so much worse than mine.” At Harvard, complaining is so essential to the culture, it becomes a badge of honor that students use to one-up their neighbors.
Harvard, of course, is not purely a black hole of misery. Stephanie L. Wilka ’05, a psychology concentrator in Lowell House, oozes school spirit—so much that she joined the College cheerleading squad her freshman year. “I think situations are what you make of ‘em,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “Ya gotta know when to work, and ya gotta know when to enjoy yourself.”
In the name of public service, FM investigates a lesser-known university where students seem to have a firmer grasp on this concept. Historically, Yale University has the been #2 in higher education to Harvard’s #1, the Pepsi to our Coke, the Lexus to our Mercedes. Yet, despite being the undisputed #1 in the pop-culture rankings, Harvard may fall far short of Yale in one very important respect—the happiness of its students.
Yalies seem to have their priorities straight—as the motto says, “For God, For Country, and For Yale.” Indeed, Yalies proudly sport the Yale insignia on backpacks to boxers, and not just at the Game—Yalies bleed Eli blue—they submit with pleasure to the cult of the bulldog.
Yale University seems to operate under a more balanced equation.
How do we solve our problem, fair Harvard? Perhaps #1 can learn something from #2.
Happily Hating Harvard