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Location and Dislocation

After spending the first 18 years of my life in England, Thanksgiving is still a somewhat alien holiday for me. While being thankful that our lives aren’t more grim than they are seems like an excellent idea, celebrating that fact actually feels a little strange. After all, anyone who has read my columns over the past 15 months will understand that I tend to focus on the negative—and, moreover, must be convinced that I think Harvard is a simply dreadful place to go to college. During that time my pieces have consistently criticized the University, arguing that the curriculum is outdated, the students are so ambitious that they constantly teeter on the edge of nervous breakdowns, the meal plan is highway robbery and the recreational athletic facilities are abysmal.

Indeed, this week I initially intended to ignore the holiday and continue in a similarly downbeat vein, launching a scathing attack on the powers-that-be for giving undergraduates such a crazy schedule that we are perhaps the only college students in the country still in class the day before Thanksgiving. (Well, in theory, anyway. Most of us, of course, will be long gone before this article ever goes to press, let alone gets read.) However, as I began to type out that screed I mistyped “appalling” and my computer automatically corrected the word to “appealing.” It was, perhaps, a sign. And as a result, instead of moaning about yet another of Harvard’s shortcomings, I decided to write about what I liked about going here.

The only problem, however–-and, alas, it’s quite an important one—is that not very much positive springs to mind, either immediately or after careful consideration. Certainly, Harvard’s positives have not included—for me, anyway—mind-blowing interactions with senior faculty members, or courses that have changed the way in which I look at the world. The standard line, of course, which you hear is that the most amazing thing about Harvard is your fellow students. Well, I partially buy that, but not entirely. A vast number of my peers are brilliant, either in the classroom or at their chosen extracurriculars. I have also found a large number to be decent, funny and thoughtful people. But while I look forward to holding on to many of the good friends I have made here, I found the student body as a whole to be something of a mixed-bag. Many of the people you encounter here are outrageously self-involved and, if you’ll pardon the melodramatic hypocrisy, unbearably humorless and self-righteous.

Nevertheless, I can’t think of any other Ivy League college I’d rather attend. So what is it that makes Harvard not so horribly bad after all—or at least superior to its Ivy League counterparts? When it comes down to it, Harvard’s biggest selling point can be summed up with the old real estate maxim: location, location, location. Many people chose to spend four years in Cambridge because of Harvard’s excellent labs, famous professors or stunning range of extracurriculars. When I really think about it, however, I decided to enroll here because on my tour I liked the old-fashioned, college campus feel of Harvard Yard, coupled with the knowledge that when necessary I could hop on the Red Line and within 15 minutes have escaped from it all to spend time in downtown Boston.

After three and a third years here, very little has changed. I still love walking alone through the Yard on a brisk fall morning—late morning, anyway—with crunchy leaves underfoot and a deep blue sky overhead. And while I don’t get into Boston nearly as often as I would like, I still head into town as much as I can for dinner or a movie, just to feel plugged in with the real world, however trite it sounds in theory—and, indeed, however trite it is in practice. Boston remains the perfect college town, with a compelling blend of big city excitement but small town charm and manageability. Sure, by the time I graduate in June, I will certainly have had my fill of the mall at the Prudential Center—but, to my mind, that’s better than getting overwhelmed in New York, getting mugged in New Haven or getting bored in New Hampshire.

Nevertheless, my belief in Boston’s superiority to other Ivy League locations is not, in and of itself, a terribly forceful vote of confidence in the undergraduate education on offer at Harvard. By Thanksgiving of senior year, I really ought to have greater things to be thankful for about having opted to go to Harvard than the fact that it is located not all that far from a number of Loews Movie Theaters, J. Crews and California Pizza Kitchens. The fact that I don’t believe I do is, in fact, extremely depressing. So much for accentuating the positive.

Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a historyconcentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.