The Blair Witch Hunts

The Academia Nut

There has been something of an uproar on campus this past week about the behavior of a certain Blair Hornstine.

Hornstine, a high school senior from Moorestown, N.J.—and soon to be Harvard undergraduate—sued her school district after it suggested that she might have to share the honor of valedictorian with two other students.

Officially classified as disabled due to an immune illness, Hornstine had been allowed by her school to take some of her classes at home, and to take extra academic classes in place of physical education. The school district’s case was essentially that, because of the way the school calculates grade point averages, Hornstine’s special schedule allowed her to accumulate a higher Grade Point Average than her classmates who had to fill part of their day with an unweighted gym class.

Hornstine, and the judge that heard her case, saw things differently. According to the court’s ruling, Hornstine will indeed be the sole valedictorian of Moorestown High School. She is also seeking over $2.5 million in compensatory damages, which will be ruled upon at a later date.

Hornstine’s actions have been absolutely reprehensible. Based on all that I have read, I can think of nothing nice to say about her, except that her SAT score of 1570 is pretty good.

The petty, trivial and selfish one-upmanship her lawsuit reflects—particularly the fact that she is asking for money—turns my stomach and makes me wish she’d chosen Princeton.

What’s really grabbed my attention, though, has been the fallout of this incident—and especially the reaction to it here in Cambridge. We have been quite long on criticism and quite short on the self-reflection and accounting that such incidents ought to provoke.

One unsettling example of how the Hornstine case has been received at Harvard is a petition that has been circulating over House listservs. The petition is quite simple; it reads, “We hereby petition the Admissions Office of Harvard University to rescind the admission of Blair Hornstine for her petty, childish actions regarding her school’s decision to have her share her valedictorianship with two other students.” The petition has garnered hundreds of signatures.

What could be the source of such anger—anger so virulent that it does not simply call for censure or express disapproval, but suggests Harvard should wash its hands entirely of a persona non grata?

One of the petition’s signers, Jonah M. Knobler ’03, told The Crimson that he signed because Hornstine’s “actions are unbecoming of a Harvard student, and they make the rest of us look bad in association.”

And that seems to be the rub. The signers of the petition to divest from Blair Hornstine, and the many others who have expressed similar sentiments over e-mail lists, seem to feel that Hornstine’s actions are so outrageous—so uniquely outrageous—that her matriculation at Harvard would substantially lower the College’s moral tenor.

I would agree wholeheartedly, if only Harvard weren’t already crawling with Blair Hornstines. Hornstine’s behavior indicates that she is more nauseatingly competitive than many Harvard students—but, let’s be honest, when she arrives here next year she’ll find all too many people who have, like her, kicked, scratched and clawed their way to gain often petty and meaningless accolades on their way to the college of their choice.

Blair Hornstine’s behavior has held a mirror up to the Harvard community, a mirror that has reflected all that is bad—tempered by none of what is good—about the ambition that lands many of us here.

But instead of using this incident as an opportunity to look at ourselves and question how much of Blair Hornstine there is in each of us, and in our community as a whole, many Harvard students have chosen an easier path: to berate Hornstine as some sort of anomalous mistake by the admissions office—as if there were not a few Blair Hornstine’s in every entryway in the Yard.

Of course, every university has its rotten apples. When they rear their ugly heads, it’s certainly important to deal with them appropriately and give them their just desserts. But just as important is introspection—learning the lessons that the presence of such people can teach us about ourselves.

Self-righteous petitions and rants over e-mail lists wondering how such a person (gee, I don’t know anyone else like that) could have been admitted to Harvard, are no way to learn anything useful from the matter. Indeed, such actions reflect the very arrogance and hypocrisy that are both cause and symptom of the disgraceful behavior they purport to condemn.

Zachary S. Podolsky is a classics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears regularly.