Hornstine's Long Shadow

Panorama

We would all like to forget the Blair Hornstine saga. In her precocious rise to infamy, from high school valedictorian and Harvard pre-frosh to local pariah and Harvard mistake, she brought out the worst in everyone. She incited her neighbors, who terrorized her with threats and harassment. She disgusted the news media, who caricatured her with stereotypes and gossip. She embarrassed hundreds of Harvard students, who petitioned to banish her before plagiarism gave them any real grounds. And she indulged the rest of us, who reveled in schadenfreude when she finally met her brutal fate.

No one will miss Blair Hornstine at Harvard this fall, Blair Hornstine least of all. Her life would have been miserable, as Quasimodo in the ivory tower, the H-bomb for first-year women waiting for word of their roommates and a time bomb for Harvard’s legal counsel—no doubt relieved that Harvard was spared the dreaded little envelope, a lawsuit rejecting Harvard’s rejection.

But try as we might try to divorce Hornstine from Harvard, her legacy lingers. It’s much easier to wrest Harvard’s name from Blair Hornstine than it is to wrest Blair Hornstine from Harvard’s name.

Hornstine embodies the Harvard student Harvard students resent most, the assumptions that we struggle to debunk with Clark Kent humility back in our hometowns. She was a consummate do-gooder, a ready-made all-star at the Freshman Activities Fair who won tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships for her service. But just as the envious imagine when they see an Olympian resume like hers, she also took credit for the work of mortals. According to some of the people in charities she supported, they often spoke with her father, as reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

She was brilliant for her age and wise beyond her years, but not as wise as she hoped to seem—certainly not as wise as the 54–year-old Bill Clinton, from whose Thanksgiving speech she lifted a whole paragraph—without thanks or even acknowledgement—for an op-ed she submitted to her local newspaper.

She was, in short, the best student she knew. But she was too proud to share the honor, despite the Harvard acceptance letter that made it meaningless. Success is a zero-sum game, as she understood it, and her GPA was .055 higher.

Her shortcomings are everything the insecure like to project into Harvard students when they learn of our coveted big envelope from the world’s most-recognized university. And just as we resent them for ignoring the sacrifice, doubt and ingratitude we endure along the way, we resent Hornstine for indulging them with satisfaction and a sense of legitimacy.

But most of all, we resent elite universities like Harvard for encouraging the worst in people like Blair Hornstine. She won the college admissions rat-race, after all, because her tragic flaws helped her thrive under its pressures and expectations. Students like her may be rare at Harvard, but less for our integrity than for her excess.

Like Hornstine, we collect credentials and honors at every opportunity in our mad dash to middle age. Hundreds of clubs proliferate into dozens of niches, each top-heavy with leaders and ambitious functionaries, many with titles as nebulous as the roles they play. Members are never far from some distinction that will pad their resumes, and when those bullet-points go up for grabs, gauntlets fall with a severity worthy of Karl Rove a week before elections.

No one talks about grades at Harvard even though, like Hornstine, we care about them immensely. Each Expository Writing paper brings fresh horror, as students prate for hours in the dining hall about their parsimonious preceptors and the unappreciated nuances of their argument. News of grade inflation traumatized campus because it threatened a dependable source of affirmation for 6,400 over-achievers who had never seen a B.

Cheating and plagiarism are disturbingly common, even though the admissions office has the luxury of choosing the best from the best. Final exams are monitored more tightly than the SAT, with everything short of polygraphs to ensure “the integrity of the exam”—only one at time may go to the bathroom, even in exam rooms filled with 300 students.

There’s truth to the popular joke on campus that among the crimes Harvard will not tolerate, the penalties for plagiarism, Blair’s cardinal sin, are worse than those for rape. This year’s guidebook for incoming first-years—in its 1,900 word diatribe on cheating, which dwarfs its token 400 words on sexual assault—warns students to resist the temptation to elevate grades over conscience. Although Harvard administrators “do not suggest that they expect students to be dishonest in their work,” they realize that at Harvard, “procrastination and last-minute haste lead to panic and, in desperation, to cheating and academic dishonesty.”

We dwell so much on credentials, the kind that family friends include in their nauseating holiday letters, in part because they do matter. Graduate schools, fellowship committees and job interviewers will use them to judge us. But mostly, we care out of habit, because those credentials were the bedrock of our self-esteem for over a dozen years of schooling. We are pressured to evaluate ourselves on the admissions office’s criteria because those credentials have always brought us the most effusive praise, not to mention acceptance at Harvard and high-powered opportunities once we leave.

Hornstine’s actions, far from childish, allowed her to flourish in the Darwinistic struggle for status that begins in high school. And for anyone who has ever been prey in that struggle, for anyone who has ever been upstaged by a pretentious over-achiever, her dramatic fall was deliciously poetic. But as long as accomplishment substitutes for character, perfection for candor, elite Universities will continue to encourage Blair Hornstines and promote the Blair Hornstine in each student.

Blake Jennelle ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.