That was University President Lawrence H. Summers in The New York Times a week ago Sunday, capping a piece that described us, the Class of 2004 nationwide, as uniquely pragmatic and single-mindedly careerist in our outlook. We volunteered strategically, angled for the ideal credential-crafting experiences and assiduously researched potential employers.
Sunning myself on a beach 75 miles from Cambridge and shifting my eyes lazily between the equally relaxing Times and the deep blue Cape Cod Bay, the quote seemed a bit off the mark (as well as out of character for the achievement-driven Summers). On the other hand, it was Senior Week—hardly a representative time in my college career—and I did have recommendations to round up and essays to write for medical school, as well as a final heap of Crimson work that was sure to cut short any further rose-smelling.
But whether Summers was right or not, the arguments he and others advanced about our class are part of a pervasive literature that defines our generation as one of consummate over-achievers. Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 counseled the class below us to slow down and to eschew quantity for quality in education. The Crimson profiled the obsessive “joiners” among our ranks, describing students who just can’t say no when it comes to involvement in extracurricular activities.
And in an oft-cited 2001 piece in the Atlantic Monthly, David Brooks offered a sweeping analysis of our generation of up-and-coming elites, dubbing us “Organization Kids.”
Brooks argued that societal and historical factors have conditioned us to enjoy and equipped us to excel within our increasingly structured, meritocratic society. We don’t rebel; rather, we set goals and obsess about achievement. We don’t do things (like join groups) as an end in and of themselves, but as a means to some future end. We nearly kill ourselves to succeed. Brooks’ is a particularly useful rubric because it encapsulates or explains many of the other criticisms of our generation (such as that we’re too career-focused, or overcommitted). For his part, Brooks likes the Organization Kid a great deal, saying that we’re interesting and will make good leaders when our time comes—his biggest wish is that we had a stronger commitment to character.
Brooks’ arguments make sense, and his general observations do square with my experience of the last four years. Harvard is full of incredibly talented, driven individuals. We do play by the rules of the game, and we are winning. And the goal of “winning” (however that is defined) is often a prime motivation. To cite the occasional exceptions to these trends—the counterculture rebel, the pure genius or the unquestionable saint—doesn’t undercut Brooks’ stereotype, which only seeks to describe the average student.
I would suggest, however, that this stereotype ignores a key nuance, a nuance that made going to school with other Organization Kids so rewarding. In fact, I believe the development of this nuance may have been Harvard’s most important educational legacy for me.
The most impressive characteristic of my classmates at Harvard was their ability to combine the best of the Organization Kid with other simpler values like friendship, compelling conversation and fun. They were interesting, hard-working and on the path to success, but, crucially, many of them knew how to transform back into the normal, albeit nerdy, kid who did things because they were enjoyable and at key moments, took time to smell the roses. Having lived, worked and studied with these protean creatures for four years now, I have to hope that their sense of balance has rubbed off on me.
This spring I played JV baseball, and the experience illustrates my point well. Somewhere in excess of 45 guys signed up for the team, which played over a dozen games in under a month. One of the varsity coaches told us at the beginning of the season that the top player from JV every year has a chance to try out for varsity the next fall. Scanning the crowd, I didn’t see many eyes glimmering with excitement and anticipation at this great carrot being offered up. None of us were there with such a goal in mind. I was not thinking about how JV baseball on my resume was sure to help distract medical schools from the somewhat problematic lack of a hard science recommendation. We were there because we loved baseball and enjoyed the institution that is the baseball team. And I, at least, was not disappointed. I heard the raunchy jokes of the Rhodes Scholar/stand-up comic/first baseman; I bonded with fellow “spot players” over a bench-side radio smuggled in to listen to the Sox game; I made friends with the veteran who boasts of 18 different hairstyles over the course of the last four years. And then after the game, we all went back across the river to study our organic chemistry, achieve tremendous goals—or, in the one player’s case, get ready for Oxford.
Off the baseball diamond, Harvard students’ ability to bend the Organization Kid stereotype often presented itself in everyday college life. There was the spacey mid-Westerner roommate, with hours of video game playing under his belt and a summa cum laude thesis under a pile of clothes. There was the group of friends that said “work be damned” and lingered for an hour in the dining hall “marinating” post-meal. There was the universe-probing late-night conversation held over a double-decker or a courtyard-imbibed bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. These are not the kids of David Brooks’ world—except that at other times they are precisely.
I don’t know what it means for society that the “elite” of our generation is as I say it is. That we can break the Organization Kid mold on occasion doesn’t diminish the concerns outlined in the New York Times article and doesn’t begin to address Brooks’ criticism about character building and moral discourse. But I do think this flexibility to be something other than purely goal-driven success machines is one that will serve us well in the future.
David H. Gellis ’04, a government concentrator in Dunster House, was The Crimson’s managing editor in 2003.