Free Falling

What does a Harvard education mean in the Real World

Not even Wile E. Coyote can run on thin air. While pursuing his winged prey, Wile E. would always end up running off the edge of a cliff. But he wouldn’t fall right away. Instead, his animators usually drew the coyote continuing to run in the air. After a few gravity-defying moments, Wile E. would slow down and take a look around. Realizing that he had left the cliff (and a laughing Roadrunner) far behind, he would plummet to earth.

With the end of college imminent for about 1650 Harvard seniors, I daresay that many of us are finding ourselves in a similar situation. For 17 or so years, we’ve been chasing our diplomas. But in the chase’s final stage, we’ve rocketed off the edge. With the reassuring hard ground of problem sets, papers, and midterms receding into the distance, it’s only a matter of time before we all take a look around and realize that we, too, have lost our firm footing.

The fall has to be scariest for liberal arts graduates, because so much of what we’ve bled ourselves dry to learn will be completely irrelevant to our success in the future. Long on mental acuity but short on discrete skills, our diplomas act more like fall-retarding parachutes than free-flying hang gliders. English concentrators are going to work for investment banks. Reports on the market size for ball-bearings in Ohio and impenetrable mutual fund prospectuses will replace papers on Dante’s reinvention of the novel. Forced to redefine our individual expertises by the exigencies of the job market and quaternary school admissions boards, we are caught in a kind of free-falling limbo—flailing through a turbulent miasma of self-doubt.

When I began my junior year internship on the derivatives desk of one of New York’s big banks, I asked myself the same question I’m asking now. How does my Harvard liberal arts background prepare me to do anything besides more liberal arts? The answer I got was horrifying. “Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up in no time,” my co-workers said. For all of their unique frustrations, the liberal arts have one saving grace: they never stop being challenging. According to my co-workers, the same could not be said of derivatives. Nor, I imagine, could it be said of waiting tables, accounting, marketing, litigating, consulting, or the litany of jobs we’re about to assume as we plop into the Real World.

Our parachute-assisted jump off the top of the Ivory Tower will land us at the base of the mountain of Real Life. Compared to our previous experience, this new climb promises to test fewer skills in greater repetition. College graduates like us—jacks of all trades but masters of none—will narrow our foci, settle into our routines, and begin to climb anew. Maybe all this is why drunken alumni at Harvard-Yale games sputter on about how our college years are the best years of our lives.

Since this is my final official Crimson column, it’s tempting to end on an upbeat note. Surely, every Harvard graduate’s unique talents will exhibit themselves in the Real World. Progress, Integrity, and other capitalized words will guide our way because Harvard has instilled superior quality values and knowledge in our outsized crania. Harvard grads will take the long view in the Real World, eschewing easy rewards for lasting improvements.

In reality, life is unfair. And the fact is, as Harvard grads, life has been exceedingly fair to each and every one of us thus far. A Harvard diploma may prove a more maneuverable parachute than others, allowing us to land farther up the slope than our peers. But although we may enjoy a head-start, to stay ahead we’ll be forced to make the same compromises and fantastic exertions as everyone else. Five years from now, our Real World experiences will eclipse our Harvard experiences in importance, at least on our resumes.

The Real World represents the end of our exceptionality as Harvard students. In this sense, a Harvard education is meaningless in the Real World except as a signal—a more maneuverable parachute—that may propel us ahead. Of course, signals have two sides. What propels us ahead also burdens us with others’ expectations. It is in these expectations, I think, that the true meaning of a Harvard education lies. In fighting to show others that we deserved our vaunted diplomas, we will be driven to excel, and to excess. The gnawing self-doubt that follows us on our fall from the Ivory Tower will be both a paralytic and a catalytic agent.

Having a Harvard education means having a reputation to uphold in the Real World, one different people interpret in different, sometimes unhelpful ways. And that’s it. For all the cosmic significance Harvard’s Commencement speakers will try to attach to our diplomas, the real lesson of graduation is a lesson in humility. Getting into Harvard meant we were the best. Getting out means it’s time to prove it.

Seniors, here’s to the Real World. It’s time to pull the ripcord.

Alex Slack ’06 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears regularly.