Before Harvard, I attended boarding school, which combines some of the best parts of college (stellar academics, interesting people) with some of the worst parts of prison (general imprisonment, terrible food).
This particular boarding school supported a number of arcane traditions, one of which was a mandatory drown-proofing seminar. My gym class and I entered a cold pool at six in the morning, fully clothed and wearing shoes, to float for 30 minutes. At first, the experience was kind of soothing. Then, the football coach sprayed us with a high-powered hose to mimic “conditions at sea.”
The drown-proofing exercise failed to render me sea-worthy, instead just leaving me angry and wet, but it ended up being a life-altering exercise in a broad scope. That moment in the pool crystallized the school’s systemic absurdity: Despite all of the good things about it, boarding school is an irredeemably terrible idea. So, I never really bought in—I had fun, fooled around, and messed up, at least in comparison to the average student here.
To be sure, I got good marks, as I liked my schoolwork. I did well on the SATs. I participated in a number of extracurriculars. But I also met with the disciplinary council a few times, for typical teenage nonsense: being out after hours, going to the school clinic when I was enjoying excellent health, et cetera. I nearly failed chemistry and the gym class of drown-proofing fame. I had a mild problem with authority and a real problem with truancy.
Thus, I’ve always honestly wondered what element of grace led the admissions committee at Harvard to smile on me. I have no alumni connections, wunderkind gifts, or national prizes to my name. I dislike competition, athletic or otherwise. My mum describes me as the “most sensible” of my siblings. (My siblings, when asked, described me as “shortest,” “most ugly,” and “solipsistic.”)
My suspicion is that maybe I was sufficient precisely because I was sufficient. I didn’t have a perfect résumé, but I offered a genuine argument that Harvard had what I needed. Maybe the admissions committee liked me just because I wasn’t what David Brooks has famously described as an “organization kid.”
In a 2001 cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, Brooks described a dystopic Princeton campus populated with students who robotically over-achieve, failing to dissent or engage with the world around them and locating success only within themselves. “[They] are goal-oriented. An activity…is rarely an end in itself,” Brooks wrote. “It is a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment. College is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement.”
In 2004, former University President Lawrence H. Summers echoed Brooks’ discomfiting observation with regards to the body impolitic on this campus. “Many students have less orientation towards reflection and more orientation towards résumé-building than students a generation ago. I do worry,” he said, as quoted in The New York Times. “I do somehow wish that some students would smell the roses a little more and schedule fewer appointments.”
Brooks and Summers, though, both failed to point out the self-conscious anxiety of Cambridge’s organization kids. Students here know that they’re compelled to succeed for success’ sake. We’re flooded with prospects, whether it’s being an executive on The Crimson, chairing a student group, joining a final club, or leading a Phillips Brooks House Association program.
Not all, but a sickly many, of these opportunities involve a screening process, the filling out of forms, and cocktail hours. The idiotically outré final clubs are only the most obvious example. Many organizations and virtually all of our publications involve cuts and a comp. We prize meritocracy instead of democracy. We nervously judge each other. We have internalized the organization kid system.
That doesn’t mean that we like it, though. Harvard students have campaigned for changes, whether increased career advice for non-investment bankers or increased social opportunities in more welcoming settings. We are self-critical. We know that we would do well to think less about ourselves. We took pause at the painful irony of Opal Mehta-gate—the frenzy surrounding a book about an organization kid who learns to lighten up which was exposed as plaigarized and reviled in the media as the prototypical example of glory-mongering. The recent hunger strike for living wages showed that we as a student body want meaningful changes.
Largely, I went with the organization-kid tide at Harvard. I over-did extracurriculars and elbowed for internships. I joined Teach for America, which caters to organization kids just like Goldman Sachs does. But sometimes, I felt that sinking feeling as I did in the pool: The system is sick, because of the organization kid mentality. I overheard one student describe writing a thesis as “Hoopes-ing it up.” I saw one student cry with envy when another student won a Rhodes scholarship. I know someone who took a class hoping that the big name professor would help her with an internship.
And I know I’m not alone in hoping that Harvard students can craft a healthier ethos. Knowing that you have a problem—and we do know it—is the precursor to change. If only Harvard required drown-proofing.
Annie M. Lowrey ’06-’07 is an English and American literature and language concentrator in Quincy House. She was a Crimson associate magazine chair in 2005.