We’re Talking About Practice

It’s time to re-envision the Harvard man

Waxing somewhat Aristotelian, General and 34th President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower observed in his first State of the Union address: “There is, in world affairs, a steady course to be followed between an assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly.”

Eisenhower’s aurea mediocritas is one based in extensive experience and borne out by history: Hawkish nations eventually learn measure and modesty just as—rather sadly—pacific nations eventually learn war, or are taught it. Would that it were so on our Cantabrigian subcontinent. Here, Ike’s harmony never establishes itself—that is, we skew forever toward truculence, or hubris.

Often the rationale behind such an argument falls on our demographic makeup: Skimmed from the top of high school classes around the world, each progressive wave of Harvard undergraduates seems to bristle with more potential energy. This phenomenon only self-accelerates over the course of four brief years, as once again too many people learn to claw their way to too few spots: fellowships, jobs or admissions to graduate schools far and wide. Meanwhile, hopelessness at Harvard is diffuse, displaced but ever-present; the drive that superficially characterizes our student body seems only to be encouraged by subterranean seams of doubt and fear.

This has been the typical reading of our collective unkindness—homo Harvardus homini Harvardi lupus est—and it’s a compelling one. However, mightn’t we also give ourselves a bit more credit than that?

A better mechanism for dealing with hopelessness and uncertainty among our number, though, might be borrowed from the Quakers, say, rather than the Catholic Church. At present, we offer occasional confessional attempts at self-correction—from Room 13 counseling to the Writing Center, and other very worthy resources—aimed at slowing an errant skid off our prescribed upward track.

Mistakenly and far too often, undergraduates seem to allow some nebulous ideal—that of unblemished achievement—to run roughshod over their own feelings and steer them away from these helping hands. Some end up before the Ad Board, where deans and faculty members (they might as well be Olympians) pass judgment on the wayward lamb who drank too much or slept through an exam, without a peer of his or hers’ in sight. The tenured are the arbiters of what is constant here, and their verdict is final. No dialogue, no discussion truly occurs: This is less communication than excommunication.

With almost four centuries’ worth of experience and a pantheon of brilliant graduates, it can be easy to anoint this institution, and to thus accept its occasional indictments as gospel. I would submit this resignation becomes still much easier to do when Harvard has not had much in the way of criticism for us—how dare we question a system that has so rewarded us?

In the end, though, there is much danger in all this complacency. Sources from the opinion pages of The Crimson to annual mental health survey testify: Students here are often playing hurt. They see themselves as being held to a standard they can never truly meet, in classrooms, clubs and conversation—yet onward they plunge. The Harvard ideal, which administrators and tabletop fliers insist is unreal, means staying functional with rioting nerves, staying charming with crippling doubts, working though every impulse insists on slowing down. Just as the Ad Board sentences, so do its little disciples judge and admonish, themselves and others, on a smaller scale.

What is the fallout? We have dragged the worst of the world beyond college back into it, and placed our theoretical compensation in an unknowable future. We have mortgaged integrity and inner peace for a leg up in a nasty four-year scuffle amongst ourselves. Forgetting reconciliation and interdependency, we mime something that—our minds scream out—is ugly.

Job search or otherwise, there is no reason why, in the young-adult equivalent of a retirement community, we should rate as our ultimate guide as our résumé and the development of an insatiable drive to succeed. It is but one mean kind of growth. Harvard is in love with itself, but we, its present students, need not be.

Better that our time be spent appreciating all that is not of Cambridge in one another than what is of Cambridge in ourselves and lifeless bricks; better that our hours be spent in harmonious and instructive relationships with our peers than in a stormy, bipolar one with our university and the shell we’ve come to inhabit. Reform the Ad Board, yes, but only as a means for students to reform ourselves—to learn something, for a change.

James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.