Whither the Crimson?
A writer ponders his paper’s provincialism
Each April, Dean Fitzsimmons announces a freshman class more ethnically varied than any previous one. Ethnic diversity has become a justifiable, if crudely expressed, obsession for Harvard and its peers. A separate, if related, diversity is that of nationality—yet this seems to be a more secondary concern. Less than one in nine Harvard College students comes to us from abroad.
I thought of this disparity while reading the announcement of The Crimson’s 137th guard, along with the hometown of each executive, on Jan. 25th. I was struck by the profound contrast between the extent of these two diversities on The Crimson’s new staff. In ethnic terms, the 137th guard represents quite possibly the most diverse aggregation in the newspaper’s history. The president is Asian-American, the business manager African-American, and virtually every prominent ethnic group at Harvard is represented.
Yet, just as the constitution of The Crimson reflects the growing ethnic diversity of both the Harvard College student body and the United States itself, the newspaper remains a deeply American institution. Only four of the 137th guard’s 95 executives—with apologies to an editor who hails from London, England but was principally educated in Manhattan—went to high schools outside the United States. The troubling conclusion is that The Crimson is less than half as international as the student body as a whole. It would be irresponsible at best for the leadership of The Crimson to not consider both the reasons for this and its implications.
Many student groups at Harvard are American almost by nature. It is easy to see, for instance, why most foreign students choose to join the Harvard International Relations Council over the College Democrats or Republicans. At first glance, The Crimson does not fit neatly into either camp. Its primary beat is the Harvard campus itself, something that surely ought to interest all Harvard students equally. Moreover, the journalistic skills acquired while working on The Crimson are applicable to print media in any country.
If one looks closer, however, it is evident that The Crimson’s content boards all operate from an American standpoint. International affairs are typically considered on the editorial page when they affect Washington’s foreign policy. The activities of the International Relations Council and Woodbridge Society, two of Harvard’s largest student groups, are usually ignored on the news pages, which diligently report events run by the IOP, Dems, and Republicans.
In a kind of vicious cycle, the absence of foreign students from The Crimson’s staff only serves to exacerbate the lack of internationally-focused content from its pages. In a year on the arts board, I am the only South Asian writer of any nationality that I can recall and one of precious few foreigners—surely this goes somewhere to explaining why foreign films and music are rarely featured in the Arts supplement. Similarly, the international affairs content on the editorial page, such as it is, can be ill-informed; take, for instance, the many op-eds written by American students after the Nov. 2008 terror attacks that variously and falsely suggested that Indian Muslims had identical political values to Muslims elsewhere and that there was little evidence for Pakistani involvement in the attacks.
The Crimson should make an effort to change the inherently American focus of its staff. Where foreign students have joined the Crimson, they have often enriched it immensely: “Foreign Intelligence,” Pierpaolo Barbieri ‘09’s reasoned and enlightened column, substantially enhanced the editorial page during its run. Barbieri drew our attention to regions of the world usually ignored by headline news and shied away from superficial, poorly informed analysis of the kind that followed the Mumbai attacks.
In the long run, the top leadership of The Crimson would do well to acknowledge this trend and explore ways to counteract it. Fifty years from now, a third of the student body may well be international—and The Crimson, hopefully, will have become more international with it.
Keshava D. Guha ’12, a social studies concentrator, is a Crimson arts writer in Kirkland House.