The More Things Change

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The first thing I received from Harvard following my decision to attend was a number. After the cookies and glossy brochures of the collegiate wooing process, the transition to being just an undifferentiated entry in the university’s master database seemed rather abrupt.

The whole time I’ve been at Harvard, I’ve never heard anyone else recall this experience, much less associate with it any sort of unease or irony. Many will note, however, that the stereotypical Harvard experience rests in coping with the transition from being incredibly special in high school to being indistinct among so many special others in college.

The way I see it, many of us spend our college experience trying to get back to where we started: to being distinct and proud—a name, not just a number. The quest often involves building up résumés that demonstrate not just that an individual belongs, but that he stands above his surroundings even here.

The desired effect is called status, and it’s an unusual social necessity in that its distribution really is a zero-sum game, at least when everybody’s keeping score by the same rules.

The game’s essential elements, though, leave its rulebook remarkably open to variation when played in different settings.

Studying abroad in Delhi for the fall semester of my junior year, I got to see from an outsider’s point of view the status-seeking competition of a top university. My host institution, St. Stephen’s College of Delhi University, is known as one of India’s most rigorous and prestigious non-technical schools. Seats not reserved for lower castes or other minorities often go to representatives of the North Indian urban elite who master the competitive entrance examination process.

The particular rules of the game as played in such a venue yielded countless surprises: Students found out who had gotten management-consulting interviews, for instance, on a sheet posted on the college’s cluttered daily announcement board rather than via e-mail. Exam scores, too, were publicly available to all. The conventional path for graduates seemed to tilt toward applying to all available master’s programs and selecting one’s best acceptance—hopefully abroad—rather than doing the same with finance or consulting jobs as might be more typical here.

Entering such a setting as an outside observer provides a new perspective on the apparent ridiculousness of some status-determining customs in a closed system. Exam questions at St. Stephen’s, for instance, came from a short list approved 20 years ago by the central University of Delhi administration: Students pre-prepared long strands of factual regurgitation by photocopying and memorizing past students’ answers. But even more than a custom’s ridiculousness, the outside perspective allows one to synthesize the way in which an insider glimpses such ridiculousness and yet works within the rules nonetheless. Most of us know we are at Harvard in part because of high scores on a test—the SAT—that can so obviously be “gamed” that it has renounced a previous claim to measure “aptitude” and claims only to measure the “achievement” of taking a test well.

The upshot, however, is that the fundamental status contest is the same in each place, and the game’s conventions are arbitrary. The options at Harvard for charting a future path, choosing a field of study, or even balancing extra-curricular activities with unstructured time present themselves within certain constraints—rules of the game—that would not always make sense to those viewing from an outside frame of reference. Take, for instance, the incredulity outside the “Harvard bubble” at attempts to explain that going into finance is viewed here as a form of keeping one’s options open and a non-ideological choice.

It’s only in going abroad that I learned to view the customs of the game as it is played here as diverging interpretations of the same social impulse seen at Stephen’s. Subtracted from their grounding assumptions, I can admit that the constraints I take as fixed and the choices I make within them—in seeking to establish myself as an individual and distinct person—would often look just as arbitrary as do those of distant others.

Many Harvard students speak of going abroad as an item they wish they’d gotten to on their list of things to do in college. The percentage who actually spend a full term abroad, though, barely pushes double digits. It may often have left me feeling like nothing beyond a more invasive tourist, but studying elsewhere taught me to take that tourist’s eye to my own surroundings in a way that no stack of books on deconstructing social norms can compel.

It reminded me that college is not all about asking how to play the game, but about questioning why we play it.

Max J Kornblith ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Cabot House.

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