Early in September, I was rather puzzled when I heard a friend say, “I expected Harvard to be a more intellectual place.” I asked her exactly what she meant, and she responded that she thought students here would be more willing to have intellectual conversations more often. The thought remained vaguely in my mind and only completely resurfaced when I heard yet another friend voice a similar complaint: He also wanted to discuss more “intelligent” and “intellectual” topics with other students.
Looking back, I also arrived with a similar misconception about the amount of “intellectual” conversation people would have here. I thought students would discuss philosophy, politics, literature, and other intelligent matters regularly over dinner and such. And although my common room does occasionally erupt into a heated debate about politics or religion, this is the exception rather than the rule. We’re more likely to talk about how much work we have, what the weather is like, or what dance is coming up this weekend than we are about Adam Smith or the Arizona immigration law. Still, what I’ve ultimately come to realize is that although casual conversation is not usually centered on larger-than-life subjects, such discussions do happen around campus. That we may use more formal venues to talk about more formally intellectual subjects is understandable.
As students, our personal conversations often venture into less academic matters, and this isn’t necessarily negative. It’s unrealistic and unfair to expect Harvard students to make every conversation a weighty one. We go to classes and attend sections where such conversations take place between students, professors, and teaching fellows. We labor every night over readings and essays that deal precisely with these academic matters. In this context, it’s nice to simply sit down at the lunch table and have a completely nonsensical conversation about sharks swimming up the Ohio River with a group of friends.
Though dinner discussions aren’t filled with purely academic topics, Harvard is still a place where students think about their place and significance in the world. E-mail lists and posters constantly advertise events with public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Michael Sandel, and the fact that these events happen so often is an indicator of the thriving intellectual community at our school. Perhaps when we feel that we are losing touch with this community we should blame not our fellow students but ourselves; how often do we delete these emails without reading them or glance at posters without giving them a second thought? Furthermore, many of us may still hesitate to fully participate in section discussions, where the potential to engage in meaningful conversation with both other students and faculty members emerges.
To claim that Harvard is devoid of intellectual discussion is to ignore the endless possibilities for debate and conversation that exist within its walls. Before complaining, students should first seek out established discussions venues and make sure they are participating in them as fully as possible. Most of us probably wouldn’t shy away from a heated high-culture discussion, but we shouldn’t be expected to make every dinner conversation about Nietzsche or “War and Peace.” Sometimes we just need to sit down and have an even more heated conversation about Lady Gaga’s latest antics.
Fabiola Vega ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Weld Hall.