It has taken almost two months for the Occupy movement to hit Harvard. Since Wednesday night, protesters have occupied tents outside of University Hall, while Harvard University Police Department officers have occupied the gates of the Yard to limit the crowd to Harvard affiliates only. The movement as a whole has occupied the minds of students across campus.
Leaving aside the inconvenience of having to show identification to enter the Yard—because most good protest movements create a degree of inconvenience in gaining recognition, and there is no reason to fault Occupy Harvard for garnering attention—the Harvard-specific manifestation of the Occupy movement is problematic in a number of ways. To see these dangers, it is important to understand how Occupy Harvard departs from the overarching Occupy movement from which it seemingly arose.
For all of the pitfalls associated with Occupy’s perpetuation of class division, the movement’s validity is rooted in genuine frustrations. The American economy is struggling, and these struggles do reflect structural problems. There does indeed exist a college-educated but burdened middle class that has been buried by the recession and its aftermath, alongside a lower class fighting to pull itself up by the bootstraps in a system that does not do the working class many favors. While the Occupy movement, when viewed holistically, is misguided, lacks concrete solutions, and is startlingly quick to slap one percent of Americans as perpetrators of financial iniquities, it does reflect the fears and concerns of a group looking for something better than what they have.
But instead of being a unified chorus of voices challenging a flawed system, Occupy Harvard presents itself as a self-righteous band of students biting the hand that will forever feed them. Can the privileged protest? Sure they can—I was humored to see a video clip of one Kanye West, who certainly isn’t “drug dealing just to get by” anymore, strolling around Zucotti Park a few weeks ago.
Yet Occupy Harvard is a disturbing adaptation of the Occupy movement in that it seeks to trivialize the meaning of a Harvard education. In protesting Harvard as an instrument of elite financial oppression, Harvard students uncouthly slander the source of their financial aid, their educational experiences, and—most importantly—the abundant opportunities this institution provides them.
For better or worse, Harvard students did not commit to attending a “university for the 99 percent.” Regardless of one’s concrete place in a tax bracket, a Harvard degree is an avenue to American society’s one percent in that it allows us to achieve almost anything we set our minds to. As students of an elite institution, we have been given the tools to succeed in all walks of life—whether that success is defined in strictly financial terms or not.
In addition to the fact that a Harvard education often cultivates a preexisting abundance of intellectual capital—most of us are pretty smart—this university, more than any other in the world, gives us the capital to chase our dreams. To ask for a Harvard for the 99 percent is to denounce that capital, to devalue a Harvard degree, and to clamor for an institution that isn’t as special as the one we attend.
This is not to suggest that Harvard is not or should not be open to criticism, particularly from students; protest has, over the course of history, been a fuel for positive change. But to lose sight of exactly what you’re protesting, as those camped in the Yard have done, is dangerous because a Harvard for the 99 percent is a Harvard that has lost its luster and has diminished the opportunities it affords to its students.
In that light, we must consider how Occupy Harvard looks to those on the outside looking in. In falsely assuming that they represent the 99 percent, these protesters not only slam the value of this institution but also shame themselves and their classmates as the world watches. Occupy Harvard is content to trash the boundless opportunities a Harvard education offers, while America’s honest-to-goodness 99 percent would snatch up such opportunities in a heartbeat.
This is not a question of making the University look bad. By rejecting the tenets of attending an elite institution, Occupy Harvard protesters only make themselves look bad in the eyes of those watching—chances are, these protesters accepted their invitations to study here because Harvard provides the best chance for them to succeed and achieve their goals. Suddenly, it seems, protesters have taken to occupying tents in Harvard Yard because they no longer foster an appreciation for the beautiful opportunity they’ve been given to occupy a Harvard dorm room.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world looks in through Harvard Yard’s pearly gates, likely wondering what these students—who have been given the ultimate privilege in American education—feel is so brutally unfair. This side of the story disgraces the protesters, their more appreciative peers, and even the Occupy movement as a whole. If the Harvard opportunity does not satisfy the students camped out in the Yard, perhaps they should offer it to people who would truly value the chance to occupy Harvard.
Evan A. Ribot ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Adam House.