The Upside of Hating Harvard

A few months into my freshman year, I was eating a meal with an older student when she launched into a tirade against the Administrative Board. Growing more and more passionate as she spoke, she described a number of friends’ experiences with the disciplinary body, each more secretive and nightmarish than the last. But just as her diatribe was reaching its climax, she did a strange thing: She leaned back in her chair, sighed, and said, “But I do love Harvard!”

This was my introduction to a strange tendency of Harvard students: No matter how unhappy we are, we are extremely unwilling to decry Harvard or our undergraduate experiences. Over the years since this meal, I’ve spoken to students with much bigger gripes than my friend—students who have quietly admitted to hating their social and academic lives—and they have nonetheless insisted that they, too, love Harvard. It’s no great secret why. We are well aware of Harvard’s miniscule acceptance rate, and the fact that students all over the world would gladly take our spots. To admit unhappiness, then, would seem wildly selfish and ungrateful. So we convince ourselves that the problem isn’t with our day-to-day lives—it’s with how we are looking at them. We tell ourselves that we love Harvard. We lie.

But as we don our robes and prepare to enter the world, I’d like to make the case for a kind of “grateful hatred” of Harvard. I’d like to suggest that for some students, it is best both to acknowledge the wealth of opportunities afforded to us by a Harvard education and yet to allow ourselves a little bit of ill will toward the institution itself.

To be clear, there are many students who loved their undergraduate years, and if you did, then this article is not for you. But as we begin the process of constructing a narrative of our time at this university, as we synthesize our often-overwhelming experiences into a story for our own telling, some of us will face the fact that the past four years were fundamentally unkind. And in choosing antipathy over self-deception, we can do much more to ensure our happiness in the many years after Harvard. For my part, I have concluded that Harvard was simply not a good environment for me—but in acknowledging a grateful hatred for this school, I have learned how to seek out a better life.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is something of a tautology: To be happy, you have to be happy often. Harvard students are talented at crafting narratives in which “learning valuable skills” or “meeting amazing people” somehow offsets a general day-to-day melancholy. I know that I embraced this idea, even when I knew that I was academically and socially dissatisfied on most days that end with “y.” But happiness only at parties, or in the twenty minutes after you turn in a problem set, or when you get to meet Mark Zuckerberg, is not real happiness. A happy life is one that is enjoyed in the living of it—one that we take pleasure from not because it is an “exceptional” life, but because we actually wake up every morning with a sense of hope and anticipation. Crafting such a life is an incredible challenge—but I think I’m better equipped to do so by acknowledging the reality of my undergraduate discontent.

Second, allowing yourself to hate Harvard can be a useful way to discover your values. For me, the problem of Harvard has boiled down to a desire for a lot more friendship, love, and sincerity. Though I fit many of the Harvard stereotypes—sardonic, competitive, ambitious—it took me years to admit that I struggled with Harvard’s unsupportive environment. Problem sets took precedent over friendships. Leadership positions superseded relationships. In the mad dash toward a good job and a bright future, hearts often got left out in the cold. And in many ways, it seemed that Harvard asked us to root for ourselves or to root for each other, but not both.

Some people are motivated by that kind of environment, but it wasn’t the ideal place for me to get my undergraduate education. I can make much better choices about my future career knowing this fact. And I never would have realized it, and would have kept on telling myself that I thrived in such a ruthless place, without allowing myself some real hostility.

Wherever we go after today, we will carry our Harvard experiences with us. And for some people, that will be a heavy load to bear. But if a change in perspective can turn four years of disappointment into a four-year lesson on how to live your life, then maybe that load can be made less burdensome. A little bit of grateful hate can go a long way.

Evan T. R. Rosenman ’12, a former Science News Executive, is a applied mathematics concentrator in Kirkland House.