What Is the Harvard Bubble?

Today, over 1600 of us exit the Harvard Bubble to enter the Real World. It’s a popular saying. I think I’ve often said so myself, to others and internally. But what does it actually mean, and signify, when we delineate so much of our immediate future and, more fundamentally, the past four years on the existence of this Harvard Bubble? I won’t presume here to have come up with a magic-bullet explanation for the elusive nature of this oft-spoken omnipresence. Only, instead, to suggest that it’s worth considering for a moment what our sense of the Bubble projects onto our graduation today.

Recently, some friends and I found ourselves one afternoon having what probably stacks up as one of those standard last-week-at-Harvard-for-seniors conversations. A lot of it ended up centering on this very topic of bubbledom, and whether we who graduate today really enter the “real world” anymore than we already inhabit it. Toward the end, after a few minutes of sprawling dialogue and talking over each other, a state influenced no doubt by the excesses of senior week, one of us said (or said something along these lines): “I’m not denying the Harvard Bubble, I’m just skeptical that we don’t recreate bubbles wherever we go throughout our lives.” True enough, but surely, I thought, no hermetic seal can be greater than Harvard’s? Both so pristinely cleansed of everyday challenges faced by many right around us in an urban environment and populated by a tremendous diversity of students, Harvard assuredly makes the jump out of the high school and college cycle a pretty tremendous one.

I’ve always assumed that the Harvard Bubble existed in part because it’s talked about so much, thrown around so often. And I instinctively disagreed with a statement questioning the power of this institution to draw its students in and provoke interests and concerns that would otherwise not exist away from the loose parameter of a square mile around Widener Library. How often do you hear, “Oh wasn’t it great to go into Boston for a change, and get out of the Harvard Square Bubble?” Take the recent senior week trip to Six Flags—an early Sunday bus ride, rainy theme park, but another relished day-trip from this perceived parallel world in which we consciously seem to consume ourselves in our daily lives as undergraduates. I’ve also always been a party to the Bubble’s existence because life has a way of seeming so noticeably different whenever I do get away for more than a few hours—maybe to New York for a weekend, or home on vacation.

Harvard has a way of anaesthetizing powerfully, or trivializing, some aspects that are present in most parts of most peoples’ lives—what to make for dinner and how to afford it—while magnifying others, like the importance of defining ourselves as Harvard students by what we do outside of class, specifically the organizations we take part in. Harvard has always seemed in many ways, and for better or worse, an ordinary school, filled with the usual cliques and pressures, but I’m convinced we do take this particular form of competition to a degree seldom enjoyed by many.

Equally, it seems inescapably true, as my friend said that afternoon, that we surely—particularly those of us who are fortunate to graduate from elite colleges—recreate various bubbles in the “real world” that follows, and which Harvard mimics. The Harvard experience might be more sheltered, in its own way here in Cambridge, than living in the heart of a big city or going to work everyday. But maybe one of the strengths of such a mega-bubble as Harvard’s is to reveal itself more obviously to those encased within it. For all the truth to there being a real adult world pushed back by the luxuries and myriad opportunities of the past four years, Harvard’s campus also seems imbued with a fixation on money—not just attaining it but with the idea itself and those who have it—that resembles closely that of the metropolises that, as The Crimson’s senior survey suggests, most of us will move to but did not grow up in. In this sense, I suppose Harvard is not so different from the real world, or at least the real world that Harvard kids go on to experience.

I still think the Harvard Bubble exists, because Harvard is a good school and overall a nice place, and clearly not all of life is so easily pleasant, and because it seems the nature of campus-central colleges to become all-consuming for those who take part. All of this probably adds up to a confused mix-up of believing, quite strongly, in the Harvard Bubble, but equally being skeptical of some of the tropes thrown around about it, and no doubt repeating some others. I’m going to miss Harvard after today and wish I understood the nature of its bubble a little better; then I might feel more confident about understanding what we all leap into next. Maybe one path forward arises from one of this college’s greatest strengths, namely the amazing diversity of experiences on offer for every undergraduate who arrives here. One question could be, “What does it mean for each of us to leave our own Harvard Bubble?”

Eli Bartlow Martin ’13, a Crimson Editorial Chair emeritus, is a History concentrator in Lowell House.

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