Academic Purgatory

A series of worthless papers


When I told my family that I had decided to concentrate in government, their expectations weren’t exactly aligned with those of Harvard. My father believed I would learn how to resolve our rocky relationship with the former Soviet world. My mother believed I would learn how to fix our nation’s broken immigration system. Now that I’m a junior, I still know nothing of immigration law, nor am I any closer to understanding U.S.-Russia relations.

Instead, I’ve dedicated most of my time to learning political theory. Can I name all 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution? Nope. Do I understand electoral law? Go fish. Nevertheless, I’ve built a substantial arsenal of dry, demotivating quotes from a handful of dead political theorists. Apparently I’ve also learned to write eloquent papers regarding the implications of Kantian thought on American governance. And yet, I haven’t read anything written by Kant in its entirety, or anything authored by the various political scientists I regularly quote in my papers, for that matter.

With the advent of the Digital Revolution, I think it makes little sense to read incomprehensible theories written by overrated, arrogant, European men, especially when simplified versions exist online. Last year, I was assigned a particularly difficult reading on John Stuart Mill. After struggling with his archaic language for an hour, I turned to a helpful philosophy series on YouTube. Within a matter of minutes, I was well on my way to writing a decent paper.

I did not start college with this cynical approach to what our faculty dub “an unparalleled educational journey that is intellectually, socially, and personally transformative.” During freshman fall, I diligently completed every assigned reading I was given. Not once did I skip a page; I believed the authors had poured their souls into their work and, as such, deserved my attention.

Boy, was I a fool. I wasted hours a day learning supposedly critical material, when in fact, all that seems to matter is that my papers and comments sound academic. My best papers thus far were not those that rested on solid facts, but rather those that employed the loftiest language and most closely mimicked the ideal academic paper.

The focus on academic writing has stifled both my creativity, and, ironically, my ability to write succinctly and naturally. The typical paper structure—an intro, a thesis, a series of body paragraphs with clear topic sentences and strong concluding statements, coupled with a counterargument and conclusion—proves more limiting than helpful. Rather than seem distinct, each of my papers flows identically. Perhaps this weakness has bled into my columns as well.

Instead of arming its students with career-related technical skills, Harvard strives to teach its students the art of independent learning. However, as I sit down to write yet another wave of bland papers, I can’t help but think that Harvard has lied to me. Instead of teaching us how to learn, Harvard’s non-STEM departments have limited our learning to one medium: papers.

If you were to take a look at the syllabi that outline the government and general education courses I’ve taken thus far, you would immediately notice that papers typically comprise anywhere between 50-70 percent of your grade in a given class. Given the ungodly number of papers I’ve written, combined with the heavy academic weight Harvard assigns them, you’d think a Harvard degree in government would, at the very least, prepare one to enter government.

However, as I learned the hard way this summer, my assumption was all but false. For eight weeks I had the pleasure of working at the Pentagon, and my god, I was about as useful as a broken office stapler. The Department of Defense lives and dies by the art of briefness. Brief memos, brief presentations, and brief negotiations comprise the world of national security.

My boss could care less that I could successfully deconstruct Lipset’s modernization theory or debate the merits of Tocqueville’s "Democracy in America" in a 10-12 page paper. At the end of the day, what mattered was my extensive knowledge of regional history, and after a few days scrounging Wikipedia, I felt more prepared than I had been having just arrived from Harvard.

Over these next few days, I will spend long nights writing papers that will only be read once and, for better or worse, will be judged on their flow, not veracity. I will not plan speeches or debates that showcase my mastery of the course material. I will not be given an oral exam to test the strength of my nerve. I will not be given the opportunity to implement social work or a large scale project to substitute for a traditional assignment.

Instead I will write papers. Long papers. Boring papers. Meaningless papers. But hell, over these past two and a half years, I’ve gotten pretty good at writing papers. If Harvard has its way, on graduation day it’s the only thing I’ll ever be good at.

Nathan L. Williams ’18 a current Army ROTC cadet, is a government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.