Walden, 165 Years After Thoreau

The challenges of self-reliance never fade

Exodoxa

In case you missed Harvard’s recent cheating scandal, former Crimson columnist extraordinaire Alexandra A. Petri ’10 summed it up best when she wrote, “After all, the only thing more embarrassing than taking a course where your entire grade is dependent on open-book, open-note, open-Internet, take-home exams is taking a course like that and not getting an A. So you collaborate.” Culturally, we Harvardians fear failure, Petri says. And, I’d like to add, we particularly fear failing alone.

Harvard’s educational philosophy is—explicitly and otherwise—communal, even cooperative. We spend our time here in Houses and dining halls, with our blocking groups and advising tutors, networking away. On the one hand, our connections to others are probably the best thing we can take away from our time in college. Certainly J.K. Rowling agreed when she told Harvard seniors that what she wished them most of all at graduation was what she had herself: “The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life… at our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.” No matter how we pad our curricula vitae (or, better yet, shape our minds), our experience here is deeply defined by the community we live with: both its many flaws and its great beauty. (I hope. Otherwise, I may politely suggest that you might be Doing It Wrong.)

But like so many things of value, the key is in purposeful balance. I don’t actually mean to criticize “Harvard culture” here because culture is precisely about what we share, not the private choices of individuals. I also am not arguing that people should live individualistic lives or that they should be afraid to rely on each other. These mistakes may be even worse than relying on others too much, and life is complex and ironic enough that people are susceptible to both relying on others too little and too much at the same time.

But I have been pondering this complicated spectrum between communal and individual life from my freshman loneliness to my senior year restlessness, and the latter has made me realize that I’ve spent a lot of time absorbing the ethic of listening to and even leveraging my relationships with others and much less time contemplating how to make my own decisions. Some days, I can hardly choose a class or a paper topic or a time to eat dinner without asking the person next to me what they think. It’s not even about prolonged doubt of my own abilities as much as it is a knee-jerk reflex, the same kind of impulse as “isn’t there an app for that?”

It’s particularly ironic, in a way, because if I had taken some of my Harvard classes to heart just a little more, I would likely be better at self-direction. Philosophy and literature, two of my favorite subjects, are largely about how to live one’s own life well, and academic argumentation at its best is not just about convincing others, but also about thinking for oneself. I’d understood that intellectually all along, but only now—looming closer to departing to serve better my country and my kind—have I begun to really connect it to my everyday life.

Next year, and hopefully all the years of my life, I will have my blockmates, my friends, and the alumni network. The first two are wonderful and the last useful. But all the best guidance in the world is meaningless without one’s own self-direction. The big challenge is combining the two. Furthermore, precious as friendship and good advice are, they tend to be easier to find than internal-self assurance.

Lately, I think of a particularly stubborn Harvard graduate who rejected even the wisdom of his elders, scoffing: “They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it.” Life is, despite the best resources, an unpredictable life-long adventure with no external answer key. When I read his book in high school, I thought Henry David Thoreau, class of 1837, awfully strange for choosing to live alone in the woods for two years. But I can see now why he wanted to after graduating from Harvard—he was looking for the other half of his education.

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