Harvardians have their privilege and hate it too—or at least many of them try. They relish the benefits that their degrees bestow: the education, the prestige, the McJobs. But they chafe at the idea that they’re elites, that they’re “better” than everyone else. They know that they’re privileged, for their success is only partly earned.
“Nonsense,” say critics. Harvardians fancy themselves meritocrats. They act like they paid for their just deserts in cash. “For today’s Harvard students, who have passed test after exam and interview upon interview, there is nothing accidental or random about their position in society. They belong exactly where they are,” Ross G. Douthat ’02 wrote in his book “Privilege.”
Their modesty, critics warn, is a mere social convention. “[T]o be treated well in this world,” David Brooks wrote in his book “Bobos in Paradise,” “you have to perform a series of feints to show how little your worldly success means to you.” Although students downplay their accomplishments, they still mention them. They consider their privilege entirely deserved.
I’m unconvinced. Students know that their admission hung on the whims of William R. Fitzsimmons ’67’s staff. Was the fact that you were the “Most Ridiculous Item of the Day” on Bill O’Reilly’s television show really more impressive than your friend’s ability to name all 435 congressmen? Please. Part of every student’s success was luck, and some of them feel guilty about it. Unfortunately, to soothe this guilt, they choose some rather regrettable outlets.
Harvard FML, a spin-off of FMyLife.com, is the latest example. Through their posts, students tell the world that their lives are worse than people think. “School has me so exhausted and stressed that I almost cried watching Chronicles of Narnia 2,” one poster lamented. “I expected to catch up on my reading and papers over break. I didn’t even catch up on food and sleep,” another desponded. Most posts decry the lack of romance on campus: “I asked my crush to dance with me at Heaven and Hell. She blew me off for a yellow telletubby.” A theme emerges: The privileged life sucks.
Outsiders may deem bachelorhood a pittance for prestige, so students try another route. They ridicule their pedigree. The most infamous example is the tradition of peeing on the statue of John Harvard. Students target the figure, whose shoe tourists rub for good luck, because it symbolizes their success. Three years ago, a writer for this newspaper explained the reasoning: “Urinating on the monument to higher education in America is a bizarre attempt at self-affirmation. It says: ‘Not only do I go to Harvard, but I spit, nay, pee, on it as well.’”
Still, to quote the showtune, it’s a privilege to pee. This tradition does not conquer entitlement; it takes it for granted. It does not make students humble; it makes them obnoxious. So students resort to one final method when coping with their privilege: They ignore it. In his book, Brooks captured the exemplary exchange: “If asked where you went to school, you will reply ‘Harvard?’ with a little upward lilt at the end of your pronunciation, as if to imply, ‘Have you ever heard of it?’”
Before you write that letter to the editor: Yes, many students come here for the academics and care less about the prestige. Yes, many perform community service and use their advantages for the common good. But when we disrespect this institution, we disrespect ourselves. Revelry in other people’s misery, public urination, and embarrassment over your affiliation are undignified. Yes, students are just trying to have a good time, but, believe me, there’s a difference between self-deprecating humor and “FML.”
My friends to the right of me—they do exist—get misty-eyed when they remember the old aristocracy. If a person’s rank depended on birth, they tell me, we wouldn’t have this culture today. People would know that their privilege was due to chance and would feel the need to justify their position through dignified behavior.
I’m not boarding that sinking ship. The old aristocracy is dead, and it was more arrogant than its aficionados admit. Still, students could use a sense of noblesse oblige. It’s a loaded term, but I had to keep your attention from your Toasty O’s. We should appreciate the fact that our education is a privilege and that the responsibility that accompanies it begins once you move into the Yard—not after you walk out of Johnston Gate. We can bear the pressures with more grace, look harder for the nearest bathroom, and remember that the f-word is a condiment, not a staple.
The only way to handle privilege is to live up to it. And that requires dignity.
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.