Let’s Be Less Serious
Why Harvard students both amuse and annoy me
This column is supposed to be about Latin America. But the region has been kind of quiet lately, and Crimson readers don’t seem to care much about Cuba or Chávez, and in any case, this is my last column. So instead I’d like to emulate my friend and fellow columnist Eric T. Justin ’13, who recently wrote about the perils of whining at Harvard, and highlight some unfortunate social tendencies on campus.
On the Harvard admissions website, prospective applicants are told that, “Our Admissions Office chooses carefully from a broad range of applicants who seem to us to offer the most promise for future contributions to society.” It’s a nice, fluffy bit of advice (show some promise!), but the seemingly benign platitude carries more sinister implications. Judging us by our future returns makes us seem suspiciously like investments rather than individuals.
The problem does not lie with the admissions office, however. The problem is that, once we arrive at Harvard, we tend to treat ourselves like investments. Harvard students are obsessed with success—that plushy consulting job after graduation, that prestigious fellowship, that elite medical or law school—and our focus on goals, more often than not, turns us into petty, Machiavellian creatures.
Let me provide a few examples from common areas of campus life. Take academics. I know an alarming proportion of students here who pick their courses based on which classes have a reputation for being easy. They grumble their way through a semester of papers on subjects they care nothing for, cash in their high GPAs, and do it all again next semester. It’s a huge waste, both of our time and of Harvard’s resources. We have some of the finest professors in the world to learn from, and we prefer a sterling number to an education.
Or take extracurricular activities. Do you participate in activities because you view them as opportunities to have a positive impact, or do you approach student organizations as vehicles for self-aggrandizement? I’ve overheard students complain about how much of a drag it is to tutor underprivileged kids, and the smug superiority of it hits me like a slap. As we say in Spanish, “me da pena ajena”—it makes me vicariously ashamed.
Less serious, but more annoying, is the tendency among student groups to present themselves as “professional.” We’re a bunch of 20-year-olds playing dress-up, pretending we’re at the top of our fields. Even if we are, the self-importance of it never ceases to amuse me. Seriousness is a virtue, but after a point it crosses into self-parody.
Lastly, take a subject that is a perennial staple of student conversation, final clubs. The issue of whether some of these locations are safe spaces to party is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly. Criticism of the clubs, however, tends to revolve around claims that they are sexist or elitist. It’s not that I disagree, but such criticism tends to exasperate me more than the clubs themselves. Outside of Harvard, who cares about final clubs? They’re glorified party spots. The fact that a bunch of students who are privileged by the virtue of merely being here sit around and complain about elitist clubs reminds me of those people who make over $1 million but don’t consider themselves wealthy. It shows how narrow-minded we are.
On my more cynical days, I wonder if entering Harvard means you’re automatically enlisted in the world’s most cutthroat collegiate-level rat race, one we’re willing participants in. We’re told time and time again that the best part of Harvard is the other students here—never again will such bright people surround us. I agree, the people here are awesome, and our collective accomplishments impressive. But in pursuing greatness, many of us forget about our fundamental goodness as human beings.
I know I sound preachy, but that’s not my intention. I’ve also partaken in precisely the sort of behavior that I’m describing, and I’ve not enjoyed it one bit. On more than one occasion, I’ve woken up in the morning and just felt like a terrible person (and it wasn’t due to a hangover). My guess is that most people here also have at some point or other in pursuit of their goals. And it all kind of makes me want to move back to Costa Rica and open a beach café or something.
As you go through Harvard, you should remember that, no matter what, you’ve got it made. Forget your transcript or your resume—more likely than not, you’ll find success in the grander scheme of things and on your own terms. So relax, have some fun, take classes you’re passionate about. Don’t screw other people over, but don’t be afraid to screw up. Ask yourself, are the human relations you form actually meaningful? I’ve found a 15-minute conversation with my tattoo artist far more enlightening than hours of networking at recruiting events.
So, my dear readers (if you exist), farewell. Don’t take this place too seriously, and whatever you do, don’t get addicted to it. After all, it’s just college.
Jorge A. Araya ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House.