Youth, Identity and Harvard

A sense of smugness pervades the place. The value students place on tradition (after all, why else would anyone go to the Hasty Pudding show), their style of life (every suite in older Houses has a fireplace), and the importance they put on being important (try to find a southern boy here who won't be senator) are all striking. Their smugness arises not out of any feeling of refinement or belief in their genius, but only out of being part of a significant institution. Yet, when pressed, students reveal indecision and insecurity about themselves and about their society's future. Harvard students would be the aristocrats of a new society, but their indecision dooms them to be the bureaucrats of a decadent order.

The pessimism Harvard students show about future careers and social involvement springs from their disillusionment, from the erosion of traditional social arrangements, and from their cynical resolution to survive. Probably the immediate social and intellectual environment at Harvard accentuates what is wrong in the society and minimizes what could be the best in this country.

At its best, Harvard is both the virgin and the dynamo--preserver of culture and factory of new ideas and invention. Still, one wonders if there are any virgins at Harvard; and factories do pollute. No belief in the value of the past and an absence of hope in the future characterize every part of Harvard. In attempting to avoid cynicism, Harvard students exalt form over content, and regard style as superior to substance. Lectures are largely empty expositions, gracefully delivered, laced with phrases from Romance languages, and embroidered with intellectual gossip. Students select courses on the basis of the celebrities who teach them (or because they are guts or required) reflecting the deeply ingrained consumer consciousness. Papers, often written in a night, are at best models of rhetoric and their production only helps develop a pattern to be fully realized later in the writing of bureaucratic memoranda.

The students' social life similarly expresses the acceptance of role and the flirtation with class. Tea, black-tie dinners, and final clubs provide hope of finding a way to realize the style of life they seek. Yet a distance between the student and his search for class develops. Some become nervous, some become alienated; probably out of a sense of guilt or inadequacy, they recoil from the traditional situations for which they yearn--they wear a workshirt with their tuxedo. Even clubbies show qualms about their exclusivity, which has already been eroded.

The students' career aspirations show only the vaguest commitment to social welfare and reveal a desire to play safe. The shift away from graduate study in academic disciplines and toward the professions, particularly law and medicine, shows the primacy of role and allows them to retain an ambiguity in their attitude toward class. While some students seek to escape organizational constraint by pursuing careers as writers or artists, few search for a life of creative activity. When pressed, many of these free souls will reveal the ambition of celebrity. A commitment to significant work does not distinguish them from the aspirants for a professional career; rather, their commitment is curiously passive to the anticipation of being regarded as having done significant work. While their longing is for legitimacy, it involves the acceptance of life as a pathetic parody.


This analysis can be rejected by claiming that most students at Harvard are diligent, are interested in their work, and do show a certain openness, even kindliness, and spontaneity. This is partially true and may provide a resolution for the tensions revealed by extended discussion with Harvard undergraduates. Harvard students are at their most authentic in the gym and on playing field, even at the pong machine. The person's involvement in sport offers an opportunity for self-expression, for self-mastery, and for uniting form and substance. Students demonstrate authenticity in talks over a beer or joint, when one can see expressions of friendship, exchange of insight, and discussion of meaning. Again, in music practice rooms, and in House basements, students find an outlet for expression in refined forms by self-expression.

The problem is the inability to transform this commitment (in sport, personal exchange, and artistic expression) into the social and academic activities that fill the greater portion of each day, and to a commitment to future careers. Currently the ability to make a leap of faith, a commitment to appealing traditional values and forms is lacking. There is a similar absence of faith in the existence of not merely interesting and profitable, but worthwhile intellectual inquiry of significance to the development of culture.

Some argue that hope lies not in the perpetuation of the individuality which characterizes the Harvard meritocracy and the general society. But in a sense a community exists at Harvard--superficially in House dining rooms, and, more profoundly, in the community of resignation. What Harvard needs--what American society needs--is an ethic of aspiration, and this will only come from individuals, gifted, perceptive and ambitious. The Harvard student's yearning is a significant indication that values, tradition and needs of the future can be joined to develop authentic individuals. To conserve any individuality a belief and a hope expressible in the style so alluring to Harvard students must be found.

Nevertheless, this conservation faces opposition, the opposition of the university itself. A faceless bureaucracy presides over the university and acts to legitimize what students most fear, the corporate society. A formless and contentless University administration acting on principles of efficiency rather than excellence, reinforce student disillusionment with politics and social action. The Faculty, for the most part, is a model of detached, valueless celebrities subscribing tenaciously to the criteria of reputation. Economic calculations and salary substitute for institutional loyalty and indicate achievement. There is little significant discussion of personal philosophy giving meaning to life, or informing judgment. Instead only the rigors of description and evaluation of disciplinary views are discussed. The Faculty lives by the cult of the expert, as it refines the concept of role. But belief in the enterprise is lost in trying to collect symbols from others of the impressiveness of one's work.

In the end, the student alone must resolve the tension between the ideal of value and hope and the actuality of resignation. The prospects may be dim at Harvard.

Donald H.J. Hermann is Professor of Law and Harvard Fellow in Law and Humanities 1973-74.

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