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Harvard and Radcliffe '81

By Esme C. Murphy

Harvard has disappointed me. Four year ago, when I arrived at the steps of Pennypacker, I felt an uncertain thrill at being here. As my mother kissed me goodbye, I felt I was being left to discover people of infinite wisdom at in institution of infinite benevolence.

Maybe I expected these things because John Kennedy went here. Certainly I was naive. But by now I've learned that John Kennedy was not a saint and that most people here are not wise, merely intelligent and self-centered. I've also learned that this institution is hardly benevolent, that it is run by members of a corporation--for profit.

Harvard continues to hold stocks in companies operating in South Africa. Decisions to promote its professors are based not on teaching ability, but on how many books they've sold. Undergraduates here struggle not to learn, but to snare grades so they can attend the professional school of their choice. Tomorrow I will graduate from a University whose axis rests not on higher learning but on elitism and material success.

It is intolerance rather than benevolence that pervades this University. From the first day that our class gathered in the Harvard Square Theater and Dean Moses informed us that we were the "incomparable Class of '81," that we were the best and the brightest of the nation's youth, to Harvard's continuing reluctance to give credit for courses at other universities, there is a pervasive attitude that Harvard is the best. Certainly there is much at Harvard that is extraordinary, but the attitude of being "the best" colors every aspect of University life and gnaws at the moral fiber of the University and its students.

I did not always feel this way. For a long time I believed that if I looked hard enough, I would find activities and experiences here which would be enlightening and enjoyable. So freshmen and sophomore years I explored. I stumbled between extra-curricular activities. I was good at producing plays, terrible as third base for the Radcliffe softball team, and completely apathetic as the Winthrop House delegate to the Student Assembly. There were other activities, but I found them all limiting. I had hundreds of aquaintances but few close friends. I never did schoolwork. I took courses I felt I should take--and did badly because they didn't interest interest me.

At the end of sophomore year. I knew I hadn't found what I wanted at Harvard. That summer I drove with a high school friend from New York to Alaska in an effort to get as far away from Cambridge as possible. I thought that by traveling a literal distance from Harvard. I might somehow gain a figurative perspective. I was wrong. There were no great revelations by the fire, no profound insights on the road.

I came back to Harvard believing I still had time to find a fulfilling activity with a group of people that were wise. For a while junior year I thought I'd found it. While comping for The Crimson. I found myself in the midst of the most talented and hard-working people I had met here. I felt an extraordinary surge of confidence. I began to work in my courses. I was happy. But then the roof caved in. My sister, who was also at Harvard, suffered a manic-depressive breakdown. I still feel a creeping nausea as I think of the policeman coming to get me in my room and telling me that my sister was in Cambridge Hospital. I remember, hours later, shivering in thin jeans and a t-shirt in the hospital's dingy waiting room when Archie Epps walked in and shook my hand.

My sister needed a special room in a hospital. There was none available, and he was there to pull some strings. But Epps could not get a room either. He told me the only space available was in a state institution, and at 3 a.m. I agreed. The next morning, my mother flew up. During the night my sister had been taken to Westboro State Hospital, and after a meeting with people at UHS, we went out to see her. The conditions were grim. She was the only young woman on a corridor with locked doors and dirty rooms. When she asked to like down, the attendant told her she had to wait because all patients went to bed at the same time.

My rage at her treatment was compounded by the difficulty we had trying to move her to another hospital. My mother and I stood in the hospital lobby where half-clothed patients were walking around as we took turns calling various UHS doctors. Dealing with UHS was the same as dealing with the rest of the University--only by screaming and threatening did we get her moved. Several hours later, as my mother and I followed the ambulance that was taking my sister to a private hospital. I wondered what would have happened if she had had no one to push for her. It was a question that I put to a dozen University officials in the next week--including Deans Fox and Epps, Matina Horner and Warren Wacker, the head of University Health Services. I never got a good answer.

In the course of speaking with these officials, I learned that a student had committed suicide two weeks before in Stillman infirmary, and that the administration was taking great pains to keep it quiet, I wonder now how many suicides the University has hidden--and why? Is the issue of mental health an embarrassment--do suicide attempts stain fair Harvard's reputation?

Until junior year, I had felt all my life there was a star over my head, that despite deaths in my family and my parents' divorce, I was a lucky person. After that fall, I felt my star existed in the middle of a gaping black hole. The Crimson became my escape. I could lose myself in a story and the all-consuming pressure of a deadline. But back in my room I couldn't escape. I found myself growing increasingly bitter about Harvard and the students here. I watched my sister return to school and cope with stares and whispers. I helped her move to a new room after her roommates insisted she move out. I was stupified by their display of personal intolerance.

I even grew disenchanted with The Crimson for I found that many of its staff members, despite their intelligence and liberal ideals, were proponents of an intellectual elitism and intolerance and an elitism that pervades every student organization. While working on an article this fall. I sat in on a Black Students Association (BSA) meeting. The BSA was planning a protest in support of equality. Their rhetoric, however, was not egalitarian. I sat in the back row with angry eyes fixed on me as they debated my right as a reporter versus my right as a student to attend what was advertised as an "OPEN MEETING." I was allowed to stay, and for the first time in my life I listened to what it was like to be Black in a white country. I heard anger frustration and isolation, sentiments that bred an elitism as enveloping and dangerous as the Crimson's elitism or the University's.

I expected too much from Harvard. But I was not alone in my expectations, and I am not alone now in my disappointment. Harvard is an American myth, and students coming here will always have bloated expectations. Those that arrive here believing, as I did, that Harvard is a place of wisdom and higher learning will leave here as I do--severely disillusioned. Those that believe another myth--that Harvard is a ticket to a successful career--may leave only slightly disillusioned. For their myth is at the core of the University. Harvard is not a place of wisdom--but rather a place where achievement is the product of aggression, where professors are not valued for teaching, and where academia serves as a training ground for the nation's law firms and corporations.CrimsonNevin I. Shalit

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