THIS IS A STORY about the Harvard Experience.
I had a Harvard Experience the other day, I saw someone I hadn't seen since freshman week. He remembered my name--that seems to be the first trick we all learn at Harvard. "Hey congratulations," he said. "Are you psyched about graduation?" And I told my ugly tale: "Uh, well, I took some time off." The conversation ended pretty quickly.
I seem to be having a lot of Harvard Experiences lately. It's Commencement week again, and time for Harvard's annual glut of pomp and ceremony. This seat the lucky number is "85." It's a number that will appear on most of our future correspondence from Harvard University.
That lucky number makes me a little nervous. From the day I was welcomed into the Class of '85, I've identified with it. I was a nice, normal student until one semester I took time off. Now I feel like some kind of outsider, watching from the sidelines as my bothers and sisters line up for praise.
Officially, Harvard does nothing to make me feel like an outcast. Nor does it officially ostracize disabled students, Sanskrit majors, or people who live outside the Houses. But the little interactions with out fellow students add up.
You'd almost think that there was a path marked out for all of us, and that those who stray are an embarrassment to their friends. Watching the nervous celebrations and hearing about everyone's plans has made me think a little more than usual about the Harvard Experience.
We were told a little but about the Experience when we arrived in the fall of our freshman year. It seemed the idea was to put a lot of people from different backgrounds into one housing system, inculcate a few good liberal values, and let people interact The University, being the bastion of free speech that it is, allows all points of view to be expressed and thus brings us all into contact with "different" ideas According to theory, thus allows us to stretch our imagination to us limits.
Well, how come I haven't met anyone at Harvard who believes in astrology?
The answer most people give is that astrology is "unscientific." That would seem to put it in a league with poetry, fiction and history. But calling something "unscientific" implies either that it can be disproved scientifically-- which is not true of astrology--or that anything outside the realm of science is not worthy of serious attention.
The answer then fits into a larger set of unwritten assumption that seem to underlie a good deal of the speeches, lectures and writing at Harvard. You're free to express any ideas you want. But unless you say otherwise, it's taken for granted you're working with the same basic ideas as everyone else. And because the basic ideas usually go unwritten, they are often automatically accepted as true.
This doesn't mean that Harvard, or any other university, imposes an ideology from above. Instead, we create a kind of intellectual pressure cooker--a "peer pressure cooker." Thoughts that don't "fit" are treated with laughter or condescension If you've never been ridiculed by your friends before, try talking about reincarnation in the Winthrop House dining hall or saying that you don't think The New York Times is an impartial newspaper. Then you will discover that the good old knowing smile is the most affective way to kill an idea. It also hurts your feelings.
Once one of your ideas it treated this ways, perhaps you can imagine how Karl Marx would feel if he saw how his ideas are treated in the University. They were meant to encourage revolution--but somehow they have been made acceptable by being presented as menu items on the food-for-thought list. Learn all about feminism, Marxism, and liberation theology--but beware of taking them seriously; you never know who'll laugh at you. Harvard is full of Cabbage Patch Radicals--most people don't really take them seriously, but they invite a couple of Cabbage Patch Radicals to their parties anyway.
Another popular item is the Disaffected Artiste. This brand of person has been ridiculed for thinking that art is worthwhile--and perhaps in particular she has been told that her art is mediocre. She seeks protection by becoming defiant and bitter--and suddenly her art begins to make money or earn praise. She has discovered that condescension always works.
This is not to insult people at large or to suggest that Harvard or the world is a bad place. But sometimes I want to know why people try to scare each other so much. What are we all scared of? What are we trying to do?
If you still don't believe in the power of condescension, consider the case of many young urban professionals. They have been tagged with a nickname--now young people who live in the city are forced to apologize because they fit into a category. 1985 is the year of the Bashful Yuppie. People will do anything to avoid being called a yuppie. Some people even make a living by saying bad things about yuppies. But they're just scared like everyone else.
"I'm scared, too. I've been unconsciously preparing to graduate with the Class of 1985 and become a Bashful Yuppie. Now I'll graduate with the Class of 1986, and I don't know what's in store for the year. Who knows what words Time magazine will invent between now and then?
Harvard has scared me too. Too many Harvard experiences. I've been told. "You can't sing," or "I his isn't a poem," or "No, you don't want to do that." The other day I ran into an old acquaintance and had another Harvard experience. He asked me what I've done lately.
"Well, I got married," I answered.
"No, it's time to graduate!" he answered incredulously. "You didn't get married."
Now which of us know better?