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The Stigma of a Harvard Degree

By Eric Pulier

EACH year sixteen hundred parents send their little bundles of protoplasm off to Harvard with great delight. In addition to the obvious pleasure of having finally rid themselves of the slimey things--many of which are notorious for leaving their towels on the bathroom floor--the parents are now prematurely afforded the opportunity to declare success to all who will listen. Until graduation, Harvard students are automatically granted, or burdened with, success status. After graduation, it becomes their job to maintain it.

When I play tennis with someone better than me, I play a better game. Though some may explain this phenomenon in terms of the large bet I'm usually hustled into, others see it as a matter of rising to the situation. Whether the motivation for rising to expectations is a desire to please or merely an aversion to embarrassment, the situation as it exists at Harvard imposes stifling constraints.

You will never hear someone say, "You graduated from high school and now all you do is `x'? You were the president of the hall monitor committee!

You could've made something of yourself!"

What you do hear is another matter entirely: "You went to Harvard and now you want to do `x'? Are you crazy? Come on, really--which law school are you going to? What? Oh, I get it--okay, which bank are you working at? What?

Are you some kind of loser?" Spitting at the people who give you this hassle won't help, but sometimes if you give them a dollar they'll at least go away.

The hoards of Harvard students who are undoubtedly affected by this type of societal pressure are automatically exempted from certain occupations and lifestyles. This is not to say that Harvard alumni do not now exist in every walk of life, but merely that, left free to choose, a whole lot more would probably abandon the expected mold.

Most people subscribe to the unwritten rule that prestige carries with it great responsibility. This is a great pain in the ass.

If Harvard were merely a good liberal arts college, graduates would enter the world without the stigma of great potential for success. Now, I know what you're saying--you're saying, "Oh, shut up. How can anyone complain that a school is too good? You are the worst person I've ever met." Wait, don't get personal here. Jeez.

"Why are you wasting my time? Why don't you mind your own business. It's a nice day--run along and play the stock market or something. We've all got things to do, and I'll be damned if I'm going to sit around and listen to some wise-ass kid..."

All right, all right. Enough. Look, I'm not complaining that Harvard is too good. And I'm not blaming Harvard for turning out zillions of rich people for alumni either. Rich alumni mean large donations; universities that want to remain on top have to keep churning students out who are psychologically geared for "success." It makes sense.

"So what's you're point, fool? I have an appointment with my broker and I'm not gonna wait around for you to..."

The point is simply that it's annoying that we can't just do whatever we want without people saying, "you went to Harvard and now you are doing whatever you want?" In other words, there are higher standards for us--based on the fallacy of Harvard's superioriy in every undergraduate arena--that don't exist at other schools.

"There are people dying in El Salvador..."

I know, I know. I'll keep it short and then go help them. But, hey, that's just the point--"you went to Harvard and all you do is help people from El Salvador? Where's the bucks? Where's the book, the honors, the..."

WHILE success can take on any number of definitions, many Harvard seniors are reluctant to define their own version. They act as if they've been saddled with an obligation to succeed on the terms tacitly agreed upon with their acceptance of admission to the college.

There's nothing particularly wrong with aspirations for great wealth or spectacular achievement (in fact, you're all invited for a ride on my yacht someday, right after my Nobel prize party), but what I do resent is the obligation that's implied by a Harvard degree. It's as if the rules in the student handbook read, "no boistorous games in the Yard, no hanging posters with nails, and no post-graduate incomes below $25,000 the first year unless attending law or med school."

Photographers, painters, carpenters, librarians, policemen, firemen--suddenly all these occupations are ruled out. Does a Harvard degree open only certain doors for employment while simultaneously shutting just as many?

"Nobody's stopping them, nimrod. Is this over yet?"

Almost. Look, if it's true that no one's stopping them then why are there so few Harvard graduates in these postions? Do only people who have no other options become policemen, or do many choose the profession for other reasons? Do Harvard seniors really feel "above" such work? Or are they merely afraid of losing the success status that they've enjoyed for four years?

"Are these rhetorical questions? I have a headache."

Take an asprin, you made it this far. I don't presume the answer is anything like snobbery. Yet there are thousands of rewarding opportunities that Harvard students are conditioned to not even consider.

"So what are you doing next year that's so revolutionary among the Harvard alumni ranks? What's your bold new path that you've decided on independently of what society thinks about Harvard?"

Well, hmmm...I don't really know--my parents haven't made up their mind yet.

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