Parents' Optimism Is Today's Apathy

The day my parents graduated from Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges in 1967, they walked over to the First Congregational Church on Garden Street and did a very optimistic thing.

They got married.

Fortunately for me and my younger brother and sister, they've stayed married and optimistic that they can make the world a better place for 28 years. Their optimism--born in their California upbringings and reinforced during their years here at Harvard--is part of what makes them basically pleasant, but it is also what makes them seem so old.

Generalizations can be dangerous, but for the Class of 1995, the following may safely be said: we are neither optimistic nor idealistic, and our lack of idealism matches the time. I know of no classmate who believes in saving the world, and few of us ever seriously think about making it better. Idealism is for people who feel secure, safe in their homes and in their futures. All the people like that are either losing their hair or gaining wrinkles.

A professor remarked recently that he has never had students who wrote better or thought more clearly than he does now. At the same time, he has never had students with less passion for ideas. "It's actually sort of disturbing," he said. "It used to be students brought their politics and ideals into the classroom. Now you all seem to be able to argue both sides of any question with equal facility."


It's not that the '90s Harvard student is consumed by pessimism, or lacks generosity. We are hopeful, but on a smaller scale--virtually every student does some form of community service. And it's not as though we're in danger of failing in our classes or in our new careers. In most cores, a student is all but guaranteed a "B" for showing up, and with a little luck, the recruiting process can find just about anyone a decent consulting or investment banking job.

What's different now is that there are so few ideologues among us. Big Think has been thoroughly discredited. Campus activists are by definition uncool and they frequently complain that they can't get the favorable coverage they used to depend on from the paleo-liberal Crimson of the '70s and '80s.

Undergraduates who own up to politicalambitions or ideals open themselves to ridicule,so not many do. Last fall, 99 candidates ran for atotal of 88 seats on the student government.

The world is big, so our thinking is small inscope. On a typical day last month, this newspaperhad front page stories about the Class Dayspeaker, a protest by one of Harvard's unions, thenaming of the undergraduates speakers atCommencement, a report on the University'scomputer network and a professor breaking his armin the stacks of Pusey Library. Stories about newresearch, academic debates or speeches by leadingthinkers were material for the inside pages, ifthey appeared at all.

The largest student rally in the past threeyears was a protest outside University Hall lastmonth to oppose the randomization of thefirst-year housing lottery.

`Like...on TV'

Even when tragedy intervenes, it seems distant.Two weeks ago in Dunster House, a junior stabbedher roommate and killed herself. A local TVstation reported, inaccurately, that "all thestudents in Dunster House were... shocked." Infact, many of us quickly went on with our livesand packed up our books and clothes. "I didn'tknow them, and it doesn't affect me at all," afriend in the house confessed to me. "It feelslike it's happening on TV."

Sometimes, the real world intrudes on lifehere, but current events rarely leave lastingmarks. As a first-year, I watched with uttersadness as my hometown, Los Angeles, went up inflames. Desperate to be involved, I attended avigil to mark the Rodney King verdict, but it onlymade me feel more helpless. After Oklahoma Citywas bombed in April, students talked about it inthe dining hall for a day or two, but that wasall.

During the 1992 election, many of us gave upour studied apathy to become true believers inBill Clinton. Liberals thought the election hadpurged us of Reaganism. Instead, elation turned todisappointment and then back to indifference asHarvard and the nation discovered that the newpresident didn't understand our minds, much lesshis own. Surveys by The Crimson and the Instituteof Politics last year showed the student bodygrowing increasingly apolitical.

The student body is diverse, but that hardlymeans that "diversity," as the guidebook promises,"is the hallmark of the Harvard-Radcliffeexperience." As a student body, we've lived morein the real world than the people my folks went toschool with did. But on campus we stick to ourown. Quincy House has an enormous Asian-Americanpopulation. Many gay students say they only feelcomfortable in Adams and Dunster Houses. Whitesgravitate towards the river houses, and anoverwhelming percentage of Black students live inthe Quad.

Few of us, of course, are upset about this,except the administrators who want to randomizehousing assigments and to turn minority studentsinto missionaries for interracial understanding.

In fact, there is no greater undergraduatepassion than trying to find the like-minded.Students have formed groups specifically for SouthAsians, Asian Americans, Asian American dancers,South Asian dancers, ballroom dancers and ballet.There are clubs for African-American actors,African-American future engineers, students forchoice, students for life, linguists,neuroscientists, ecumencalists, ornithologists,C.S. Lewis fans, civil libertarians and Canadians.

The prevalence of such student groups is oftencited as evidence of a healthy, vibrantundergraduate community. The reality is that, moreoften than not, such clubs serve as ways tojustify ourselves by finding others exactly likeus. We seem to value personal comfort over thehard learning that comes from ongoing interactionwith students who have interests different fromour own.

Our Teachers

Why should we be any less selfobsessed? In manycases, you can get an appointment with aspecialist at the University Health Servicesbefore you can get into see the professor teachingyour class. And that's no compliment to UHS.

The experience of talking to some professorsmakes you wonder if it's worth it; ProfessorStephen J. Gould, he of the dinosaur-sized ego,conducts office hours in groups of 12, withstudents sitting in a circle and occasionallydaring to interrupt his soliloquys with aquestion. It's a group-worship session, withyou-know-who as God.

To his credit, Gould at least spends some ofhis time in Cambridge. Ford Professor of SocialSciences Emeritus David Riesman '34 remarked lastyear that Logan Airport has become one of the mostimportant parts of Harvard.

Faculty citizenship has never been perfect, butadministrators and even a few honest professorsacknowledge that the connections between facultyand the people who they allegedly teach havefrayed perhaps beyond repair.

"Very few professors today are willing to giveHarvard more than they take," government professorHarvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 told The Crimson lastyear.

President Neil L. Rudenstine made a briefattempt two years ago to rescue the notion of theacademic community by calling for aUniversity-wide commitment to public service. Butthe report was drowned out at the time byadministrative squabbling, and Rudenstine has allbut dropped the theme. After four years aspresident, that remains the only annual report hehas published.


I realize this piece sounds relentlesslynegative. I mean to be critical, not bitter. I'llalways appreciate the friends I made here,especially two: my roommate of four years and awonderful person I consider my best friend. And asa reporter and editor at The Crimson, I found agroup of young writers who love newspapers and aregenerous--maybe too generous--with their time.

But I will graduate tomorrow believing that myclassmates and I have failed to get the most ofwhat Harvard could offer. I don't know whom toblame for that. Maybe the University didn'tstretch us enough, or maybe we failed to stretchthe University.

On the occasion of her 25th Harvard-Radcliffereunion, my mother wrote about the turmoil of hertime here, then added: "and yet I remember thattime as one of shining optimism, of high energy;most of us felt we could change the world (anattitude I never detect in my children'sgeneration)."

That's the trouble with optimism. It's not likeblue eyes. You don't get it from your parents