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Pompous, New York Times reading, out of touch, excessively talented, soon to be cuff-link wearing, over-achievers. If you wander out of the capsule of academia, you'll find that's what a lot of people think about Harvard students.
When I was trying to get into Harvard--when Harvard was still an ideal--it was my instinct to defend the school from these gross generalizations. Harvard couldn't be arrogant. Harvard doesn't have one face. It is a university of all walks of life with energy focused in every direction. Yet in the first few months of my Harvard career, my faith in Harvard's humility has been weakened.
The outsider's bitter view of Harvard is nothing new for the people of Boston. It is rooted in an age old tension between what Boston College professor Thomas O'Conner has called the aristocratic, Protestant, Harvard educated Brahmin class, and the Irish, Italian, Catholic immigrant class. The late Thomas "Tip" O'Neil, a classic Irish politician, former Speaker of the House and Cambridge resident, was found of exploiting the gulf between the Cambridge working class and the Cambridge academic class. He often boasted that the only relationship he ever had with Harvard was a summer job mowing lawns.
Admittedly, recent years have seen these traditional New England distinctions become less defined. An issue once polarized by figures such as Henry Cabot Lodge and James Michael Curley, class conflict is today very subtle. As a result, Harvard is losing its image as the pinnacle of Brahmin culture. Today, Harvard strives to straddle all social, economic, geographical, and racial barriers in its pursuit of excellence.
But while today's world may be discarding Brahmin images of Harvard, it is certainly building new ones. Often these visions are quite positive. The other day I went over to Lens Crafters to get some contact lenses. While the optician was checking my eyes with his little white light, he asked where I went to school. When I told him I went to Harvard, I immediately sensed a reaction but was surprised by what he actually said. Instead of hearing the typical "That place is expensive huh?" or the even more creative "You must be smart!" I saw his eyes light up. He started asking me questions about my classes, my roommate, the books I was reading and how I liked living in Cambridge. The longer we talked, the more his positive, dynamic, colorful vision of Harvard became clear.
Still, this perspective is the exception to the rule. While Harvard has been tremendously successful in creating a student body with diverse talents, interests and backgrounds, it retains a student body that shares a common commitment to excellence. Such a seemingly noble commitment ironically provides the basis for today's outside view of Harvard students as talented, goal-oriented, future leaders marred by their pompous attitude.
Last year I had a job which had previously been held by a Harvard student. Apparently he had been fairly adept at producing quality work but equally proficient at telling everyone else in the office how to do their job. For the first month (when they had no idea I was going to go to Harvard), my co-workers displayed an unceasing desire to explain how this kid represented every impression they had ever had about Harvard. They recognized that he was talented, aggressive, and driven, but they despised his attitude.
With the perspective I have gained as a Harvard student, I now feel that there is some basis for the stereotypes which my co-workers had succumbed to. Of course, most Harvard students do not fit this image of individual arrogance. The basis of this outside stereotype comes mostly from a sort of communal arrogance. It is in our general discourse--in the newspaper articles, in the jokes told on stage and in conversations with friends. The name that hangs over our heads seems to allow normally modest individuals to become shamelessly conceited.
A Fifteen Minutes article I read this fall seemed typical of this attitude. While it provided a cogent analysis of a summer intern's life in Washington, it gloried in what it described as Harvard's pre-eminence in the nation's capital. One intern was quoted as saying that at an initial meeting of White House interns "at least one-third of the people were from Harvard...Everyone else was rolling their eyes, but I was proud." Certainly it is positive to have large numbers of Harvard students in Washington, but to gloat over the fact is pure arrogance. Such comments would be worthy of ridicule in the real world, but at Harvard they go unnoticed.
Yet to many, this is mere school spirit. Often such comments are not even meant to be serious. At a recent a-cappella jam, one of the groups--in reference to the ubiquitous American Express commercial--joked that "At Harvard they don't take cash, and they don't take Gina Grant." Clearly, this was not intended to be serious. For that reason, many would say that it is not important. But one must understand that the humor we have become inured to goes beyond the bounds of good taste for most.
A few months ago an editorial in The Crimson took this school pride to a new level. Though it was certainly in the spirit of the often not-so-serious Harvard-Yale rivalry, it was based on what the author felt were legitimate distinctions between the two types of students. At one point, she suggested that "when it comes down to it, homo crimsonus is a different species from homo eli. The former stands one rung higher on the ladder of self motivation." While the author continued on to modify her position and offer several persuasive arguments, this remains a very arrogant statement and indicative of the article's general air.
This is not to say that we should refrain from bashing other schools. Yale sucks and we shouldn't be afraid to say so. But elevating this argument to a serious discussion of "self motivation" is ridiculous, offensive and arrogant.
Any college, society or nation must have some sort of self-pride. Patriotism, loyalty and competitiveness are natural qualities that create a positive atmosphere. But when we at Harvard attempt to build our dismal school spirit, we go too far. To those who live in the outside world, it comes across as conceit. Consequently, Harvard students are labeled as arrogant individuals. But most of us are not. We are simply an arrogant community.
Rick M. Burnes '99 is by no means a snob-just ask anyone who matters.
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