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Summertime, June, in Cambridge. The sun is shining (at least theoretically), the air is filled with the joyful sounds of school-free children, people young and old are ambling through the Yard with nowhere in particular to be--and no place to rush to. With summer school just beginning, the Square--denuded of its vibrancy in the first weeks of summer--is once again thriving with all varieties of life, person, animal and otherwise. School is over. No longer are my days organized by classes and papers and meetings. Sundays flow into Mondays which soon become Fridays and Saturdays and Sundays again. The frenzied pace of school seems a distant memory, and life seems to be in order.
Unfortunately, before I could ease into the blissful sea of relaxation that is summer, I had an unfriendly encounter with reality. I was on the Delta Shuttle (flights every hour on the half-hour from Boston's Logan Airport to New York's LaGuardia) about a week and a half ago, heading home for my brother's graduation from high school. Of the 100+ people on the flight, I was one of only four who was not in some form of suited attire. I sat down at the end of an empty aisle.
(For those few of you who have never engaged in the sport of securing a row for your very own, a word of explanation. There is a whole strategy to airplane seating. The goal is to have an entire row to yourself, although as I write this, I am unsure why I would want the whole row for myself; it's not as though I need three seats. But this is not a sensible process, let me assure you. Anyway, the first line of defense is to sit down in the outside seat, because if a person wants to sit down next to you, they have to go through the hassle of asking you to get up and then squishing past you to get to their seat--clearly not an appealing option. Then you spread out all your stuff on the seats next to you, in as much disarray as possible, so that those looking for seats also have to wait until you move all your belongings and rearrange them under your seat--and, just out of spite, under the one that he or she is about to sit in. Again, not something that any normal person would want to do. But as a troubled man once said, there's the rub, for although this plan does wonders when it works, its moments of failure are dismal. But that no longer belongs in this overly-long parenthetical....)
So there I was, sitting in my aisle seat, trying to look intimidating and unfriendly. Everything seemed to be working fine until a hassled-looking man with papers overflowing from his briefcase came tumbling down the airplane aisle, completely oblivious to my carefully-planned tactics. He spotted the unoccupied seats next to me and began to move in for the kill. In desperation, I considered mumbling to myself and drooling on my chin, but my good sense got the better of me and I mover over, glowering at him all the while. I took out my free magazine (one of the perks of flying the shuttle) and tried to look absorbed--again, to no avail. In total disregard for my obvious shows of disinterest, the man started talking. "So, are you in school around here?" With a sigh of resignation, I turned and answered him.
Not two minutes had passed before the conversation took an ugly turn. "So, you're majoring in social studies. What are you going to do with that when you finish college?"
This was clearly not one of my better flights.
He had asked the dreaded question. The caprices of summer, the pleasures of relaxation, all seemed irrelevant next to this looming query. So simple and yet so devastating. I squared my shoulders and looked at him straight in the eye.
"I haven't the faintest idea," I answered, with as much authority as those paltry words can carry. The conversation carried on for a few more minutes and then died the death of boredom and mutual apathy. I had another 33 minutes of air-borne time to think about my future and my goals and other light topics.
As the plane was swooping down over the waters that encircle Manhattan, I came to a decision. Now it's true that everything seems different when you are soaring over the earth at hundreds of miles per hour, but here's what I thought. Harvard has ordained, and I have come to agree, that college is not the time for vocational studies. It is a time to think, and to learn how to think. It is a time to explore and examine and experiment and discover the world and yourself and the ways those two entities interact.
I will have plenty of time after I leave college to learn all the particulars that will be required to do my job well. But those details are secondary. The essence of my Harvard experience, and the quality that will make me a compelling person in the interviews of my future, is the ability to critically analyze the questions that challenge me, calling on a foundation of understanding composed of friends and authors, great works and everyday experiences that my years at Harvard have buttressed and expanded.
The plane glided smoothly onto the runway in New York and my neighbor became absorbed into the surge of people leaving the airport. I looked out at the suited women and men hopping into their cabs and assorted car services and, from the perspective of security that two more years of undirected life provides, felt strangely excited about the possibilities of post-college life.
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