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Idealism Takes a Tumble

By Geoffrey C. Upton

Make way for the reformers. Last week, by fewer than 50 votes, Beth A. Stewart '00 was elected president of the Undergraduate Council. Her running mate, Samuel C. Cohen '00, also triumphed by a narrow margin. Our new leaders pledge to steer the council away from progressive politics and toward more realistic goals. They want to focus on student services and prioritize issues on which they know they can see results.

At first, it doesn't seem like a bad vision. If idle talk about grapes and American foreign policy is standing in the way of universal keycard access, away with such hot air by all means. But in reality, numerous fallacies undergird the Stewart-Cohen program for change.

These fallacies include the notion that the council cannot make progress on an issue as knotty as Faculty diversity; that representing the student voice on ideological matters saps up all the time and energy from the fight for student services; that the world is not watching what Harvard's student government says--and does not say. All these charges were taken up, if not so effectively articulated, by the progressive candidates in last week's race. Yet the progressives let one Stewart-Cohen fallacy slip by: that the student body, divided on ostensibly political issues, is united behind student services. This is simply not the case.

Take one of our new leaders' favorite issues on the stump: cable television. At first, the cause seems appealing. Cable television has become nearly as standard an amenity in the civilized world as television itself. And if the administration has indeed been close to having the houses wired, only to not take the final step for lack of student prodding, then pushing the envelope now makes sense.

But hold on. Is cable really something every Harvard student wants? No one in my suite of four has a TV; no one I know even watches much TV other than "Seinfeld," "E/R" and "The X-Files." A great many students--quite possibly a majority--don't have the time to watch or the money to pay for cable. Moreover, chances are that if all the dorms are wired for cable, those installation costs will magically appear on our term-bills--meaning you will end up paying for cable even if you'd rather surf the Web than surf 100 channels. You call that something all students want? I call it a marginal quality-of-life concern. (Not to mention the fact that cable TV is not apolitical. For example, should students have access to adult channels? I can see a Playboy Coalition forming any day now.)

Faculty diversity, meanwhile, has been deemed a controversial political issue better handled by student groups. Stewart and Cohen plan instead to fight for causes on which they believe they can make more progress. But Faculty diversity is not a political concern supported by a narrow segment of the student body; it is about undergraduate education and the College experience in the most direct sense. And it is an issue about which many of us care deeply. Indeed, in a Crimson survey on race published last week, a vast 72 percent of the student body said the College "needs more" minority representation on the Faculty. That seems like a pretty solid majority to me, and a solid foundation for council action on the issue.

As to the claim that the council's fight for Faculty diversity has been fruitless, is it really time to throw in the towel? Will we, as a student body, give up so easily? Stewart, Cohen, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton--all could learn a bit from the philosopher and Harvard professor Alfred North Whitehead. "No period of history has ever been great or ever can be that does not act on some sort of high, idealistic motives," Whitehead said in January, 1944, speaking about the overemphasis placed on the economic motive in humankind. If tomorrow's leaders, and tomorrow's voters, readily shun idealism for pragmatism--if politics is no longer seen as the art of the possible--what kind of a future can we expect?

Of course, I don't expect Stewart and Cohen to drop their campaign pledge--"Action, for a change"--and embrace the council's bully pulpit. But at the least, if they are going to set aside "political" causes, they could work for things that really do matter to all students--universal keycard access, Core reform, advising reform and meal-plan flexibility.

As long as we're on the subject of non-political issues that matter to everyone, let me bring one up that somehow did not make it onto this year's laundry lists of proposed quality-of-life improvements: two-ply toilet paper. Yes, that's right, if Stewart and Cohen want to spend their time fighting for things that matter to all students, things that are "non-political" and are within the domain of realistic council intervention, toilet paper is the place to start. Considering that we live in our dorms eight months of the year, our bathrooms should more closely resemble those in our homes than those at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The one-ply paper currently provided is thin enough to see through and so coarse that I wouldn't use it to blow my nose.

Two-ply toilet paper is the kind of thing that makes a bigger difference than it seems. First you improve the quality of bathroom life, and the next thing you know, students' outlook on the whole Harvard experience softens up. I am not saying single-ply should no longer be available. If you are concerned about saying paper, or for some reason like that sandpaper-feel (and I don't want to know why), stay with Scott Surplus. But if Harvard claims to care about us, two-ply must be available. You don't think Dean of Students Harry R. Lewis '68 goes home to one-ply every night, do you?

I am far from the first to address the two-ply issue. Council candidates had raised the toilet paper issue repeatedly before this year, and a simple Web search reveals that this is a concern of college students nationwide. A pair of candidates for MIT's student government in 1993 made two-ply one of their major issues. Toilet paper was the first platform plank of a pair of candidates for Penn State's student council earlier this year (plank No. 2 was the creation of a "nap lounge"). And American University's online newspaper, The Eagle's Web, last year ran one student's emphatic plea for two-ply. "I didn't even know they sold one-ply toilet paper any more in this country," wrote the student, Phil Schneider. "This is America, for god sakes! We've fought wars so that we could wipe ourselves without having the paper rip into little pieces like Quentin Tarrentino's [sic] career."

I am not kidding here. This is as important a quality-of-life issue as any. With the investment of just a bit of their newly-won political capital. Stewart and Cohen should be able to put two-ply in every bathroom from Mather to PfoHo by March--taking action for a change, and in the process flushing away all memories of a student government that once aimed higher.

Geoffrey C. Upton's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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