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Finding Every Loophole

By James T. L. grimmelmann

By now, I'm sure you have all heard the Erik Erikson story a few dozen times. The legendary psychology professor offered a first-year seminar to which over a hundred first-years applied. Erikson rejected every single one, then waited to see which students came to his office to argue the call. He then proceeded to accept into the seminar the five who complained the loudest.

As usually told, this story is a classic fable. A quick tale of ingenuity, it finishes with a convenient and easily-packaged moral lesson: In Harvard, as in life, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You have got to think outside the box, play the angles and beat the system.

As I see it, though, this story is a perfect example of the questionable ethical lessons Harvard teaches. There is something very dangerous about a culture willing to hold up Erikson's lucky five as its exemplars of correct behavior. He was looking for a certain kind of student, and he got what he was looking for: the pushiest and most absolutely self-assured first-year students. Harvard spits out a lot of people who've been trained to act this way, and I worry for the world it looses them on.

At every stage of their careers here, students are encouraged to take ethically ambiguous steps to obtain whatever scarce resources Harvard has to offer. We have in many ways created for ourselves a culture that tolerates certain classes of amorality. Harvard's official selection processes are a joke--lotteries and sectioning forms are of questionable fairness and regrettable bureaucracy. You deserve your place among the elect, but the system just is not set up to recognize your virtues. So on the one hand, there is nothing wrong with a little flexibility in describing your qualifications, so long as you are not actually lying. And on the other, it is your duty to seek out every loophole you can possibly exploit.

Examples of this attitude are everywhere. There were quite a few of members of the class of 2000 who had not quite gotten around to dropping their advanced standing in the "special senior section" of the seating for Nelson Mandela's speech. In fact, a lot of the student proponents for advanced standing hold it up as the perfect way of beating the system--one convenient piece of paper good for better odds in Core lotteries, improved housing assignments and a raft of other benefits only sketchily associated with its actual academic function.

Many students are conveniently "undecided" about their concentrations when trying to weasel into this or that department's introductory course. Helen Vendler's core class may be so oversubscribed that each seat occupied by an auditor translates directly into a legitimate student forced to stand through lecture--but nobody checks credentials at the door, so why not soak up some literary culture?

Prerequisites are for the slow-of-tongue who cannot sweet-talk themselves that "signature of instructor." And who among us has not misrepresented his or her schedule in trying to get into the section with the TF who speaks English well? Potential classes become definite, other sections mysteriously materialize from whole cloth, and all sorts of other conflicts suddenly appear once their existence becomes useful.

It is a remarkably arrogant way of thinking. In the face of a system one considers corrupt, there are principled alternatives: reform, revolution and non-cooperation are all respectable actions. But to subvert the system for one's personal ends, while leaving the system intact for everyone else--this is an incredibly questionable course of conduct. In holding that you are entitled to go around the system because of your own personal qualifications, you assign to yourself the right to make the judgements the system was established to handle. When people in the outside world mock Harvard and its pretensions, it is precisely this sort of presumptive claim that bothers them so deeply.

In a zero-sum world, the exploitation of loopholes and the pulling of strings secure great benefits to those who are able to do so: the affluent and the educated. Ultimately, we have institutions and systems to keep personal jockeying from interfering with social functions that we believe should be impartial and impersonal. And I find it troubling that Harvard, as a collective culture, is teaching its students not to refine and improve the fairness of the systems they come into contact with, but rather to regard these systems as obstacles in the way of their own personal fulfillment.

I am, in several quite concrete ways, a worse person now than when I came here as a first-year. I'm ashamed to think of the various ethical defense mechanisms I've worked out for sweeping little lapses under the rug in the name of ambition. I--along with just about everyone I know, it seems--have never really accepted that what is right stops well short of what is permissible. I try, but I've never been able to entirely silence the little voice that says "You know, if you switched your concentration for just this semester, you'd get into that seminar."

If you're going to live in this world, one filled with other people who have every moral right that you do, on some level you have to accept events as they happen, even when these events are the result of some decision that appears manifestly silly. If that decision was reached in the proper way, that fact in itself counts for a lot more than whether you agree with the decision or not.

When you think about it, this kind of acceptance is what it takes to participate in a democracy based on tolerance of differences in opinion. Harvard has always produced graduates capable of shaping society--but I'm not so sure that it does so well in producing graduates capable of living in one. Perhaps it needs to train fewer prideful victors and more graceful losers. James T.L. Grimmelmann '99 is a computer science concentrator in Quincy House.

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