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The Eclipse of the Campus Superstar

By Rustin C. Silverstein

The start of the Undergraduate Council presidential and vice presidential campaigns has the whole campus talking--although few are discussing the candidates and the issues. Almost everyone, it seems, is making a point of expressing just how little they care about the race.

Why are we so turned off by the council elections? One would think that it would be a source of great interest to students. Even if the council itself is not well-regarded, one would think this election--simply because it is the only opportunity for a campus-wide popularity contest--might carry some weight. But remarkably, it doesn't. Despite the lofty title bestowed upon the winning candidates, the victors are belittled by our indifference.

This inclination toward the blase is not unique to our treatment of the candidates for the council's top jobs. The same can be said for student attitudes toward star athletes, musicians or scientists. As much as we enjoy claiming famous alumni like Al Gore '69, Conan C. O'Brien '85 and Mira Sorvino '89, we are often unwilling to grant our fellow students the title of campus superstar.

The self-effacing modesty demanded of and assumed by these superstars explains some of our disinterest. And, of course, childish envy must also, reluctantly, be admitted. But along with modesty and envy, a more important reason explains our resistance to place the accomplished on a pedestal. Simply, it is nearly impossible to determine who the Big Men on Campus are in a fragmented, complex community like ours.

In an October article in the Boston Globe, Writer John Powers noted that on today's college campuses, "Big Man has been supplanted by a dozen or more mid-sized BMOCs (and increasingly, BWOCs) who operate in decidedly narrow orbits." Nowhere is that more true than here. It is no wonder that an admissions process that favors overachievers should produce a campus with seemingly more clubs, groups, teams and organizations than students. Amid the alphabet soup of student groups it's hard enough just to keep track of who the leaders are, much less determine how to allocate our finite capital of esteem (after all, if everyone were equally respected, then no one would be respected at all).

Nor does fame, gained on Harvard's stages or athletic fields, provide better guidance for those in search of the esteemed among us. Although stage performers are more recognizable than most, how can an audience member even begin to compare them with each other? Who should impress us more: a concert violinist, an a cappella singer or a dramatic actor?

With sports, wins don't always earn respect on campus. Our squash teams have won many national titles, but they could never draw the crowds of the Harvard-Yale game. Similarly, the more popular teams, in sports like football and basketball, are too often compared with their nationally recognized peers at powerhouse universities to really earn our respect. Last year, the Ivy champion women's basketball team was both popular and successful. But it was not until they scored a historic upset against top-ranked Stanford on national TV that they received the credit they deserved.

If nothing else, one would think that academic success could determine the BMOC's among us. But academic standards are even more complicated than fame. We may all be graded on the same scale and then sorted into the same academic groupings, but that's about the extent of the uniformity of academic experience. Does an A received in a VES or computer science course carry the same weight as one in government or economics? And which is more admirable--four years spent engaging Kant, Plato and Nietzsche, or 50 hours a week researching in the biology labs?

Our coolness toward the Undergraduate Council candidates and other potential campus superstars, then, may stem more from confusion than pettiness. Rather than trying to sort out a campus-wide pecking order, we have chosen a bland but egalitarian alternative: A thousand flowers may bloom, but they shouldn't expect any special treatment because of it. The council elections, important though they may be, try to get us to deviate from this egalitarian solution. It is not surprising then that they should be met with an indifference often laced with hostility.

Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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