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A High School Lesson for Harvard

By Elizabeth S. Zuckerman

There are two alums of my high school currently affiliated with Harvard College: myself and President Neil L. Rudenstine. At the tiny prep school which I attended in southern Connecticut, we like to recall the legendary Coach Warner who is remembered to have bellowed at Rudenstine, then a fledgling baseball player, "Rudenstine, if you could learn to put one foot in front of the other, you might make something of yourself someday." While I won't speculate upon President Rudenstine's assessment of his own successes, I can assure you that we're both a long way from home.

The Wooster School, from which we both hail, looks a lot like the prep schools that feed students to Ivy League universities with machine-like precision. The similarities end there. It's a good school, but while Harvard professes to be in the business of ferreting out "Veritas," Wooster strives for something a little closer to kindness. The school's motto, familiar to Christians and Communists alike reads, translated from Latin, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." It doesn't always work, but they try. Backed up by small class sizes as well as a "self-help" system in which the students, under direction of the senior class, are responsible for the care and maintenance of the school's physical plant, the prevailing atmosphere is one of community. While you can get Ad Boarded here for "conduct unbecoming a Harvard student," at my high school, you can end up on a Saturday work squad (raking leaves, filling potholes) if your monthly "citizenship" ranking is below par.

And so I came to Harvard unprepared--not just for the size of the introductory science classes but for the attitude that went with them. On an individual level, I've found excellent people at Harvard--students, professors and administrators alike. At the same time, I spent an awful lot of my first year trying to figure out why many people here were, quite simply, not very nice to each other and why this did not seem to be one of the College's priorities. Harvard has challenged me to do things I never thought I could do (or never thought I would want to do) and more often than not, I've been happy with the results. At the same time, I've felt the pressure to go out and "be someone." After a Harvard education, being just anyone wouldn't be enough.

As I look toward Commencement, I find myself turning more and more to the words of Max Ehrmann, quoted often by my English teacher/lacrosse coach and given to me, framed, by our dean at my high school graduation. Faced with an astounding array of talented, brilliant peers, it took me a long time to decide that I had a right to be at Harvard. And, several months ago, as I read Dean Lewis's insistence that the College bears no responsibility for the non-academic fulfillment of its students in The Crimson's report "Are Harvard Student's Happy?", I figured out why. For the Dean of the College to shirk responsibility for undergraduates' quality of life is little short of negligent, especially as he prepares to move forward without a dean of students. Preparing us for the community of educated men and women includes preparing us to be decent to each other.

As graduation approaches, I look forward to moving on from an institution which is often unwilling to treat people as full and complete individuals, with emotions beyond the elation or disappointment produced by a grade on a final exam. At the same time, I know I'll miss the ability to paw through Widener or listen to Cornel West lecture. I'm also going to miss having a peer group that can deconstruct the latest Star Wars movie in terms of current literary theory. I'll fondly remember discussing Cambridge politics with members of the Faculty. So how does Harvard come to be less than the sum of its parts? By managing the College like a corporation. In addition to providing little in the way of formal support structures, Harvard further creates an atmosphere in which people are unlikely to look out for each other. Teaching fellows, while they have the most direct contact with students, rarely interact with undergraduates as people, fearing they may be seen as overstepping. And students themselves, encouraged to look out for at the bottom line--be it the grade curve in orgo or a place with McKinsey--are more likely to stampede than reach the finish line together.

Having spent the last year struggling with a debilitating neuro-muscular condition and a College largely unable to respond to it, I've readjusted my sights and reprioritized. After my first-year musings about community, I had joined the race in which there is only one rule: work harder, faster and better than those around you. After enough days when walking to the Science Center was a significant challenge, I concluded that all of us will be shaped by events over which we have no control. Setting out to reach the top of the corporate ladder or to change the world is exactly what we should all be doing.

But we shouldn't be alarmed when it doesn't go according to plan. And, more importantly, we need to watch our steps along the way. At the proverbial end of the day, we--in the broadest sense of the word--are what matters. President Rudenstine: look homeward--and bring the deans along for the ride. There's a lot we can learn from high school. Elizabeth S. Zuckerman '99, a history concentrator in Quincy House, was executive editor of The Crimson in 1998.

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