Today is the last day of February, and across campus the World's Luckiest Kids are griping with a superhuman zeal. Midterms are approaching, the need to show leadership in extracurriculars is growing, and judging by that smell, a giant baby has spit up in your common room (or maybe that's just my common room). We Harvard students live in a tourist attraction with movie stars and geniuses; we're recognized on all continents as the crme of the brulee, the syrup on the pancakes of greatness. Yet most of us complain like vegans at a barbecue cook-off.
Scientists for many years refused to believe it: Students who, in high school, worked like Harvard was Salvation with sweatshirts couldn't possibly complain once they got there (except, ahem, about the Senior Gift). Lately, though, researchers have admitted it does happen, "But it's like doing Buns of Steel for four years and then sticking your head up your finely-tuned ass."
The problem is perspective. Spend three months as a Harvard student and you've got less real-world perspective than Michael Jackson Jr. (or, as he is affectionately known around the Jackson house, "Not the Monkey"). Of course, your cocky perspective from high school wasn't right either. Only Harvard students keep the same career goal, "quarterback/poet/sorcerer/King of Illinois" from first through twelfth grade. But it changed for the worse during your first year in Cambridge.
Get an A- on the midterm, and your roommate gets an A. Become treasurer of a club? A kid in Matthews is president of Tufts University. And it never gets better. Thesis writers are constantly reminded that their work could never be as good as the thesis of Henry A. Kissinger '50. His was 350 pages long, written in his own blood and "interpreted" by a troupe of dancing lizards he trained himself. Could you top that? Not likely. And so we stress and complain like mad. Sometimes, to see the glum, hopeless looks across this campus, you'd think the North Face factory had burned down (ba dum bum).
How can we fix this problem? There's a simple solution: the Harvard Corps. For one semester out of their eight, Harvard students would be forced to leave Cambridge and travel to far-off parts of the United States to do community service. The rest of this column might possibly be funny, but it's not a joke.
Corps participants would be divided into small groups (so they wouldn't only talk to each other), and sent to work in places where summa is a prepositional phrase ("the summa two and four is six") and the people are still happy and normal. The students could tutor, babysit, paint houses, sack groceries or wait tables; whatever needs doing and isn't getting done. The Harvard Corp's tasks might not be exactly like the Peace Corps. For instance, a village well dug by VES concentrators might periodically shoot out flame and speak in the voice of John Lennon, making village life difficult. But the idea is basically the same. Just like playing third base for the Chicago Cubs, there will be no opportunities to "win" or satisfy the need to "beat" other people or groups. The aim is service and not success.
What Harvard students will get out of the program is a realization that Ivy League degrees are as rare in this world as atlases in the George W. Bush household. Millions of people would give literally anything to get their kids into a school like Harvard, and millions more simple admire it as another, brighter world. Knowing them and what they think of the opportunity you've got, it'll be a lot harder to whine about Group II. Out in the Real World, you'll hear what someone should have told you since your first day in the Yard: you've already made it. So work hard, but for the love of Henry A. Kissinger '50, don't whine about it.
I doubt Harvard would ever do anything like this--its general attitude seems to be that innovative student-life programs are for weak sissy colleges. Mandate a semester off and you might as well change the school colors to yellow and granola. The official excuse would probably be that students need all 32 half-courses to really complete a Harvard education. Really. I seriously doubt that you'll even remember what you learned in Literature and Arts B-57, "Leonardo da Vinci Meets Leonardo di Caprio" two years later--in its place will be jokes you got over e-mail and "Dawson's Creek" plotlines. The Harvard Corps experience would last a lifetime.
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