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A False Start in the Rat Race

By Noah Oppenheim

During the past several weeks Harvard, once an institution of higher learning, has taken significant steps towards becoming a start-up incubator. First, the college proposed relaxed restrictions on the operation of businesses from dorm rooms. Now comes the announcement of the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH). Modeled after the Institute of Politics (IOP), TECH is being touted as a resource center to teach students about entrepreneurship and help them launch their own businesses while still at school.

On some level it makes sense for Harvard to become an incubator. After all, its ample resources would make it a competitive player in the market. It has one of the best human resource divisions in the world, in the form of its admissions office, and a robust physical infrastructure. Each office--I mean dorm room--is equipped with a phone line, a desk, and a speedy T1 LAN connection. What more could a budding capitalist ask for?

Just imagine: students could brainstorm ideas in first-year proctor meetings, and they could brush up their business plans in Expository Writing class. Sophomore year, in between tutorial meetings, they could stop by the TECH to pour over venture capital directories, looking for the perfect strategic investor. Junior year would be the time for product development. At Commencement, every successful senior would be handed an honorary stock certificate in recognition of his or her achievements, along with the more traditional scholastic diploma. Oh, what a wonderful world it would be.

Except, of course, if you believe that a liberal arts education should be untainted by the specter of naked greed. Ostensibly, the undergraduate experience is an opportunity to contemplate life's higher questions and learn to appreciate its more refined pleasures. Admittedly, the notion that college is a time for self-edification, shielded from the more crass concerns of the rat race, has been under assault for years. From the increasingly heated resume-padding battles of the extracurricular sphere, to the proliferation of pre-professional courses, the purely liberal education has long been on the wane--especially here at Harvard. However, not until the TECH, has the rejection of liberal pedagogic ideals been so explicit.

Time spent developing consumer products is time not spent reading a great work, or pursuing some purely academic project. Given the busy schedules of most students, any efforts directed toward building a business will undoubtedly be diverted from more scholarly endeavors. Defenders of the TECH insist that entrepreneurship is a skill that young people should acquire as part of a broad-based education. This seems a specious claim at best.

At its essence, entrepreneurship is a means to wealth. It is a more creative and independent means than climbing the corporate ladder, but at heart, the goal is the same in either case. It is unlikely, for good reason, that the University would support a Center for the Ascent to Middle Management. And, any special virtues that one might ascribe to entrepreneurship are undermined by the very existence of an institution like TECH. The courage, fortitude and resolve required to forge out on one's own--the very qualities that form the foundation of our respect for entrepreneurs--become totally unnecessary when you have a support center to rely upon and your status as a student to fall back upon.

The tragedy of the TECH becomes particularly apparent when its supporters compare it to the IOP. We all know that the IOP exists to cultivate good citizenship. How sad that an aptitude for e-commerce is now considered equally important to the well-being of our youth.

The pursuit of financial security is an entirely legitimate concern, as is knowledge of technology. Thankfully, the current system of financial aid insures that most students need only devote a marginal amount of effort towards staying afloat. And, there is no reason to believe that the compute science and engineering departments are not doing an adequate job developing technological skills without the blatantly commercial overtones of the TECH.

There will be plenty of time for Harvard students to seek their dot-com fortunes after they have earned their degrees. Perhaps the powers-that-be within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have been watching too much "MoneyLine." Whatever the motivation, they have lost sight of the true purpose of the College. To use the parlance of the trade, the TECH should be abandoned while it is still in beta.

Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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