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Remembering Harvard

By Noah Oppenheim

According to the official Commencement literature currently circulating among seniors, now is the time to celebrate the "four amazing years" that have constituted our time at Harvard. And why not? We have all worked hard and our graduation is a significant accomplishment.

So, while others fondly reminisce about snowball fights in the Yard, I would like to recall the highlights of my undergraduate experience. I begin with an unforgettable glimpse into the lives of Harvard's spoiled brats.

I have enjoyed many adventures over the past four years, but for me, there was one evening in particular that captured the essence of Harvard's social scene. It was a warm night last spring, well past midnight, and I was returning home from a gathering in a friend's room. Mt. Auburn street was nearly vacant, except for a shiny red sports car that cruised past me and pulled to a halt curbside. Out of the car emerged two well-dressed, well-coifed Harvard students--and a strung-out prostitute. As I stood entranced, my two classmates helped the wobbly woman out of the backseat and led her to the door of one of Cambridge's venerable private clubs. Laughing raucously, the unlikely trio disappeared inside. Daddy's money well-spent, I suppose.

Of course, such encounters with Harvard's social elite have occurred only infrequently. Much more of my time at school has been spent in the less refined environs of the campus political arena. There, I have been publicly heckled, have had smoke blown in my face, and have, more than once, been physically threatened. One can imagine, then, that it is difficult for me to choose a single favorite episode.

Still, over the years, there is no question that my most impassioned adversaries have been the members of organized feminist groups. The vitriol of their rhetoric has gone unmatched. Of course, so has their hypocrisy. Apparently, it is easy to blame the patriarchy for all of your woes, and to silence your opponents with accusations of misogyny, but it is more difficult to actually deny oneself the pleasures of cavorting with said patriarchy's handsome sons. I will never forget the fateful evening when I encountered the leader of one prominent women's organization emerging from the anteroom of the Porcellian. It seems that political dogmatism comes easy, so long as it does not interfere with one's plans for Saturday night.

In the end, most people's fondest recollections of college revolve around people. And, the people at Harvard certainly are unique. For me, their singular nature was most dramatically distilled one night at the Arrow Street Crepe shop. The hard-working proprietors of the eatery were closing down their equipment when a group of Harvard students entered the store. When one girl began to order a crepe, she was informed, "Sorry, honey, we're closed." At this point, one of her companions, a prominent member of the Undergraduate Council, vehemently demanded service. When politely rebuffed, he launched into a verbal tirade, chastising the crepe chef for using the word "honey" and pledging to boycott the establishment. Yes, as I depart Harvard, I will never forget the people.

As I approach graduation these are just a few of my most salient memories. Many will dismiss them as isolated incidents, unrepresentative of Harvard life. Of course, I could include other, more general observations: that most friendship circles fall within the same tax bracket, that most student government "progressives" have never spent an hour volunteering at a shelter, and that most of our fellow students would readily stab us in the back in order to climb the extracurricular ladder. It is true that my indictment does not impugn every individual here. But, I am deeply certain that my portrait does accurately represent the culture of Harvard.

What is that culture? It is a culture defined by a socio-economic stratification that is remarkable for both its persistent rigidity and its extraordinary visibility. There are hardly any physical spaces on this campus open to those not endowed with exceptional wealth. Those who are excluded from the upper strata are left clambering for a student center. Those who populate that strata abscond to their clubhouses and their downtown parties, their sense of perspective and justice obliterated in a wash of luxury and privilege.

What is that culture? It is a culture that breeds hypocrisy. It is a culture that reduces politics to squabbles between ethnic and gendered interests and forces an equation between true commitment and naivete. Is the feminist really at fault--as I have implied--for patronizing an organization that denies equal status to women? Should not political commitment involve sacrifice in one's daily life? But where is the appropriate sacrifice too large? Perhaps at Harvard, where I have already lamented there are few neutral public spaces where students can go? Our political life is defined by the comically inconsistent private behavior of so many "activists," and the increasingly sanctimonious and hysterical nature of public discourse.

What is that culture? It is a culture that fosters the worst sort of arrogant self-righteousness. I have often wondered what might be wrong with a person who, dissatisfied with their food, would actually yell at a waiter at a restaurant. Now I know--they probably went to Harvard. Too many people here have been told that the world is their oyster. And, they've been told far too many times. We all have an exceptional aptitude for academics, but we are not gods or royalty. The student in the crepe shop, like so many here, had clearly forgotten the distinction between a high SAT score and divine right. To be fair, Harvard has done nothing to remind him.

Amidst all the festivities surrounding Commencement, there is a distinct temptation to let bygones be bygones, to raise a glass with my peers, and to toast Fair Harvard. I will resist that temptation. I will not celebrate a place that not only disregards, but actively demolishes, the qualities of decency and humility in the people that it educates. I will raise a glass to my small group of friends, who far better than I, have managed to navigate these past four years with their sense of philanthropy and optimism intact. Whatever good, they, or I, accomplish in the world, will not be because of Harvard, but rather in spite of it.

Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. This is his final column.

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