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Today I graduate with a degree in social studies from Harvard College. Unfortunately, the meaning of such a degree is difficult to explain to those outside this campus. It does not make sense to many that a person would spend four years at an Ivy League school memorizing state capitals and world geography. So, by way of clarification, I usually report to those who inquire that I study political philosophy.
And, while it is true that most of my coursework has been in the realm of political thought, that description of my collegiate experience is also deficient in its own way. I have studied the great works of the Western Canon, but when I recall my college education, it is not Plato or Locke or Nietzsche that comes to mind--it is the newsroom of The Harvard Crimson. My diploma may read "social studies," but my schooling has been in the craft of journalism.
When I first arrived in Cambridge, I did not immediately recognize that I would spend the majority of my time at Harvard crouched over a computer churning out editorial copy. For a while I thought I might join the sailing team. It was not meant to be. My first piece in The Crimson was entitled "Send Generation X to War." In it, I modestly proposed mandatory military service for all young adults as a means to build character. It was the first of many opinions that would position me slightly askew of the political center.
The Crimson is not the most welcoming environment on this campus. Its offices on 14 Plympton Street tend to attract undergraduates who are somewhat rough around the edges. An article in GQ magazine in the late 1980s described the atmosphere at the paper as a maelstrom of egos and ambition. To a great extent, this remains true to this day. There are not too many warm fuzzy feelings floating about.
Why I ultimately made The Crimson my home, I still cannot say. In a recent interview, former Crimson editor and current Slate magazine honcho Michael E. Kinsley '72 remarked of his peers, "It's the bitterness and resentment of better-looking people that spurs us all to become journalists." Perhaps, although I like to believe that I possess a certain boyish charm.
Kinsley does have a more serious point. The essence of journalism is detachment. And, objectivity requires a certain amount of alienation. It is difficult to write about the campus political or social scene if one feels deeply enmeshed in it. For many who feel slightly estranged from the world around them, journalism becomes an outlet for their disaffection. This may explain why so many who write for The Crimson do not fit the traditional Harvard mold. It is safe to say that if the late President Lowell looked around the newsroom, he would be slightly aghast.
My decision to be a student journalist has yielded many perks. When I reflect on the past four years, I can recall almost every significant event in terms of some piece I wrote. I therefore have a rich and thorough record of my most formative years. I have never been seduced by the temptations of self-involvement. Working on the newspaper, I have always been forced to consider the diverse happenings in the community around me. I have met my closest friends. I have had the pleasure of subjecting my beliefs to the often unsympathetic scrutiny of others. I have learned to field angry phone calls.
Granted, journalism does have its price. My colleagues and I are, on average, a far more cynical bunch than most people our age. We know too well what it is like to confront entrenched power and to lose. On the other hand, many of us do not know well enough what it is like to regularly attend class. Many of us are tired, perhaps too tired than we should be this early in life. The task of constantly chronicling and commenting is exhausting, both physically and spiritually. There have been many days, particularly during my last months at school, when, in the wake of some momentous news, I have wished that I might say nothing at all.
Of course, on Commencement Day, with thousands of parents and alumni in attendance, there is much that could be said. In many respects it is an editorialist's dream come true--the audience, the timing all beg for some final salvo of criticism. But, even a journalist must occasionally step down from his pedestal of observation and join in the celebration.
Today I rejoice in my graduation from Harvard College. And, I pay my respects to my alma mater, The Harvard Crimson. Keep the old sheet flying.
Noah D. Oppenheim '00, a social studies concentrator in Adams House, was editorial chair of The Crimson in 1999.
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