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The Harvard Syndrome

Decline and Fall

By Ross G. Douthat

Last winter, I had dinner with my parents and two of my roommates at Legal Seafood in Kendall Square. During the meal, our clean-cut, college-age waiter asked us where we went to school. When we said Harvard, he nodded in a self-satisfied way.

“Yeah,” he said, “I could tell right away. I go to Tufts.”

And then, before we even made a reply, he stuck out his chin and added, “You know, Harvard’s a great school, sure—but I wanted a place with better undergraduate education. I know you guys aren’t so great at that side of things.”

I can’t remember what was said next, alas, but I do know the conversation died away rapidly. We went back to our mussels and linguine, and then back to our lousy undergraduate education. He went back to Tufts, where the streets are paved with gold and everybody knows your name. And I forgot about him—until last week, when Harvard was set abuzz by a few choice words from Tufts Dean Charles Inouye.

Asked about our grade inflation difficulties, Inouye told the Tufts Daily that “It’s just another symptom of their culture of arrogance—image over substance—and it’s finally catching up with them… Everybody in the business knows just how little Harvard students work. They’re essentially a lazy bunch. A lot of them aren’t even that smart.”

And Inouye wasn’t alone: the Daily also turned up priceless pearls from Tufts sophomore Lauren Amira, who told the paper that at Tufts, “Harvard seems like an elite society where, once you get in, everything is handed to you on a silver platter.”

Now I know that there was a lot of outrage about these comments on various House and organization e-mail lists, and a few of us “lazy” Harvard types even took a break from polishing the family silver to fire off letters to the Daily and Dean Inouye. This is well and good. But if we can set aside our justifiable pique for a moment, we might realize that we’re doing people like Inouye, Amira, and my ever-so-well-educated Legal Seafood waiter a grave disservice. They’re not the real enemy here, my Harvard brethren—and the sooner we recognize it, the better.

No, the real enemy is silent and deadly, a mental disorder so pervasive and persistent that it defies any quick-fix cure. Call it, if you will, the Harvard Syndrome.

This disorder’s symptoms vary widely, needless to say, based on individual constitutions—but fortunately, the symptoms are easily recognizable to the trained (i.e., Harvard-educated) eye. For one thing, the Harvard Syndrome causes otherwise sincere people to lie, with almost pathological zeal, about their motives for not attending Harvard. The lies can range from the banal (“lousy undergrad education,” as my Legal Seafood chum insisted) to the breathtaking and patently unbelievable (“I really liked Yale better”). But however involved and intricate—or charmingly clumsy—the lie may be, the truth is always the same. The Harvard Syndrome sufferer was denied admission to Harvard.

The syndrome also causes a persistent and often unconscious use of certain buzzwords to describe Harvard students. Like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, with his constant repetition of “Wopner…Wopner time…Wopner’s on,” a victim of the Harvard Syndrome inevitably resorts to terms like lazy, arrogant, spoiled, overrated and elitist whenever our university comes up in conversation. Often, they will have little or no actual experience of Harvard, beyond a tour and perhaps a disastrous interview. Indeed, the sufferer may even have no idea what polysyllabic words like “overrated” and “elitist” actually mean. Nevertheless, they will persist in considering themselves an authority on our university—and like a drunken BC student at the Grille of blessed memory they may become violent when this delusion is challenged.

Like most delusionals, meanwhile, the Harvard Syndrome sufferer interweaves fact and fiction, creating a tapestry of paranoia worthy of Oliver Stone. So the acknowledged fact that some Harvard students are lazy (yeah, I’m talking to you, classics concentrators) becomes, in the mind of Inouye, evidence that we are all a “lazy bunch.” The presence on campus of a few meatheads, legacies and dim bulbs with bizarre talents is transformed into unmistakable proof that we’re not “that smart.” And our obnoxious but understandable arrogance becomes, paradoxically, evidence that we aren’t brilliant and talented. (The victim of Harvard Syndrome, a lifetime second-rater, has no conception of justifiable, well-earned pride.)

There are many possible methods of treatment for this disorder, of course. Immersion therapy seems a sensible course—plopping Inouye down in Cabot Science Library during exam time, for instance, would quickly disabuse him of the notion that Harvardians are “lazy,” while an evening spent reading the work of (carefully selected) Crimson columnists might well restore his faith in our overall intelligence. And even if this fails, we can rest secure in the knowledge that no patient is so far gone that they cannot be restored to health—so long as a Harvard-educated specialist is summoned to consult on the case.

But really, one begins to wonder whether the cure might be worse than the disease. After all, the victims of Harvard Syndrome, tiresome though they may be, aren’t really hurting anyone. They have insulated themselves from reality, true, but only because reality is too disheartening to bear. If we cure them, we leave them with nothing to hold onto, no support in the wide world save the hard, cold truth about their real relationship to us and to our university.

For when it comes to the Inouyes and Legal Seafood waiters of the world, be they Tufties or MITers, Elis or Princetonians, Shakespeare’s Cassius put it best: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Ross G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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