A Self-Conscious College

A Certain Blindness

I hesitate to call our community an abnormal one because as far as colleges go, it is the only one I know, but there does appear to be something strange about it. The fundamental elements of our social network seem bogged down by the methods of examination and analysis that we learn in class. Harvard, from top-to-bottom, is the most self-conscious place I have ever encountered.

With the term self-conscious I do not mean to evoke images of insecure adolescence but rather an entirely more forceful breed of the phenomenon. Where the self-consciousness of middle school was tentative and hesitant, the self-consciousness of Harvard is forceful and confident. It is defined by an increased level of self-awareness and a heightened desire to bring our precision-ground sense of individuality to bear on the world.

Self-consciousness need not be a bad trait—indeed there are often times when we wish that people were more aware of what they were doing. It is the foundation for many of our most cherished human virtues like empathy and sensitivity and between people and often begets the strongest friendships.

But when it comes to control action and characterize a culture, as it does at Harvard, self-consciousness becomes a decidedly negative force that warps relationships and separates people. The more you focus on what you are doing and the image you are projecting, the less room you have to consider others on their own terms. People become props, the objects over and through which our own performances are enacted.

Section conversations fragment into loosely related monologues where other people’s thoughts exist only as interruptions of our own. A line quite frequently heard in section goes, “Well, this doesn’t exactly relate to what you were saying, but…” It is rare to see two people engage each other in a conversation where both are actually listening and responding to each other. More often discussion is riddled with assumptions and misperceptions, as people talk past each other, too conscious of their own thoughts to leave room for consideration of the other’s.

But in a community where everyone is treated as a prop, no one person thinks of himself as such, for to an individual we are all our own playwrights. We place ourselves at the center of the drama, scripting roles for other people but ultimately casting them to the periphery of our own performances.

The curious thing about the Harvard community is that the effect of bringing together thousands of highly self-conscious students is slightly different than the one that the admissions committee probably intends. The architects of each Harvard class attempt to assemble a diversity of vibrant individuals with the hope that we will all learn from each other, a collection of dynamic people making each other stronger.

In practice, however, the effect is slightly different. The first year at Harvard is difficult for a lot of people, as previously unchallenged playwrights find themselves jockeying for position, attention and affection with 1600 other spotlight hounds. The common warning frequently given to incoming Harvard students—about adjusting to being a small fish in a big pond—completely misses the crux of the transition. The problem, in reality, is more about crowding a lot of big fish into a small pond.

Many struggle under this environmental pressure and some even succumb to it altogether, unable to handle life at the margins of other people’s performances, not strong enough to produce their own. More often, though, we adjust to these conditions in more subtle ways over time. When other self-centered playwrights act on us, we act back. It eventually becomes difficult to find a genuine source at the bottom of this insincere drama, though each of us originally intended to start out as one. In this upward spiral of self-consciousness, it is easy to lose awareness not only of other people but of yourself as well.

An entire culture becomes an endless series of roles, all narrowly circumscribed within a certain communal definition of success. The projected images of individuals find themselves all focused on a single point, a backdrop of artifice and insincerity. As a result, the collection of people that leaves Harvard is in many ways less interesting than the one that entered it.

Kevin Hartnett ’03 is a social studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.