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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Procrastination at Harvard

By Daniel E. Fernandez

At the beginning of every final exam period for the past half-century, The Crimson has run the same humorous op-ed by Donald S. Carswell ’50 about how to “Beat the System.” With whimsical suggestions on how to successfully employ the “vague generality” and the “overpowering assumption,” Carswell instructs his fellow slacker classmates (and, thanks to The Crimson’s gratuitous semesterly reprinting, countless future slackers) on the best way to pass a Harvard final without really studying for it.

To the non-Harvard reader, this concept might seem ironically funny and peculiarly quaint—some of the world’s brightest and most motivated students would never cut corners like this, right? Well, to Harvard students (and seniors, in particular), this concept is only funny insofar as it’s ostentatiously true and only quaint insofar as even this sophisticated effort to obscure one’s cluelessness is no longer even really necessary.

After all, Carswell’s fear of “flunking out” of Harvard (or even of receiving poor grades) is hardly a concern for today’s undergraduate. Thanks to wondrous advances in the field of grade inflation, the “average” Harvard student will graduate with at least a 3.0 and, in many cases, will do so without straining any cerebral muscles in the process. The Gentleman’s C of yesteryear has become the Gentleperson’s A-/B+ of this generation. Sadly for academic purists and happily for the rest of us, the “[s]ystem” is no longer worthy of capitalization and no longer something to be feared.

But my larger purpose here is not to celebrate or bemoan this trend of decreasing academic rigor. In fact, one could argue that it isn’t even a trend—Henry Adams, Class of 1858, famously wrote that “four years of Harvard College, if successful, result[s] in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which only a water-mark ha[s] been stamped.” Setting aside this rather hackneyed issue regarding the worth and rigor of a Harvard education, I am far more intrigued by a potentially deleterious effect such a lack of academic intensity may be having on the student population.

I’m referring, of course, to Harvard’s procrastination epidemic. Some may scoff at this characterization, claiming that everyone puts off until tomorrow what they should do today (bumper stickers and fortune cookies certainly reinforce this contention). But something about Harvard procrastination is different from real-world procrastination. In general, we Harvard students don’t wait until the last minute merely because we are lazy or busy; we wait until the last minute because we don’t have the necessary motivation to finish our largely asinine and tedious work otherwise. The challenge posed by intentionally limiting the amount of time to complete an assignment is often the only fuel that keeps burning well into the late hours of those most glorious of college experiences—the all-nighters. It is this deliberate desire for absent motivation, coupled with an intrinsic, pride-based drive to still finish all work somewhat satisfactorily, that leads to quite the unhealthy cycle of procrastination, Harvard-style.

Those unfamiliar with student life here may be inclined to dismiss this theory as far-fetched, but the supporting evidence I’ve witnessed is too considerable to ignore. Almost all of my good friends and casual acquaintances (most of whom are coincidentally headed to outstanding law schools, Wall Street firms, etc.) are professional procrastinators. Problem sets are rarely finished with more than an hour or two to spare, papers are always started the night (or morning) before, and website contributions for section are always written extemporaneously. I even know a few seniors who wrote the bulk (40-50 pages) of their respective theses—their alledgedly year-long, “capstone” experiences—in the span of a week and a half before the departmental deadlines. Heck, the parting shot you are reading right now was finished at 6:00 a.m., only hours before its final editing deadline.

To be sure, not everyone is a committed procrastinator. But aside from the few dedicated souls who focus exclusively on their studies and are genuinely excited by them, the rest of us are just biding our time until the supposedly greener pastures of “real life.” For us procrastinators, the last-minute rush (and its accompanying motivation) is but the means to the end of finishing academic work, and thus graduating and moving on with life. On Thursday, we will have succeeded.

But, in a larger sense, maybe we’ve all failed. I’m not referring to Adams’ pessimistic observation that Harvard “taught little, and that little ill.” Instead, I have to wonder if this ethic of procrastination will be easy to abandon as we grow older. Will our generation of Harvardians retain its slacker ways and persist in its procrastinatory habits? Will little Johnny’s birthday party be organized at the last minute for lack of other motivating interest? Will office presentations be thrown together at lunch and winged just for the thrill of it? Will an all-nighter be necessary to finish that Supreme Court decision in 2036?

Alright, facetiousness aside and truth be told, I am confident that we’ll be able to stop procrastinating if life deems it necessary. Perhaps first and foremost, Harvard students are adept at adaptation and so it would come as no surprise to learn that the procrastinators of today had become the planners of tomorrow. Until then, though, my only plan is to live up to the procrastinator’s creed that Harvard has, for better or for worse, taught me all too well—to put off until tomorrow what I can get away with today.

Which reminds me to ask, just in case—is it possible to get a deadline extension for Commencement?

Daniel E. Fernandez ’03, a government concentrator in Lowell House, was staff director of The Crimson in 2002.

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