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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Leaving Cynicism Behind

By Daniel P. Mosteller

After nearly four years and $135,320, I’ve learned my fair share from the Harvard faculty. Yet when I reflect on my time at the College, I realize that I had to look no farther than my Mather suite to find the teacher with one of the most important lessons.

It’s the little ways my blockmate Jonathan shows such a genuine concern on a daily basis for all of those he knows that makes him so instructive. No birthday can go by among our group of friends without him organizing a birthday party (they are usually supposed to be surprises, but by this point Jonathan organizes them with such clockwork that we are all just forced to feign being startled). No meal can be eaten in the dining hall without him making sure that the least popular person at the table is included in the conversation. No acquaintance can pass him on the street without receiving a warm greeting. I have even witnessed Jonathan chastise himself for failing to say hello to somebody who had been in one of his sections in a previous semester, because he’d worried that his moment of silence might have hurt the feelings of this marginal acquaintance. As someone so bad with faces that I can barely identify people presently in my sections, I couldn’t believe Jonathan reacted as if he’d been profoundly hurt at the remote possibility that he’d slighted someone whom he only barely knew.

Such remarkable concern for others is for me the mark of a genuinely nice person. But unfortunately, I’ve found this kind of selflessness foreign to far too many of us who will graduate from Harvard College tomorrow.

I entered Harvard the pessimistic cynic and leave this week little reformed. By sophomore year, I had acquired the nickname “anti-” since I frequently and immediately attacked my roommates’ ideas and would invariably take up a contrarian viewpoint in any conversation (one roommate even started to find amusement in proposing outlandish ideas just to see me get riled up). Garnering such an ugly nickname did make me self-conscious of my potential for unpleasantness and moderated my open cynicism, but it didn’t effect any radical shifts in my disposition.

Now maybe this meanness is just an individual fault or maybe it’s a product of spending a large portion of my last four years participating in journalism—a profession that thrives off cynicism. But given the level of acrimony I’ve witnessed on this campus, I feel pretty confident that niceness is a trait too infrequently encountered in the College’s student body.

Over the past year, two incidents have particularly struck me as demonstrating the lack of charity held by this student body toward its peers. One was last May’s protest by over 150 members of the Class of 2002 against the Commencement address of fellow classmate Zayed M. Yasin ’02. While I understand “jihad” may have had painful connotations in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the rush to condemn Yasin and sully the honor of being selected to address the Commencement ceremony—without any idea of the (actually benign) content of the speech—was a particularly damning moment for student civility. And evidently feeling that such character assassination should not be confined to campus, some of the critics went on national television to further bash Yasin.

Likewise, last month’s effort by some undergraduates to press the College to rescind its offer of admission to Blair Hornstine seems to display the same level of meanspiritedness. Certainly people can disapprove of Hornstine’s suit against her school district to be her school’s sole valedictorian, but I do not understand the harm of letting her actions pass, other than a missed chance at vindictiveness

Perhaps such harsh treatment of others is a by-product of the harsh treatment to which many of us subject ourselves. Maybe a part of the meanness comes from the nature of academia, which advances by finding faults with the present body of knowledge. Or it could even be a symptom of having such a small proportion of students deeply adhere to some religious faith or other source of moral codes.

But while I am not sure of the cause or have any possible cures to offer, thanks to my good fortune of getting to know Jonathan—the most selfless person that I’ve ever met—I am confident that there’s no inevitability to the hostility of Harvard students. He’s been willing to drop everything (no matter how urgent) and listen to and empathize with the problems of all his friends even at times when our problems paled in comparison to his own. On top of that, he’s been a constant supporter, reminding all of us of our talents even when we’re in the foulest of moods, even when we all take his optimism for granted and never appropriately reciprocate his friendship. Jonathan is the kind of person that every graduate of Harvard should strive to be.

Even as University President Lawrence H. Summers declares that I have officially entered “the company of educated men and women” tomorrow, I am aware that there are still many essential lessons that I have yet to master. Fortunately, Jonathan has taught me that learning to become a genuinely nice person is one of those.

Daniel P. Mosteller ’03, a history concentrator in Mather House, was associate managing editor of The Crimson in 2002.

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