Low Stakes Prep

In the fall of my junior year, I wrote a series of columns in these pages which, so it seemed to me at the time, constituted a veritable barrage of hard-hitting, muckraking journalism. Having served as a summer school proctor the previous summer, I decried the practice of granting degree credit for watered down, easy summer courses. I expressed righteous indignation at the Z-list—the Admissions Office’s de facto special help program for the children of wealthy alumni. I ranted and raved about the pervasive cheating that occurs on problem sets in large lecture courses. And what change did I effect through all this writing? None, of course, whatsoever.

In my limitless naiveté, I believed that I actually had the power not only to provoke thought, not only to provide people with a little bit of entertainment as they skimmed my column over breakfast, but to cause something tangible to happen. Boy was I wrong. Sure, the columns produced a few interesting e-mail exchanges with faculty and administrators and even the occasional letter to the editor—but within a few days of publication I was usually the only person who remembered that any given article of mine had ever been written.

Upon a bit of reflection, it began to occur to me that I was not alone in my fantasy that a puny undergraduate, not even old enough to legally drink alcohol, would be taken seriously by the relevant authorities. I had, after all, a bird’s eye view from my first-year dormitory of the delusional narcissism of the Progressive Student Labor Movement members who occupied then University President Neil L. Rudenstine’s office space for a couple weeks and by doing so accomplished...nothing. I had read editorials in various campus publications condemning (or supporting) the Iraq war, tax cuts, abortion rights and any number of other issues—and these editorials, though of comparable quality to some of those written in national newspapers on the same topics, had accomplished...nothing. I had seen and sometimes even signed torrents of feckless petitions about everything from dance space to denying Blair Hornstine a place in the class of 2007. I had, in short, experienced a culture of activism, complaint and debate, the intensity of which was only rivaled by its inefficacy—a culture in which I myself had played my own small part.

Incidentally, none of what I have just suggested is disproved, or even called into question, by any exceptions—and I do not deny that there are some. To take just one example, a grassroots effort, however ill-conceived and poorly informed it may have been, was impressively able to thwart Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s proposal to replace shopping period with a regime of preregistration.

My point, though, is a general one, and like many general points, it has truth to it that does not apply to every particular situation. In the vast majority of cases, when Harvard students try to effect change in anything other than student-run organizations, they fail. And to the extent that they do succeed, it is largely—as in the case of preregistration—on issues of circumscribed, if not trivial, import.

In spite of all this, the intensity of debate among Harvard students on the very issues, which they are powerless to change, is high as can be. Henry Kissinger reportedly remarked that “university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” It is a comment that applies quite well to today’s Harvard, as I am sure it did to Kissinger’s.

The low stakes of our discourse, I would suggest, should be cherished, rather than lamented. We have an ideological playground where we can organize, write, debate, protest—even physically invade other peoples’ office space—with minuscule effect and correspondingly miniscule consequences. The result is a culture that encourages us to form and express cogent arguments and opinions, to interpret the world in a productive and reflective manner—and to do so in an environment where fear of failure discourages no one from participating.

Throughout the whole process, we may take solace in the expectation that, at some point in the not-so-distant future, people will begin to listen when we speak—and when that moment arrives, we’ll be well prepared to seize it.

Zachary S. Podolsky ’04, a classics concentrator in Currier House, was a Crimson columnist in 2002 and 2003.