The seniors who do recruiting are so repugnant to some of us because they have committed the cardinal sin of failing to disguise their ambition. They want lucrative jobs, and they want social status, and they want a nice apartment—and they advertise all of these wants with their Harvard portfolios and their pinstriped suits. Of all the transformations that Harvard students undergo during their time here, the most striking is their abandonment of ambition. Each freshman class, after all, is clotted with valedictorians, class presidents, math league champions, and serious athletes. There is a tacit consensus as early as freshman year that talking about these sorts of accomplishments is in very poor taste. So we’re all accomplished: Get over yourself. If you want to quietly work towards a four-point, fine, and bully for you, pal, but for heaven’s sake don’t tell us about it. The person who has obviously done all the reading for section is an object of universal derision. The result of this culture of silence is the erosion of ambition. It is in poor taste to look grasping, and in poor taste to aspire too transparently towards something, be it a grade or a position of leadership or a place in a final club. A gadabout is always cooler than a grind. Ambition is passé.
Nor is this disapproval of ambition limited to Harvard. How else to explain, really, the American people’s preference of George W. Bush to John Kerry? With his Vietnam buddies and his youthful Senate testimony and his medals-throwing, Kerry just seemed a little too—grasping. A favorite gauge of public opinion in the months leading to the election was the pollster’s question, “With whom would you rather have a beer?” The consensus was generally that Bush would be your man. Ambivalence about Kerry has been attributed to Kerry’s patrician upbringing, but inasmuch as Bush was similarly privileged I believe that Kerry’s ambition was the likelier culprit for Americans’ unease with him. You sense that Bush is the beneficiary of circumstance, that he has not committed the sin of wanting something very badly. He drank! He did drugs! His youthful indiscretions and his youthful aimlessness made him seem like a regular, ambitionless guy. (And who needs ambition when you have a sense of entitlement?). Kerry’s ambition, meanwhile, you could see hewn into every anxious line in his long face.
The danger in this distaste for ambition is illustrated, of course, by the results of the November election. In Henry James’ The Princess Cassamassima, one of the characters notes airily, “Oh, if one wants anything very much it is sure to be difficult.” If we revile those who want something very much, we end up stuck with the unambitious. We end up with leaders for whom it has not been difficult. This is problematic.
There is, I think, a way to resolve this problem. There is a difference, too easily ignored, between personal ambition, which is not at all cool, and activism, which is. Personal aspirations are in poor taste; grander aspirations ought not to be. The erosion of ambition leads all too easily to the erosion of idealism. Too often, the irony in which we are steeped turns corrosive. If you can laugh at anything that smacks of pretension—and, oh, we can—idealism becomes an early casualty. The solution is not to embrace personal ambition, which remains gauche, but instead to transfer it to a cause. We all have, or had, boundless ambition; that is how most of us got to Harvard, after all. Instead of burying it, we ought to be able to apply it elsewhere. Apathy is fairly cool, as evidenced by James Dean—but it is action that lasts.
Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.