Periodically, I’m stricken with horrible nightmares. I imagine myself at this time next year, sitting in the local Harvard Club, sipping on a martini, and reminiscing about the good old days. You see, I’m graduating in a couple of months, but I’m terrified that I’ll never really leave. They say the truth will set you free, but Veritas keeps you trapped for life.
Right now, like Tom Cruise, I “can’t handle the truth.” This doesn’t mean I’m going to be dropping out early (my parents would kill me). It doesn’t even mean that I’m thoroughly sick of school. I love many of my classes, my roommates, and my friends. But I am ready to leave Harvard and the elitism that surrounds this place.
To be clear, I’m not just talking about the smarmy pretentiousness that comes from reading Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for four different classes (though still not quite understanding it) and referring to it in as many columns as I can.
As early as my first semester freshman year, I got the sense that Harvard students divide people into two categories: Harvard and non-Harvard. Some people truly internalize this division of Self and Other. We’ve been force-fed this “best and brightest” nonsense from day one, and many of us have come to believe it. Students from other schools seem uninspiring, even Philistine.
Paradoxically, for many Harvard men, this elitism is reflected in the fetishization of non-Harvard women. There’s more to this phenomenon than the belief that Wellesley women, BU women, and BC women seem more desirable than what is available here. But these interactions are hardly on a level playing field, as we launch the H-Bomb to facilitate our success. Even in escaping Harvard we rely on its name.
In this spectrum, of course, Yale students and Princeton students fall into the Harvard category, as do those of a handful of other schools. But for the most part, a giant intellectual divide is constructed. Students elsewhere are “Othered” objects, tantalizing but dehumanized, if they even exist at all.
Part of this mentality to some degree is imposed from the outside. I’ll never forget the greeting I got when I first returned home. “Hey Harvard,” was a typical greeting from people who had barely uttered a word to me growing up. Then there’s the obnoxiously unnecessary awe that comes in the form of: “Wow, it must be so hard. You must do so much work.” Well, I explain, it depends on which classes you take. And Plato’s Republic is pretty much the same no matter where you read it.
Even a month into school I had been indoctrinated with this elitism. But it was never the quality of the teaching or the amount of coursework that made Harvard Harvard. I always believed it was the caliber of students that made my school stand out.
It is for this reason that Harvard acts as one big social club. I spent this past summer in Washington D.C. At first, I was extremely grateful for the Harvard “Summer in Washington” organizers who planned regular social events to ensure that the we didn’t stray too far from the Big H. It was nice to see familiar faces in an unfamiliar setting.
But it was even more fun spending time with my new roommates, young adults who had attended a variety of schools and seemed to have had significantly different experiences than I did. They had been students, just like I am, but they do not identify themselves with their schools in the same way that Harvard students do. The college they happened to attend was just that, the college they happened to attend.
I am not by any means embarrassed about Harvard. I have had a wonderful time here, learned a great deal, and I am proud of my accomplishments. But I am ready to move on.
Our alma mater should not define us. The name Harvard creates unrealistic expectations in those we meet and in ourselves. I used to get so nervous when non-Harvard people I would meet expected me to have an almost supernatural wisdom or intelligence. As Conan O’Brien ’85 lamented in his 2000 Harvard Commencement address:
“You see, you’re in for a lifetime of ‘And you went to Harvard?’ Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction and it’s, ‘And you went to Harvard?’ Ask the guy at the hardware store how these jumper cables work and hear, ‘And you went to Harvard?’” Our failures shatter their image of our supposed superiority.
It’s a shame that people see us that way. But it’s an even bigger shame that we see ourselves that way. There’s a reason that so many people resent us. I’ll never forget when I told Seamus, a middle-aged Irish immigrant living in Dedham, Mass. that I went to Harvard. “Don’t worry, lad. I won’t hold that against ya.”
If, as Yale University president Richard C. Levin once said, “it is to Harvard that the whole world looks for leadership,” then we have a big problem. As long as Seamus’ views are the norm, Harvard “leaders” will remain hopelessly disconnected from everyone around them. In order to lead the world, you have leave Harvard, something too many of us seem incapable of doing, even years after graduation.
David Weinfeld ’05 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.