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Act Your Age

Why aren’t Harvard students raging against the machine?

By Sarah M. Seltzer, POP AND FIZZ

Harvard students need to grow down.

We’re so enamored of our big name professors and the prospect of respectable jobs after we fly the Cambridge coop that we’ve lost something intrinsic to our youth. We’ve stopped questioning authority. In fact, we follow it blindly. We care more about our professors than our peers.

In April of 2001, right before the class of ’05 left high school for Harvard, David Brooks published an article that shook up the Ivy-oriented world. He coined the term “The Organization Kid” to describe the conscientious college student of today. He found that Princeton students, whom he used as an example, “feel no compelling need to rebel—not even a hint of one. They not only defer to authority; they admire it.” Though I often find Brooks’ writing frustrating, his term has echoed in my head for the four years I’ve been at Harvard. Not only is the Organization Kid present at Harvard, but she dominates the scene here.

Instead of students quoting Che, we have the faux-Che t-shirts of Students for Larry.

Instead of an angry mob of students demanding transparency from the super-secret and dictatorial Harvard Corporation, we have Senior Gift Plus, which politely asked Harvard to stop funding rape and mass murder in Darfur. And even that noble and successful movement had its detractors: a group of largely wealthy undergrads who had pledged their own pocket money (raised no doubt, from their after-school jobs, right?) to Fair Harvard, and couldn’t absorb the idea that there was a legitimate objection to their peers duly shelling out cash.

Genocide, shmenocide, I guess.

My level of disapproval of Jane and John Harvard reached a peak, though, after the well-coordinated (and from what I hear, hilarious) disruption of the CIA recruitment meeting two weeks ago. Being offended because a group of idealistic students chose to mess with a government effort that they deemed profoundly amoral is ridiculous. Instead, we should marvel at how much power these students leveraged—whether or not we agree with their politics. (For the record, I agree.) They actually stood up and stopped a mechanism of the powerful system they hated, just by being funny. As one friend who was there told me, it was like a politically-motivated version of the day your high school class successfully thwarted the substitute teacher.

Admittedly, this technique of protesting is new and radical for Harvard, particularly Harvard post-Living Wage sit-in. But the concept of a political endeavor that has a direct effect and also uses creativity should be praised, honed to perfection, and used again.

The members of the Harvard Republicans, Dems, and others who labeled this protest uncouth, violent, or radical need a head check. They sound like grumpy, middle-aged people. And sounding that way at the age of 20—that’s seriously lame. And I’d say it’s more than lame. I think it’s wrong.

Emma S. Mackinnon ’05, who has campaigned for workers’ rights and Harvard Corporation accountability, and helped plan the CIA protest, talked about the difference between students of yore and today. “Forty years ago students understood that the administration did not need their help, that they didn’t need to take the Man’s side to make protesters suffer more,” she said. “If Harvard’s going to Ad board somebody, they don’t need the vice president of the IOP telling them they should do it.”

Our student publications spend far more of their editorial capital criticizing their fellow students than their administration. Instead of jumping down each others’ throats, students should be searching for common ground.

At my snooty prep school in New York City, the young Republicans, Democrats, and socialists frequently came together to criticize changes and policies we felt were anti-student. We were fierce, sometimes foolishly so, in our desire to be taken seriously by the powers that were at our school. Many high schoolers, even as they strive to get into a good college (a precursor to our current job obsession), cherish this spark of rebelliousness. Where does it go when we graduate?

At Harvard, we’re afraid of our own shadows. We don’t chat with each other before section, choosing rather to wait with bated breath for the wise professor or TF. We get worried when our friends get a little too passionate about something political and tell them to “calm down.” We look askance at our professors who speak extemporaneously and wish they could just get to the lecture already. We push ourselves through Harvard, not really loving it, but grateful enough for its name that we don’t criticize it. We smile and chat politely with our dining hall card-swipers, without having the guts to join a movement that fights to give them higher wages and benefits.

We freak out collectively because a student threw up into a bag to signify his violent disgust for an organization that has committed torture. But we don’t have a problem puking our guts out after a night of drinking in Loker Commons, assuming some FMO janitor will mop it up. Sometimes when that happens we’re even glad to expunge the calories we consumed at John Harvard’s, worried that they’ll go to our thighs. Which type of puking is more selfish and reprehensible?

We are more pathetic than apathetic: to use a favorite phrase, we sweat the people in power. “Identifying with the system seems somewhat peculiar to Harvard,” said Mackinnon. “Most students identify with the underdog.”

If we don’t identify with the underdog, how are we ever going to change a world climate that’s more threatening than ever? I hope our children turn out to be even more feisty and rebellious than our parents were. If they give us hell, we’ll deserve it.

Sarah M. Seltzer ’05 is an English concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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