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A Self-Reliant Education

By Hannah E. S. wright

Chances are that if you’re reading this in print, you grew up on newspapers. Research suggests that our news media preferences have been established by the time we reach the age of 30. You’re also a dying breed—by 2010, only 9 percent of Americans in their 20s will read the paper on a daily basis.

Social scientists note that the decline in readership is part of a larger move towards political inattentiveness among younger Americans. Barely a third of the “DotNet” generation (current 15- to 25-year olds) follows the news on a regular basis. As these are the formative years for media habits, the numbers bode poorly for future engagement with current issues.

But how to reverse the trend? I was amazed this spring when one of my professors mandated a daily reading of The New York Times: it was the first time in four years at Harvard my coursework required attention to current events.

This is not to suggest that the University could single-handedly defeat civic indifference merely by requiring all students to read The Crimson. But if Einstein is right and education is what remains after we have forgotten everything we learned in school, perhaps we should place more emphasis on the things we take from the Harvard experience that cannot be found in textbooks.

Back in the summer of 2002, the first hints of a Harvard education arrived in my mailbox: a small book of required reading meant to provide the fodder for freshman week discussions with members of the Faculty. The selection of essays has varied slightly from year to year, but the one mainstay has been Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

I thought of that essay the other day when I happened upon “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education,” by former Dean of the College and current professor Harry R. Lewis ’68. Lewis’ criticisms run the gamut, but the one that caught my eye was his description of student extracurricular involvement.

With more than 300 student groups and 41 varsity sports, Harvard claims that this is a place where opportunities exist in almost any area imaginable. And students take them at their word, throwing massive amounts of time and effort into clubs, teams, and publications. Lewis can’t decide if the prominence of extracurricular life is good or bad. He cedes that extracurriculars teach important skills, but worries that competition-driven undergrads are only adding to their résumés. For my part, I don’t think it’s competition that drives our extracurricular obsessions; I think it’s self-reliance.

Emerson argues that we should be judged by the work we do. He warns us against impersonal, distant causes that drain the force from our lives and encourages us to devote ourselves instead to experiences in which we can best answer the call of our genius. For many students at Harvard, extracurriculars provide exactly this sort of opportunity—an environment that grants us both the freedom to explore and create unrestrained, and to make a concrete difference during the course of our four years on campus.

However, there is much this mindset can encourage us to ignore. Emerson eschews involvement with institutions and traditions because they limit the individual’s ability to act freely. On the Harvard campus, this mindset can translate into an aversion for University politics, though not without good reason. The combination of institutional inertia and a decision-making process that outlasts an undergraduate career can lead to understandable frustration. Additionally, students are often left out when it comes to decision-making, and when advisory committees or town hall meetings are assembled, their recommendations are frequently ignored.

The consequence is that many potential advocates for campus change turn to other, more satisfying extracurricular pursuits—over 50 freshmen ran for the Undergraduate Council this fall, but in three of the 12 upperclass houses, the races were uncontested. Why waste four years of intellectual freedom butting your head against a brick wall when you could be directing a play or coordinating an inner-city education program?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with students pursuing their passions. Harvard’s vibrant extracurricular culture numbers among its most appealing aspects. What’s unfortunate is that self-reliant individuals are simply too busy and too fragmented to acknowledge any sort of collective identity. As a result, there is no student voice to speak of. We have surrendered our role in the decision-making processes of the University, largely oblivious to the short-term decisions that affect our own undergraduate experience and disinterested in long-term projects that will affect future classes. The student response to the Faculty’s inability to muster the quorum needed to expand the course evaluation system? Silence. And when the Undergraduate Council seemingly forgot to fill student representative seats on the curricular review committees, it was more of the same.

This widespread student apathy has obvious and unfortunate consequences for life on campus. More troubling, however, is what our college experience is teaching us about our relationship to institutions on the whole, particularly when institutional decision-making doesn’t affect the narrow sphere of our activities.

If the college years truly predict behavior later in life, then our current habit of abdicating our responsibility to discuss and engage in issues that are bigger than ourselves sets the stage for a future of disassociation from democratic society. Incidentally, the signs are beginning to appear already. We of the DotNet generation are more involved in volunteer work and community problem-solving than those who came before us—more invested in our personal connections to civic life—but we are less attuned to national politics, less likely to contact our political representatives, and less likely to vote.

The University cannot force students to care about campus decision-making any more than it can force them to read newspapers. But as it undergoes self-reflection, it can remember that our college education is not merely what goes on inside the classroom, but also what our experience here imparts to us about our place in the world and our relationships with others. It can set standards and create structures that will promote the development of citizens rather than merely individual minds. And it can ask more of its students than mere self-reliance, for I fear we have learned that lesson too well.

Hannah E.S. Wright ’06, who was a Crimson associate editorial chair in 2005, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.

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