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The Rhodes and Harvard: Opportunity, Not Obligation

By Daniel P. Wenger

“Rhodes Scholars give Oxford D-Minus,” proclaimed a March 4 London Times article. “Harvard students deplore Oxford University,” The Hindu grieved the same morning. Only the somber weightiness of a presidential obituary was suitable for what these newspapers dutifully reported: Harvard-educated Rhodes scholars, Melissa L. Dell ’05 and Swati Mylavarapu ’05, had penned an op-ed in this student newspaper complaining about their Oxford experience.

The past three weeks have witnessed a flurry of activity related to the scholars’ editorial. Devoted Rhodies offered detailed rebuttals on The Crimson’s Web site; Harvardians scared for their fellowship-funded futures spouted sententious comments in the same forum; Oxonians skeptical of their school’s imminent demise traded incensed e-mails; the disgruntled authors issued statements, claiming to have been misunderstood.

Yet the truly unsettling part of the story lies not in the text of the editorial or the critiques it elicited, but in something entirely outside of the authors’ control: the credence the international media has given their grousing and the blind deference to status that such validation represents. For in giving weight to the authors’ most basic assumption—that had Oxford been more accommodating and convenient, it might have satisfied their expectations—the media substantiated the idea, widespread among colleges catering to student whims, that the frustrations of everyday life can diminish the value of the opportunities these venerable institutions provide.

Though alarming and uncomfortable, the controversy’s illumination of this culture of resignation presents an opportunity to examine the motivations that drive us and the satisfaction that we seek as we live and work at elite universities. Unfortunately, at institutions like Oxford and Harvard, that discussion is conducted only superficially, railroaded by students’ single-minded pursuit of prestige. It is time that we at Harvard, recipients of such extraordinary privilege, abandon that hollow pastime, put our complaints into perspective, and find satisfaction in the present.

Elliot F. Gerson ’74 is, at present, an unhappy man. The secretary of the American Rhodes Trust, responsible for directing each year’s selection process and serving as the sole institutional representative of Oxford’s American Rhodes community, he is closer to the scholarship and the scholars than anyone else. Though dismissive of the media uproar—attributing it to the fact that Oxbridge has long been “under the Labor government’s microscope”—his profound disappointment in the op-ed’s authors is clear. He commented, “I found it almost breathtaking that they ended their article suggesting that no one should apply for the Rhodes unless they want to go for Oxford. Why else would people apply for the Rhodes?”

If only that were a rhetorical question.

Gerson himself knows that it is not. He admitted that “one of the worries that we have and the price of the fame of the scholarship is that a lot of successful American students, instead of asking, ‘What is it that I really want to do and why,’ ask themselves, ‘What is the next most competitive thing I can apply for?’” Queried whether Harvard pushes the Rhodes on unwilling victims, he attributed the unusual number of Harvard-educated scholars not to the College itself, but to its students: “Harvard students are driven to be Rhodes more than anyone else. Harvard has had a grossly disproportional number of applicants, not just scholars; that has to do with the DNA of Harvard students, and has for a generation.”

And so the issues exposed by this firestorm have less to do with elite institutions themselves than with the students who populate them, and, by extension, with the authority figures that judge their credentials. While it is tempting and reassuring to take Dell and Mylavarapu as exceptions to the rule, they are more likely its most conspicuous exemplars.

Incoming Canadian Rhodes scholar Daniel J. Wilner ’07 identified a connection between the Rhodes scholars’ complaints and the grumblings of students here: “In the case of Harvard, just like with the Rhodes, there are kids who might apply and go because it’s Harvard, not because it’s necessarily the right choice for them. That’s something some Harvard students might be able to identify with, or at least understand.” Those disappointed with their experience “might feel that they got a raw deal, that the allure of the brand name enticed them—they were beguiled and charmed into coming to a place that didn’t live up to its reputation.”

For current Rhodes scholar Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04, though, who answered affirmatively when he asked himself whether he wanted “to spend two years in a rainy country doing academic work in a quirky, ancient institution,” the possibility of his having gotten a “raw deal” never arose; the small annoyances associated with Oxford have not impacted his experience. He indicated, in an e-mail, a faith in the ability of high-achieving university students to maintain a balanced perspective: “When the guy who sat on the plane next to you coming here is a [Rhodes] scholar from Zimbabwe, it’s hard to complain about a stipend that lets you travel as well as live. It would be like saying Harvard was a big disappointment because there is no student union building.”

But Harvard students do complain about not having a student union. Incessantly. And, in the past three years, we have successfully agitated for a 24-hour library, a student pub, universal swipe card access, later dining hours, college-wide performing artists, and fair trade bananas—gripes reminiscent of Dell and Mylavarapu’s criticisms of Oxford. As Gerson put it, “American universities are extraordinarily consumer driven, with the student being king. The consumer culture of American universities has not been transported to Britain. You’d think that scholars would welcome that!”

Yet Dell and Mylavarapu portrayed Oxford’s singular atmosphere as anything but quaint; as the Times reported, “The whole experience, they complain, is made even harder by the challenge of ‘foraging for edible food’ and ‘getting berated by customer service representatives, but never after 5pm, when everything closes.’” Though the authors set out to make a perfectly reasonable argument—do not apply for things that you don’t want; do not commit yourself to programs for the prestige—the evidence they furnished to support it illustrates their grounding in the “consumer culture” that Gerson identified, one which discourages self-reflection and encourages entitlement. Consequently, as Wilner observed, they never acknowledged their own role in shaping their time at Oxford: “If they’re really saying, ‘We applied for this just because it’s prestigious, we made a mistake, and the experience isn’t worth it for us’—say it! Admitting to a mistake so that others might not make it—ironically, that would have struck me as a Rhodes scholarly thing to do, in my view.”

At what level of achievement does this stop? The answer is, of course, unclear—disquietingly so. Gerson spends “a great deal” of his time, “with very little success, advising Rhodes after their scholarship, to discourage them from applying to law school, asking them, ‘Do you really want to be lawyers?’” He explained: “Some of them don’t; law schools can be a wonderful experience, but many are just applying because it’s the next most competitive thing to do. After law school, instead of doing one’s passion, which may not be lucrative or prestigious, they say, ‘What’s the next prize, the next thing that’s hardest to get, the court or law firm that’s hardest to join, the consulting firm with the highest salary?”

The Rhodes, Oxford, and Harvard were not designed as stepping-stones to greater glories; they are, respectively, a promissory note and two academic institutions. Beset by flaws as they may be, they, and the scholars affiliated with them, are fundamentally interested in intellectual inquiry and exploration. In an e-mail, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof ’81 portrayed the Rhodes scholarship as an invaluable opportunity to postpone professional advancement: “I studied law, which hasn’t been of much use in my subsequent career, but my Oxford experience as a whole has been profoundly important in shaping me.”

In Gerson’s parlance, Oxford represents “an incredible opportunity to jump off the treadmill for a while to do something that is not necessarily a shortcut to some career goal”—an opportunity that is, clearly, easily wasted. “It’s much more than money,” said Casey N. Cep ’07, who will read theology on the Rhodes next year. “It’s a group of people saying they have confidence in you as a person. They say: we believe in you. This is to be thought of as an opportunity, not taken to be a responsibility.”

Ideally, one’s time at Harvard should cultivate the same sense of openness and promise, not of duty drained of conviction. A favorable Harvard admissions decision, though the product of a less competitive application process, symbolizes a similar faith in a student’s ability to seize available opportunities—one that should be declined if it cannot be respected.

Cep said of the article’s authors: “They must be incapable of saying, ‘No.’ Someone saying you should think of applying for the Rhodes is a compliment, not a binding contract.” As with the Rhodes, which does not even obligate the winner to the academic program under which he or she applied, Harvard students are not bound to anything—by applying, enrolling, or attending. Upon admittance, each of us has the power, the intelligence, and the agency to turn Harvard down. And throughout our time here, each of us has the power to leave.

Of course, that’s not to say we should. If I have learned anything from the army of past and present Rhodes with whom I’ve spoken, it is this: The school, fellowship, or academic experience that one person derides is the same one that another person treasures. And that divergence is not accidental; it is the product of the natural gap between self-reflective determination and entitled resignation.

Ryan R. Thoreson ’07, who will study social anthropology at Oxford next year, recounted the experience of an older Harvard friend, who, after advancing to the Rhodes’ interview round, did not win the fellowship: “She said that I should apply for fellowships simply for the opportunity to write a personal statement, which forces you to figure out what you want to do, something you don’t get an opportunity to do very often at Harvard. I think I would have been glad if I had applied regardless of the outcome because of what I learned from writing and rewriting all summer long.”

Each step of the way, from his application for the College’s endorsement to his arrangements with Oxford’s academic departments, Thoreson acted purposefully and conscientiously—cognizant of his options and confident of his choices. That is the type of behavior to which each of us at Harvard and any other institution of higher education should aspire.

Though Thoreson’s transformation of a daunting, forbidding academic competition into a learning experience—not a conduit to success, but a valuable endeavor in and of itself—is perhaps extreme, it is to be admired. Perhaps we mortals can approximate his keen appreciation and earnestness, in other, less punishing ways: the transformation of a routine Core class into a learning experience; of office hours into an engaging conversation; of the library into more than an espresso bar and a place to cram.

And on a more basic level, we can put an end to complaining about the glut of options available to us. The fact that Harvard facilitates applying for the Rhodes is not evidence of a system conspiring to make students unhappy. Rather, it is evidence of the extraordinary opportunities the College gives us.

Cep offered an illustrative anecdote: “My sister went to a state school and the Rhodes wasn’t even an option for them. No one encouraged them to apply; no one was there to read essays. We’re the luckiest kids in the world. It’s not a perfect system, but I had a fellowships tutor who read draft after draft of my essay and had meal after meal with me to discuss my graduate plans, to discuss what this fellowship would mean if I got it, to discuss what I would do after it.”

Then she shrugged her shoulders, paused, and said simply, “Thank God I came here.”

Daniel P. Wenger ’09 is a history concentrator in Eliot House.

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