The Hermeneutics of the Esoteric

How Harvard teaches us to sound smart, but not to be smart

You stay up all night doing the reading for a section in which you will say approximately two things over the course of two hours. You pretend to listen as your classmates preface their statements with “I think it’s interesting that…,” knowing all the while that the passage they are highlighting is not interesting so much as indicative of the fact that they have done the reading. You spend so much of the section examining the meaning of the word “ideology” or “revolution” that you never manage to discuss the ideology or the revolution itself. All around you, America’s most brilliant young minds are straining to produce brilliant enough comments for the professor to remember them enough to write them a letter of recommendation someday.

This is not what I came to Harvard for.

I came to Harvard with the expectation of learning a skill beyond the use of academic jargon or the art of networking. Some would say that this goal is incompatible with an interest in the humanities. If I wanted to learn things that are useful or applicable, perhaps I should have studied biochemical engineering. Perhaps it is too much to ask courses on obscure Chinese dynasties or distant literary movements to provide a student with essential life skills. But I expect more of the humanities precisely because I reject the notion that they are useless. The problem is not that the humanities are inherently valueless, but rather that our approach to them renders them valueless.

Take literature, for example. Literature is regarded by some as the crown jewel of worthless and inapplicable subjects. But literature’s critics would do well to realize that literature is just as useful a means of gauging the social climate as any social science experiment. Only literary analysis can do what empirical analysis cannot: uncover what people are feeling and how they interact during a certain period in time. Rather than wielding literature’s formidable power of insight, however, academics are often too busy observing topics in the intellectual stratosphere. We are taught what words mean but not how to use them, and these concepts without meaning gradually fill our heads like sawdust. Ubiquitous buzzwords like “reification” and “hegemony” and “meta” are only rhetoric that gives the illusion of knowledge. We may sound like good little Harvard students when we use these terms, but whatever illusion of intelligence we produce through them is undeserved if we are ignorant of their application. Yet countless sections and lectures focus on defining the terms of this elite language rather than applying them to the issues of today’s world. In my eyes, it shows a profound lack of ambition to study a single word when the vast and tangible world is open to your probing.

But we cannot blame everything on how the humanities are taught. The problems in classrooms and sections are most often perpetuated by students themselves, even if they are initiated by professors. Although it may be a failing on the part of our educators to force us to make our arguments within a certain rhetorical framework, we illustrate another failing entirely when we adhere to that framework for the sole purpose of impressing our professors. When section becomes a chance for us to show off rather than exchange ideas with our peers, we are at fault. The important thing at Harvard is not the connections you build with professors, but the connections you build with other students. Everyone had their reasons for choosing Harvard, many of which had to do with moving on to a successful career, but I imagine that the intellectual experience factored into the decision somewhere.

I came here expecting creativity, curiosity, and intellectual excitement. I have found it in abundance, but not in the classroom. I have found it in hallways and in basements, on couches and over tables, murmured along sidewalks or shouted in dorm rooms. Time and time again, Harvard students have shown themselves entirely capable of discarding tired academic rhetoric and making their own connections between their reading materials and the world around them. But whatever ingenuity we have seems to get left at the door on the way in to section.

Marina S. Magloire ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history and literature concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.