Clinging to Utopia

Incoming freshmen should take care to manage their expectations

There is perhaps no corner of the Internet so ebullient this week as the Facebook group in which the proud coterie of the Class of 2012 have begun to meet. These new victors of the high-school slaughtering grounds, these new members of the educational elect congregate here to share their varying shades of ecstasy at the news of their admission. It is a happy affair: they revel in the stories of their classmates-to-be and swap anecdotes about the euphoria of receiving an email with news they had been waiting, in some cases, a decade to hear. But splashed across these ecstatic electronic conversations are the worrisome seeds of hubris which may someday metastasize into the harsh misery of missed expectations.

The expectations game has always been a difficult one for Harvard and its students to win. A name semantically fused with the word ‘superlative’ (in phrases like “the Harvard of JavaScript Training”) makes it difficult to step around this predefined assumption. So prospective students come to silently accept the assumption that Harvard is life’s deus ex machina, and they themselves are enshrined acolytes of this superhuman community. Harvard ceases to be a mere institution and becomes a destiny. And destiny is a difficult thing to keep in perspective.

Expectations, then, run high amongst the new chosen ones. In their conversations, they imagine all the utopian schemes of ideal-Harvard. It will be full of the most brilliant, friendly, and beautiful teenagers on the planet. The dorms will be capacious old historical structures with presidents’ names etched in the walls. The professors will all be intellectual titans who lavish students with posh research sinecures and emit pleasant fragrances of lilac to boot. A river of candy and diamonds will course mightily through the center of Harvard Yard on alternate Thursdays, and the sex will be plentiful and outstanding. In short, life will be a sum of perfections at Harvard: the prescribed antidote to a childhood of burdens and outputs organized specifically to produce this very reward.

It’s easy, from the point of view of a current student, to look with amusement at the grand designs that the new freshmen have in store. Certainly there is nothing wrong with a measure of overeagerness and naïveté. But is it possible that the thing which places these utopian expectations so wildly off-mark is their existence in the first place? Or, put differently: do the unmoored expectations of Harvard prefrosh reflexively cancel themselves out?

The surest way to end up burned by reality is to churlishly refuse its existence. If students expect everything, the ultimate failure to receive it is a bitter disillusion—a disillusion which ought to have been expected, but no less bitter because of its predictability. In their rush to secure affirmation of their own aggrandized images of Harvard, the Class of 2012—like so many classes before them—seems have forgotten this reality. Only now, more than ever, this forgetting happens collectively, in real time and in a vast electronic echo chamber of delusion. I have always found Harvard a great place, and I think in part this is because I never thought it was the greatest place. Harvard, like Yale, like Southern New Hampshire Community College, like village schoolrooms in Iowa—in short, like any place at all where students meet—is littered with problems, many of them serious. But, rather than sullying the false, frail icon of Harvard perfection which so many believe unquestioningly in, these failures compose a part of Harvard’s identity, and, in a counterintuitive way, its greatness as well.

There is little room for this realization, though, amongst the believers. Furtive questions among prefrosh about the possible ambiguities of Harvard life are chalked up to sabotage or schadenfreude. It is akin to the sort of jingoism sometimes displayed by recently-minted American citizens eager to assert the superiority of their new citizenship over all others. In such a fashion, expectations inflate faster than Weimar currency; students’ assumptions will be heading into next September outrageous and out-of-touch. The fallout is obvious: a body of students for whom the most delicate disappointment of perfection constitutes universal depression. How is it that students in the company of such affluence and opportunity can sometimes be so unhappy? Perhaps much of it stems from the hyper-reality produced by Harvard students who do not yet know what Harvard is.

Rather than offering a pessimistic view about Harvard, the point of this critique is to calibrate expectations in harmony with reality. More importantly, students should realize that they are the agents who produce their own perfection. No collection of bricks and bylaws will ever, on its own, constitute a utopia; to naively believe so is to walk into a trap. In place of willful ignorance, new students ought to stare head-on into the problems of the place, and, instead of finding them depressing, such confrontation should assert students’ right to orient themselves against problems in whatever fashion they please.

Garrett G. D. Nelson ’09 is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


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