Enter to Grow in Wisdom

The following op-ed will appear in a print edition of The Crimson the week of June 2.

On the threshold of Harvard Yard and Massachusetts Avenue stands Dexter Gate, donated to the college in 1890. It cuts through Wigglesworth Hall, and anybody who lives in a river house walks through it at least once a day. But for all of its traffic, few students notice the carved inscriptions in the stone arch above the gate. The outside of the gate reads, “Enter to grow in wisdom,” while the inside bears the message, “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”

I first noticed the inscriptions during my sophomore fall, when I was on my way to what was to be a particularly uninspiring section for Ec 10. As I gazed out the window and absent-mindedly filled my notebook with supply and demand curves, I wondered whether it was part of former University President Charles W. Eliot’s (Class of 1853) plan when he thought of the inscriptions, that the gates would be locked at 7 P.M. every day, effectively hindering townies from growing in wisdom and freshmen from serving their country. I also wondered how much wisdom I had gained from the countless midterms and finals I took within those gates. It occurred to me that I might have an incomplete understanding of “wisdom.”

As it turns out, I did have it wrong. I forgot that in order to enter a gate, you first need to be outside of it. If there was one piece of advice I wish I had been given four years ago, it would be to leave Harvard once in a while, if only for a few hours into Boston, to return refreshed and with a little perspective. Whether I was riding the T to the end of the line just to see what was there (not much), shopping on Newbury Street or lining up for student rush tickets at Jordan Hall to see world-class musicians perform, the feeling of returning to campus after a few hours’ respite always surprised me. Without leaving, it is difficult to see outside of the day-to-day workings of college life and easy to become trapped in what we so affectionately call the “Harvard bubble.”

If there is any indication of the extent of it, students at Harvard refer to the “Harvard bubble” as seriously and frequently as the current financial news on the so-called “housing bubble.” Like the housing bubble, the Harvard bubble can easily breed complacency, until it bursts on Commencement Day, and we have to start thinking about mortgages. What a coincidence that we are in the midst of our own housing crisis on campus, one so serious that Harvard has banned college transfers for the 2008-2009 academic year and shrunk the incoming freshman class.

The point is, while we are stuck in the Harvard bubble, it is easy to become so wrapped up in personal goals that we forget to smell the proverbial roses, or read overhead signs carved in stone. A competitive bunch by definition, Harvard students spend much of their time involved in rivalries with their peers over social status (joining a final club or standing adamantly opposed to them), over academic achievement, over recruiting for that summer internship at JP Morgan, or over leadership positions in student organizations.

If the talk on these topics is not enough evidence of students’ ambitions, then they are better illustrated by the number of new student organizations and publications registered each year, not to mention the popularity of founding internet start-ups–a trend that has swept across campus in the last few years more quickly than word spread in October 2007 of the sham scabies scare in Pennypacker.

I am quick to acknowledge that students’ industriousness and rivalries have produced many personal successes and worthwhile organizations. It is also good to know that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Harvard Yard. Yet, it seems pertinent to ask: at what cost, and toward what wisdom?

The cost, it seems, lies in students’ stress levels and mental health. According to the most recent senior survey conducted by The Harvard Crimson in 2007, 40 percent of students said they had solicited mental health treatment during their college years. This statistic, though daunting, is hardly a surprise, given the number of glassy-eyed students who guzzle energy drinks in Lamont Library night after night during the academic year.

In the library at 4 A.M., nothing seems very clear, least of all the “wisdom” that Dexter Gate suggests we should be gaining. Much of the competition for success, however students define it, seems to lead towards post-graduation plans. For 58 percent of men and 43 percent of women graduating from Harvard, that means finance or consulting.

Unfortunately, as banks continue to suffer through the credit crisis and incur losses and asset value reductions in excess of $300 billion, the number of layoffs is growing and jobs in these prestigious institutions are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. Perhaps this will convince more students to consider other options after graduation, namely serving their country and people through public service, politics, or non-profit volunteering. If President Eliot’s call to “serve thy kind” refers to human kind, then the past year surely has echoed that sentiment, with the natural disasters in Asia and South America, a global food crisis, various election crises in Africa, ongoing oil hikes, and the threat of recession in the U.S.

So as we walk out of the gates this Thursday, I hope that people will take the time to look up and around, at the messages that President Eliot left, and at a campus we will hopefully return to in years to come, with greater wisdom.

Emily C. Ingram ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.