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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Perils of Praise

Harvard faculty contribute to student arrogance

By Marcel E. Moran, None

Congratulations! You’ve gotten into Harvard. But if you think that the barrages of “good luck,” “make us proud,” and other proverbial pats on the back will end once you step on campus, think again.

Even before students uncap their pens for their first lecture; they are force-fed more praise than they know what to do with. At one of last year’s orientation talks for freshmen, a resident dean opened by saying, “You all wanted to get into a good school, and you’ve done that.” Amid the raucous laughter that followed, the dean added, “You’ve all made it to a pretty good school.” More laughter ensued.

While this small self-promoting joke may seem harmless, it is an example of the kind of sentiment all too commonly expressed at Harvard. Depressingly, this type of proverbial back-patting makes it past ceremonious occasions like Commencement, filtering into the daily life of the classroom. It is these locutions that are largely responsible for the oft-complained of arrogance of Harvard students.

Just this week, a professor told everyone in a fairly large class that we are already in the 99.9th percentile of people in the world who understand our specific area of content. Disregarding the notion of there being any validity in this odd quantification of our studies, or the fact that we’re less than a month into the semester, peddling notions of our superiority in this way can only amplify the belief that we are smarter than anyone lacking the Harvard name.

It’s true that educational theory often recommends that teachers use encouragement and goal-setting to inspire students to greater achievement. Merely massaging their egos does just the opposite, however, legitimizing their spot at the top and extinguishing any motivation to move forward.

Reaching an institution like Harvard does not mean you have “made it,” and this thought pattern will only bring you further from ever actually making it. Those who already buy into the seemingly kind words of their professors or the visitors who envy them are smothering the very impetus that got them to Harvard in the first place. During the four-year period students are here, they should work to be as humble and willing to gain academically from others as possible.

It is ironic that a faculty that promotes collaboration and cross discipline communication so often tells students how much they do know, instead of teaching them what they don’t. This mentality only douses the incentive to learn from others, creating students without humility and perpetuating insular behavior and close-mindedness.

Harvard students’ heads are already enlarged enough thanks to magazine ranking systems, the flashing cameras of tourists, and the words of friends and family. Harvard may be a good school, and its students may be pretty smart, but, professors, please—they don’t always need to know it.


Marcel E. Moran ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.

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