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Commencement 2010

And Sow The Seeds of Tyranny

By James M. Wilsterman

In my four years working at The Crimson, I have personally read and edited bushels of these parting shots. I say “bushels” because, like a farmer, I annually anticipate Commencement Week as a harvest of sorts. The crop of parting shots is fairly predictable, occasionally yielding some blue ribbon corn and always yielding a surplus of diseased squash. Someone will tell you the charming story of how they learned to love failure. Someone else will try to convert you to the Church of Teach for America. Everyone will lament the hours they spent in Lamont.

Most farmers, however, are never faced with the prospect of becoming the harvested—although that would make for an excellent sci-fi movie tagline. I knew I would have to get a head start in order to avoid the usual tropes, so about a year and a half ago, I sat down and wrote a fantastic parting shot. I was ready to submit it, but now it just feels a little out of place and artificial, like the Harvard Community Garden (the agriculture jokes are just getting started). So today, I’ve decided to throw it out and write from the heart instead.

Per unwritten law, all parting shots must include at least one John F. Kennedy ’40, Lawrence Summers, or T.S. Eliot ’10 quote. I’ve chosen one from the last, from “The Hollow Men.” Eliot writes, “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.” I am an economics major, so there is roughly a zero percent chance that I will interpret this quote correctly, but, hey, maybe this is my black swan. In my opinion, Eliot is describing a state we often find ourselves in at Harvard—a middle ground between the vague idea of who we want to be and the reality of how we present ourselves on a daily basis. Do we consciously choose deliberate action, or do we just go through the motions?

Suffice it to say that on the editorial board of The Crimson, I found a group in which, in order to participate, you are forced to define your politics and opinions. In each meeting, you are called on to vote in favor or against the opinion of the room. There is no middle ground: Every decision must be conscious, deliberate, and final. You cannot just go through the motions.

This finality filled a void for me, like a finality club. Otherwise, at Harvard, it is simply much too easy to live life in the shadows, to avoid conclusion. We simply nod and halfheartedly agree with most statements. Think about it: We are much more likely to agree than disagree with whatever is said to our face. It’s just easier. This phenomenon is well documented. In How We Know What Isn’t So, Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich describes the human tendency to surround ourselves with those people who are most likely to agree with our established opinions. The result is that we all simply nod and nod and become more and more convinced of our own correctness without ever actually stopping to define or acknowledge our own true opinions. The successive nodding is great for our neck-muscle definition.

This is a disastrous outcome, however, for our lives and for society. When everyone runs around patting each other on the back for their erroneous beliefs, we all end up with financial crises and cold breakfasts. From D.C. to Cambridge, we’ve all suffered due to the inaccurate convictions of our leaders.

The only available pesticide for such a threat is healthy debate. In his April 21 speech at Harvard, Bill Gates questioned why we are only willing to engage each other in genuine debate when the stakes are low. We will argue for hours about the merits of our March Madness brackets, but we rarely engage our friends in sustained debate about healthcare or education.

We have to learn to play devil’s advocate, to challenge the opinions of our friends, to debate for the sake of debate. Harvard has taught us well. We neglect this education through our continuous and unquestioning accession. Like all parting shots, the message can be neatly summed up with a one-sentence lesson I learned in third grade: Agree to disagree. And, like all parting shots, I will now make this moral seem much more brilliant than it actually is: Debate sows the seeds of democracy. See, the first two letters of each word are the same.

James M. Wilsterman ’10, a Crimson editorial chair emeritus, is an economics concentrator in Lowell House.

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