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Parting Shot

Ticket to Ride

By Emmeline D. Francis

With Commencement comes conclusion. In the quartet of years that constitute Harvard College, what have we learned? With any hope, it has not been an exercise of learning how to sound good nor a plush, academic “lite” sojourn from real life.

The former is characteristic of Oxford and Cambridge universities. In a critique of the “the caste of Britons who attended private school and/or Oxbridge before joining the establishment,” Simon Kuper of the Financial Times depicts a quietly damning portrait of how shallow rhetoric can be the conclusion of a British college experience. To him, most Oxbridge graduates do fine in life because “their entire education had been a lesson in winging it. They knew that all you need to succeed is to speak well, and that’s what the British ruling classes do: they speak well.”

What began in the fall of 2007 and ends now was, for me, an avowed departure from the pitfalls of British university culture and embrace of the liberal arts system espoused by Harvard. Yet there are imperfections in both places. The British version of prestigious higher education—with its earlier specialization and more intimate advising and tutorial functions—can be defended against the vast, sprawling infrastructure of undergraduate studies at Harvard. It also has history on its side: a “600-year head start” in its architecture, libraries, archives, collegiate self-government and more, according to Professor Howard Hotson of Oxford University. He laments the perception that “no other country remotely challenges America’s effortless supremacy,” when it comes to university rankings.

Hotson provides analysis of this inflated notion of the American Ivy League, and by extension, of Harvard’s less magnificent stature. He stipulates that Harvard is “manifestly not the ‘best of the best.’” Defending Britain’s higher education system against privatization efforts by the Conservative government, he warns that they will constitute a shallow consumerist ride: “Market competition in the United States has driven up tuition fees in the private universities, while diverting a hugely wasteful share of these resources from academic priorities to improving the ‘student experience’ and debasing academic credentials through market-driven grade inflation.” Indeed, he equates private universities with a Four Seasons version of student life.

Professor Jonathan R. Cole of Columbia University (and former provost and dean of faculties) adds further doubt to the argument that Ivy League “student experience” is the top of the crop. He attributes it to an attitudinal change: University has turned into a luxury commodity based on the “perverse assumption that students are ‘customers,’ and since, the mantra goes, the customer is always right, what he or she demands must be purchased.” As a result, money has been hemorrhaged on creating a shallow, consumerist version of the university cradle of true academic excellence.

Surely Harvard has been more than merely steeped in a culture governed by money and overrun with commodities? With the finality of graduation, it is essential to grasp why I would—absolutely—do it all again. Despite the pomp and circumstance of this time, the ceremonial frippery of Commencement is an occasion to mark one’s individual testimony of time spent at Harvard.

Harvard has resembled a comfortable ride, certainly. That there is a financial aid program with a high budget of $158 million makes it more comfortable for some who cannot afford the ride. Among the extensive library system, high-profile professors and state-of-the-art labs, I’ve procured tiny flares of truly excellent “experience.” This Commencement, everyone will take away anecdotal evidence of Harvard deeper meaning—perhaps the poetry seminar in which they were told to “be well, be safe and be brave.” You can’t pay for those words with dollars.

Graduation from Harvard marks the finite quality of four years as an undergraduate, but the more ephemeral experiences within the vast, costly one that Hotson and Cole so hotly criticize will prove to be the fiber of the experience. When I sat down to my interview at Oxford, I fared what is painted as academic farce by Kuper: “Even the entrance exam for the British establishment chiefly tests the ability to talk without knowledge. Good grades are not enough. You also need to perform in a peculiarly British ritual: the Oxbridge interview. It works like this: you are 17 years old. You are wearing a new suit. You travel to an Oxbridge college for your interview. You find the tutor’s rooms. Perhaps you’re served sherry, which you’ve never seen before. Then you talk. The tutors, sprawled on settees, drawl questions about whatever is keeping them awake … If you speak well, you get handed your entry ticket to the establishment.”

With my ticket out of Harvard, I (hopefully) learned how to speak well, but I’m leaving as a happy customer as well. Unabashedly a consumer of the “student experience,” I know that the transactions throughout were intellectual, not marketized. With conclusion, Commencement and my poetry professor’s goodwill, I can take my ticket and ride back into real life.

Emmeline D. Francis ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Cabot House.

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Parting ShotCommencement 2011