As social movements go, Occupy Harvard could hardly have been more successful. It made headway toward all its main goals: making endowment investments more ethical, raising staff wages, and diminishing the power of on-campus interviewing for financial firms. Its leaders are now national figures. “When reading period is over, GS will still have Sandra Korn [’14, associate editorial chair] to contend with,” wrote the business blog Dealbreaker of Goldman Sachs’s decision to cancel an information session.
The amazing thing is that Occupy Harvard accomplished all of this without the support of the student body. In a Statistics 104 research project that yielded responses from one sixth of the College, students gave Occupy Harvard an average rating of 2.85 out of 10. Perhaps only the angriest students responded to this poll, but wider sentiment, expressed on sites like isawyouharvard.com and harvardfml.com was just as negative. “Who actually sleeps in those tents?” was a common question.
Nothing draws Harvard students like the smell of success, yet no one wanted to touch this national media darling. This school has entire courses devoted to social movements and even a strong social justice organization in the First-Year Urban Program. Yet the most relevant and important cause in a generation was met with widespread scorn.
Why is this? In Slate Dylan R. Matthews ’12, who is also a Crimson editorial columnist, suggested that it is because Harvard is made up of the one percent. In the Harvard Political Review, Josh B. Lipson ’14 suggested it is because “Harvard is not the bastion of radical leftism that second-rate social commentators describe.” I disagree with these views. The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid says that around sixty percent of the student body receives financial aid, while that figure is around fifty percent at UC Berkeley, a school that embraced the Occupy movement in a much greater way. Moreover, although I wouldn’t call Harvard a bastion of radical leftism, it is a still a very liberal place. This is a college where pro-life posters get ripped off of bulletin boards with minimal reaction. Declaring that the poor deserve to be poor and the rich, rich would be a very controversial and unpopular sentiment to share at dinner.
Instead, the answer may lie in a decade-old article by New York Times columnist David Brooks. In 2001, Brooks set out to identify the distinguishing characteristics of the most accomplished of Princeton’s accomplished students. He returned dismayed; the students had breakneck schedules, could count the hours they slept on one hand, and had to schedule catch-up sessions with their best friends at dawn or dusk. In The Atlantic he wrote, “The young men and women of America's future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.”
I think this, in a nutshell, explains why the majority of Harvard undergraduates turned up their noses at the tents in the Yard. Harvard is a school made up of kids who sat in the first row of the class in grade school and probably ratted out those passing notes in the back. We got into Harvard by showing respect—nay, devotion—to social rules, and rebellion just isn’t in our blood. This is demonstrated by the careers students pursue post-Harvard. We jump from the arms of one established institution into those of another. We leave not just for Goldman and Bain but also for Teach for America, Stanford, The New York Times, and now the military. These organizations are places where we believe we can find mentors, networking opportunities, secure exit options, and all the other perks associated with joining a ship someone else has launched. Sure, there are exceptions—like Mark E. Zuckerberg—but these people are exceptions. Even those who say they are going to join a start-up after graduation are more likely to be joining a million-dollar investment featured in Wired magazine than a garage operation.
Obeying authority has brought us tremendous success in life, so it’s difficult to consider why this wouldn’t work for anyone in any situation. Thus, students weren’t threatened by the ideas of Occupy Harvard—a Facebook status I saw read, “I support Occupy Wall Street unless Wall Street wants to give me a job”—as much as by its methods. Occupy Harvard sought change not through elaborate networks of emails, shared documents, year-long plans, and official sponsorships, but by screaming outside of Massachusetts Hall. It was so vulgar.
Although Harvard’s student body has gained tremendous diversity since our founding, we cling to a sense of social propriety that is downright antiquated. I am reminded of British soldiers reflecting on the American army during the revolutionary war. They didn’t march in lines! They crossed the Delaware on Christmas! Their general didn’t graduate from Sandhurst! They probably looked like a rag-tag bunch of tents, too.
Anita J. Joseph, an editorial chair emeritus, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.