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Op Eds

Moving Past the H-Bomb

By Ryan P. O'Meara

When I got into Harvard, I was immediately cautioned against wearing Harvard shirts outside of Cambridge. I thought that particular proscription was odd. After all, my friends going to other prestigious schools like Stanford, Princeton, and Yale proudly wore their schools gear without a second thought. Telling people where I was planning to attend school was more stressful than it should have been. Why was I accused of “dropping the H-bomb” in a casual conversation when someone else asked me what school I would attend? Nobody used the phrase S-, P-, or Y-bomb to discuss other similarly prestigious colleges.

Harvard, as the nation's oldest university and the one with the largest endowment, occupies a precarious place in the American imagination. For many, it represents the pinnacle of a young person’s meritocratic achievement—a sort of academic city on a hill. Its low acceptance rate has created a mythology around the campus and the students who live and study here. Thousands of tourists from around the world trudge through rain, snow, and sludge every day to visit and rub John Harvard’s shiny left foot for good luck and take pictures on the steps of Widener Library.

But the mythological Harvard is totally different from the educational community where I live, study, and grow. The way that many people glorify the University is troubling. Harvard is not great because of the prominence of its name. Harvard is great because of the diversity of opinions and experiences of the people I meet and interact with on a daily basis. It’s great because scientists here make discoveries that have the potential to cure diseases like diabetes. It’s not great only because it has one of the lowest acceptance rates in the country.

Don’t get me wrong—I am incredibly appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given here at Harvard and understand how fortunate I am to be here. Choosing to come here was the best decision I’ve ever made. But often, I struggle to keep Harvard in perspective. It’s naturally ego-inflating when several tourists try to sneak pictures of you reading in a colorful chair in the Yard. In a strange way, they add to the sense of accomplishment that comes with being a student here. The tourists are part of the myth that makes the very name of the University so impressive in many parts of the country—a two syllable buzzword practically guaranteed to amaze and impress.

It’s sometimes too easy to buy into platitudes like the idea that the only two As that matter on a Harvard transcript are in the word Harvard. But when we do those things, we choose the wrong interpretation of why Harvard is a great place. Separating my experience at Harvard from the popular myth about it is crucial. My experience must be valuable despite that myth, not because of it. If not, my time spent here would be superficially successful but internally a failure. A school built solely on its reputation is nothing more than a shell of its potential.

By participating in the trend of refusing to drop the “H-bomb,” we only promote the perceived culture of arrogance we must snuff out. Nothing about Harvard makes it too great to be talked about. A successful education—whether at Harvard or elsewhere—must prepare students to be contributing members to the communities that make up their lives. Harvard is great because it’s more than just an ivory tower with the reputation to match. It’s a dynamic place, because what happens here has the opportunity to change the world for the better. Members of this community must keep both its greatness and the true source of that reputation in perspective. As the inscription above Dexter Gate says, “Enter to grow in wisdom, depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” Embracing that motto just might bring about the change we need.

Ryan O'Meara '18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Holworthy Hall.

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