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That’s the thing about living within a bubble: the light rays reflect off its soapy exterior, triggering a concave distortion of one’s perception. If you live in a bubble, you lose perspective.
Harvard is a bubble — that much we know. A mirage of wealth and opportunity, of blurry vision and questionable decisions. Not that one could expect moral clarity from this place (which has investments related to private prisons and fossil fuels, and accepts applicants based on their family’s wealth) nor from the students who chose to come here, many of whom, perhaps even yours truly, will spend years shouting radical rants against the administration before quietly shifting to an equally unethical (but rather more lucrative) career in the so-called real world. Suburban real estate, Nantucket in the summer, bleached picket fence. Socially liberal but fiscally conservative. So it goes.
And yet, occasionally, our Garnier reality feels slightly too egregious, an overdone satire of itself. Something crosses the boundary from passive to active hypocrisy, from standard to excessive shamelessness. Something like Harvard’s Class of 2023 Day of Service.
Conceptually, the Day of Service is remarkably solid and progressive in character. It takes the vast majority of the incoming class (1,500 students this year) and sends them off to do a day’s worth of volunteering around the Boston area, aiming to help them develop a “civic orientation” that will guide them during their stay at Harvard and beyond. It purports to be a transformative educational experience that helps communities in need, a chance to create a more close-knit and socially conscious community.
It fails miserably.
Let’s start with the name, “Day of Service.” One would expect a university that takes such pride in its beloved honor code to resist the urge of deceptive marketing phrasing. So much for Veritas. For the “Day of Service” cannot be considered, by any reasonable standard, a day. Its very webpage asserts that students were only expected to “volunteer” for a grand total of (gasp) four hours, from 12 to 4 p.m. Even that, however, is a significant overstatement — my own trip ended up returning to campus an hour early, after a half-hour journey to the site itself each way, leaving us with two hours worth of volunteering — just as long as the “post-service dinner and ice cream party” lasted (you really can’t make this up). Not that the volunteering itself really needed a longer time commitment. Aside from a handful of groups who were assigned to something vaguely meaningful (such as unevenly weeding urban farms), most students had to perform tasks so ludicrous that they bordered on satire. In my case, that meant dragging dusty desks from on room to the one right across the hall as a school supervisor, painfully aware of the performative pointlessness of it all, chuckled and shrugged at our every attempt to figure out what to move and where to place it.
Yet the sheer inanity of the day wasn’t, in and of itself, the worst part. After all, in spite of the time constrictions, the absurdity of the trips, and the undeniable pollution created by aimlessly driving over a thousand people around Boston, the actions themselves probably had a neutral or even (slight) positive effect.
The real issue with the Day of Service, the thing that hinted damningly at its corrupt chore, was its self-congratulatory nature. The free t-shirts, “Harvard Serves” plastered on the back that we had to wear (God forbid that a single pedestrian fails to learn about our divine charity). The local news coverage, fawning over how participants “rolled up their sleeves and went to work.” The emails (before and after the fact) urging us to document our day, to “use the hashtag #HarvardServes,” because nothing says selfless like a selfie.
Parading our student body around Boston to satisfy some fetishized version of Victorian charity is not serving. For that matter, making a social event — a damn ice cream party — of urban poverty and homelessness isn’t either. Engaging with these issues superficially, having the privilege to find in them only a fun little field trip rather than an intractable problem, is, to say the least, tone deaf.
Harvard may be a bubble — that much we have settled. But perhaps we should, when engaging with the real world, make some attempt at regaining a distortion-free perspective.
Cancel the Day of Service.
Guillermo S. Hava ’23, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.
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