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Miserable Sheep

Stop a random Harvard student on the street and ask them how their week is going. Then ask another one. And another.

These fleeting interpersonal exchanges that we have every day, with a guy from section, a dining hall crush, or a friend of a friend are so ubiquitous and so unremarkable that the actual words we say to each other as we pass in the street fade into oblivion before we’ve even finished saying them. This currency of social graces only matters because it gives us a sense of our place in a larger community.

But have you ever stopped to listen to what we say? Ask a Harvard student how their week is going as you pass them on the street, and, most likely, they will tell you that they’ve just been working or that they’re stressed. And the two aren’t unrelated. As much as these countless interactions grease the wheels of our social existence, if we ever paused to reflect on them we’d realize the thing that brings us together most easily in conversation — the thing we talk about as we pass in the street — is that we’re constantly stressed, and that it makes us miserable.

Harvard proudly proclaims that its mission is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” But all is not well in the kingdom of Cambridge. Harvard’s suicide rate remains tragically, unspeakably high, and the Office of the Provost convened a task force to address the state of mental health treatment on campus in response to the existing facilities’ inability to meet student demand for counseling despite a hiring effort which brought the total staff to 50 mental health professionals. Students who cannot summon the strength to get out of bed in the morning cannot be expected to be members of an engaged citizenry, much less citizen leadership.

Harvard can and should take drastic action to improve the quality of its mental health services. But the work of making our campus — and others like it across the country — safe again does not stop there. A growing body of academic literature is questioning whether our education and the cultural institutions associated with elite schooling more broadly have a role to play in this mental carnage. William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep” details the commodification of education, the rise of pushy parenting, insider admissions, and the ways the system produces, well, excellent sheep.

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Daniel Markovits’ “The Meritocracy Trap” takes the analysis a step further. For all walks of life, he argues, the meritocratic ideal has forced us to run as fast as we can just to stay in place. But as students, we knew that already. The pressures we grew up with, the social mores of our lives, and the expectation of our participation in elite cultural life well after we depart Harvard mean that we simply cannot get off the treadmill. And the yawning chasm of economic inequality, growing wider year after year, only makes the fall that much more scary.

Let's be clear: It's not the idea of meritocracy that is the problem, but how that idea has been translated into practice. A system in which professional success is predicated on any criteria other than ability to do the job well is antithetical to all our values. But our own system has been constructed to allow a dehumanizing race to the bottom to see who is willing to sacrifice the most from their lives to win the rat race. The rise of entire industries, like banking, predicated on the willingness of young people to work grotesquely long working weeks in pursuit of career advancement, should only serve to underscore the implacable grip this work-mania has won over us.

Boo-hoo, you cry. Poor elites need to slave away to earn their second homes. How unfair.

But this culture isn’t just bad for the rich. The very pressures that drive us to work those extra hours make the American Dream less accessible for everyone else. A low-income student doesn’t have time to put in the extra work to really nail their paper because they have to work part-time just to stay in school. A single parent working two or three jobs just to make ends meet can’t be home to read to their children, help them with schoolwork, or try to instill the learning habits they hope will lead them to a better future.

We cannot have a solution just for rich people, or simply focus on expanding the number of jobs available for everyone else without deep reflection on what working entails.

In fact, the two problems must be examined together to find a solution that works for everyone. Viewed in this light, policy initiatives meant to reduce economic inequality and assure broad-based economic security need not be seen as class warfare by the top 1 percent at all. Addressing the insane skew at the top of the income distribution and building a new model of prosperity anchored in inclusive growth will not only revitalize the declining middle class, but will also help the top 1 percent retreat from the dangerous, self-destructive status competition — often measured in working hours — that has become par for the course when it comes to life in the fast lane.

Once we accept that expecting people to work 80 or 100 hours a week is dehumanizing, the idea that, like in France, we should not expect each other to be accountable by email 24/7 goes hand in hand with the idea that nobody should work a 40 hour week and still be below the poverty line. While these circumstances are wildly different, they hint at a common principle: the idea that the absence of human connection, the inability to find time for leisure due to (real or perceived) economic necessity, and a lack of personal fulfillment outside participation in the labor market impoverishes all our lives. That principle is basic and universal, and if we want to be bound together by more than our common misery, we must live up to it, together.

Ari E. Benkler ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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