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The Paradox of Veritas

By Asher J. Noel
Asher J. Noel ’23 lives in Straus Hall.

Last spring, I committed to Harvard primarily for one reason: I believed in its motto, “Veritas.” Even if truth had the potential to be, in the words of Joseph Conrad, a “commingling of desire and hate,” I subscribed to the idea it should still be held in the highest regard.

Naively, I thought that the exploration and advancement of truth would shape the goals of the Harvard community. After all, Harvard’s motto does not attempt to sugarcoat reality: There is no “lux” in front of “veritas” to suggest that the irrefutable is bright or positive. There is just Truth. And that stands on its own.

But the truth is that the average modern Harvard student is driven by an entirely different desire: that for power. It is why over 100 undergraduates rushed to line up for first-round interviews with the Harvard Undergraduate Consulting on Business and the Environment Group this past September, many of whom were freshmen without any previous interest in consulting. It is why 49 percent of the Class of 2019 entered the workforce in either the financial services, technology, or consulting industries and only 7 percent decided to pursue academia or research. Rather than dedicate one’s life to the advancement of truth, it is far more likely that a Harvard College graduate pursues the visible markers of power: wealth, status, and prestige.

Yet this alone is not a novel observation. Students have been struggling with Harvard’s true identity for decades. The problem is that the divergence in what that Harvard preaches, truth, and what it actually imparts to students, power, has never been more accentuated than it is today — and this negatively impacts students by obfuscating their identities.

For individuals at Harvard, part of the craving for power that students develop is a result of the increasing ubiquity and inescapability of societal hierarchies. Instagram, LinkedIn, and intensify Harvard’s already stratified social and professional ladders. The Harvard seal itself, which the rise of college rankings has imbued with a connotation of prestige, constantly reminds students of their place in society’s hierarchies. Woefully unaware, and forever unfulfilled, we only lust after ever more power.

At an institutional level, Harvard further invalidates veritas by prioritizing the accumulation and conferment of power over truth. On the one hand, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana claimed that Harvard chooses “Veritas, honor, and inclusion” as its values. On the other, the College’s legacy preferences retain elite power by demarcating applicants on the basis of privilege — not merit — and the Office of Career Services promotes a culture where the post-graduate opportunities surpass intellectual exploration in importance, all in addition to “transformative experience” becoming a meme more broadly.

It is no surprise that the Business and Technology Career Fair, which represents industries that will attract half of what was originally the most diverse class in Harvard’s history, occurred just three days before the fall course registration deadline. Over the course of the fall semester, Harvard put on eleven career fairs. Comparatively, the University of Pennsylvania hosted eight; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, three; and Princeton University, two. As freshmen, my friends and I interpreted this inundation of pre-professional events as the OCS saying, “Welcome to Harvard! …Now, make us proud; get a job!”

Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with pre-professionalism or, similarly, selling out. To some, these opportunities represent a pathway to realize the American Dream. But to many, these career choices are compelled mainly by an inherited and unquestioned worldview that places a high value on power. A student may choose this for themselves, but they should not be herded into doing so by their educational institution. Rather, it is the role of the University, especially ours, which singularly worships veritas, to aid students in the development of their identities. The University should help students distinguish the self from the community, evaluate oneself honestly, and select central values with which to color life. In this regard, Harvard fails — miserably.

Paradoxically, for Harvard to be truthful, it would have to recognize reality: Power supersedes veritas in importance on campus. While Harvard could do this by updating its motto, an honest concession about its values would sully Harvard’s reputation. More calamitously, this would then impair the ability of students to leverage the Harvard brand to attain the power that they desire. With such apparent costs, Harvard is stuck untruthfully claiming that its motto is veritas, when, in reality, its central value is power.

As a result, the onus is on us, the students, to come to terms with the paradox of our university. Faced with this contradiction, we must be aware, yet skeptical, of the forces driving the behavior of our classmates and the institution that we inhabit. We must be cautious, yet understanding, of the values that the Harvard bubble attempts to instill in us. That way, instead of being blindly influenced by our environment, we can cultivate identities decoupled from conformity and clarity free from falsity.

While we as individuals possess the agency to consciously adopt power as our own, we need not be ignorant of the implicit forces coercing us to do so. We need not be fooled by the paradox of veritas.

Asher J. Noel ’23 lives in Straus Hall.

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