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Buying into Harvard

By Michelle I. Gao
Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.

What can’t Harvard put its seal on?

The butter is the craziest item, I think. I understand the Veritaffles, which have become a Sunday routine. And at least waffles are large enough for the seal to show up in all its glory. But tiny discs of butter? All that fits is the outline of the seal, too generic to clearly signify Harvard. So I’ve always had a good laugh at formal dinners where the Harvard butter makes an appearance.

One could argue that it’s reasonable enough to be constantly reminded of Harvard at the University itself, but Harvard merchandise has also seeped into my home. My family has decided that they should not flaunt Harvard gear outside, quite sensibly. Less sensibly, their alternative is to turn inside. Every time I go back to school, they ask me, completely seriously, to bring back as much merchandise as possible — shirts, pens, mugs, from any club, House, or sport, so long as it is recognizably from Harvard.

As I’ve proven to be only a semi-reliable dealer of Harvard goods, they have taken the matter into their own hands, ordering items including Harvard tumblers and a Harvard chair.

I have struggled to deal with this veneration of Harvard merchandise so close to home. It’s not like I don’t get it. This is yet another incarnation of the same narrative: To my family, as to many others, Harvard has always been a symbol of success. That we have achieved it, even if to no small degree fortuitously, is worth celebrating.

Yet I also wonder if that is the problem: going beyond the premise that Harvard is the symbol of success to putting it on a pedestal it doesn’t deserve. I’m disappointed that proximity to Harvard hasn’t changed this mindset of worship.

To be fair, it’s not only my family. I’m just as complicit. I still derive validation from being the “Harvard kid” within my extended family and the Chinese community, where dropping the name can make everyone from distant elders to the barber treat me differently. I still catch myself making judgments about other people’s schools. I do these things even though I know from experience that Harvard isn’t worthy of all this.

Harvard lives up to its name in many ways, of course. But putting it on a pedestal obscures the imperfections that it, like any other institution, has. It isn’t the world leader in every academic field. Its administration can make questionable decisions about student life. Its culture can leave students overwhelmed and feeling alone.

Too often I’ve heard the argument that such things shouldn’t matter: If the experience is disappointing, you must be the problem. But purveyors of this argument have bought too deeply or blindly into Harvard. There’s no point in blaming Harvard, but neither is it a golden ticket or revolutionary experience by default; it’s what you make of it.

You can also make Harvard an entire lifestyle. Both the name and the network are large enough that you can choose to associate only within the circle and lead a successful life.

That would be a shame, though. Harvard isn’t the whole world. To state the obvious, plenty of people who will be successful do not get into Harvard, and on the flip side, plenty of people who do not deserve it get in. And yes, the name and the network are Harvard’s greatest gifts to its graduates, but the real opportunity they provide is the opportunity to experience more of the world, not less. To gain perspective, not lose it.

Of course, it’s easy for me to preach that you should care less about Harvard when I’ve already gotten what I wanted. It also seems worse than easy — almost insulting — to dictate what Harvard should or should not symbolize to people who have worked much harder and sacrificed much more than I ever have in my life. I’m around the age my parents were when they came to America probably knowing more about Harvard than of English; so I can wax poetic about perspective, but what have I really seen?

Which is why I haven’t had these conversations about Harvard with my family. I do think their trips to the Coop every time they come to Cambridge are a bit excessive, but I also do try to get them items I think they’d like. Rather than trying to patronize them, I think all I can focus on is keeping my own perspective.

So for me, I don’t want to buy too deeply into the Harvard mindset, but I will try to enjoy it. Put another way, I don’t want to be the person who decided that the Veritas butter was a good idea. I want to be the person who will always have a good laugh when I see it on the table.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.

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