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Harvard students, like so many others, aspire to lead lives that matter, to make a difference in the world around us. In fact, it's likely what got us here in the first place. And Harvard students themselves hope that they will one day be in positions where the decisions they make in the midst of a crisis will have far-reaching effects and could literally mean the difference between life and death.
Yet so many Harvard students seemed to take pride in checking out for the remainder of the spring semester after classes moved online. As the world devolved into chaos, some of us slept through Zoom classes and demanded that Harvard automatically pass everyone.
Six months later students are still arguing that because we are all struggling with varying levels of challenge, Harvard should relax its standards, cancel its grading, and do away with attendance expectations.
Of course, these are extraordinarily difficult and unprecedented circumstances. Students need as much flexibility as possible, and the College’s extension of the pass-fail deadline was an appropriate move. Let's also be clear. There are students who are facing severe hardship — with sick family members, housing insecurity, or essential-worker parents in harm’s way. There are students who are looking after younger siblings while working two jobs to pay rent. These aren't the students I'm referring to here.
But for the rest of us — students living in less-than-optimal circumstances in our childhood bedrooms, alone and missing our life at Harvard, but still safe and secure — we can’t on the one hand plan for a life where we will be called on to make tough decisions under pressure, and on the other hand call for the school to relax its standards, cancel its grading, turn a blind eye to attendance, and so on because things got a little tough. These approaches are mutually exclusive.
The coronavirus pandemic is our practice test for a life of important decisions. We haven’t been called upon to invent creative ways to safely reuse N95 masks or to figure out how to safely split a ventilator between two patients. We aren’t yet leading a team of scientists in a race for a treatment or vaccine. As many parts of society kick into high gear to protect us and our loved ones, we watch, and we care, but we aren’t yet in a position to have to act. This is a practice run: We do not have to be perfect, but we do have to show up. And in March when the coronavirus hit, some of us stopped showing up.
One of the only guarantees in the world is that there will always be tragedy and chaos and death. Our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have faced wars and food rations, polio, the constant threat of nuclear conflict, the AIDS crisis, terrorist attacks; the list goes on. The coronavirus pandemic is our generation’s first major crisis.
The next crisis will be our responsibility. It’s practically a guarantee that we will need to step up at some point. We won’t be able to go back to our childhood bedrooms or dorm rooms and check out. It will be the real deal.
One day, we might be in a position that requires us to keep working as the world devolves into chaos. We might be infectious disease experts, emergency room doctors, or other healthcare workers. We might be running businesses deemed essential services. We might be serving as elected officials tasked with mitigating the economic effects of a crisis.
The good news is that practice runs are built into the fabric of our educational institution. We navigate difficult conversations in our classes and we compromise with colleagues in our extracurriculars. We’re extremely lucky to be able to practice leading ethically while participating in something larger than ourselves when the stakes are remarkably low. We’re doing schoolwork — it doesn’t really matter if we miss a paper deadline because we were doomscrolling on Twitter. But we have to try.
In the future, checking out won’t be an option. In fact, it might be one of the most detrimental decisions we could make for the people who are counting on us. We’ve seen what happens when our leaders take a day off. The responses to pandemics and other international crises aren’t graded pass-fail.
Harvard students can’t have it both ways. This is our first test, our first practice run. If we want to be leaders in the future, we can't check out and ask for special treatment now.
Orlee G.S. Marini-Rapoport ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History and Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality concentrator in Adams House.
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