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“He that idly loses five shillings’ worth of time, loses five shillings, and might as prudently throw five shillings into the sea.” — Benjamin Franklin
At the beginning of the 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber analyzed the emptiness of America’s economic philosophy with an eerie prophetic prowess. His theory on the spirit of capitalism hearkens back to the Puritans in the American colonies of the 17th century, who were seeking God’s calling over their lives. To assure themselves salvation, they developed a sort of capitalistic co-opted theology, asserting that hard work — and the wealth it accrued — would present evidence of “rebirth and genuine faith.” At the same time as they garnered wealth, they practiced asceticism to portray their commitment to God. The Puritans worked day in and day out to garner and save money, yet lived lowly lives, only keeping the money as symbolic of God’s favor.
As time progressed and America was founded, this ethical ideology lost its religious root. Take Benjamin Franklin’s words above. In essence, time is money, it suggests. You lose the former, you lose the latter. This is the “spirit” of capitalism: an American, Harvardian ethic that idolizes work as a calling, an end in itself. But what happens when what was once morally good becomes utilitarian?
“The Puritan wanted to work in a calling: we are forced to do so,” says Weber. We lock ourselves in an “iron cage,” enslaved to an ideology of work, achievement, and materialism.
This reality presents a pandemic on Harvard’s campus. In July of 2020, Harvard’s Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health noted rising student depression and anxiety disorders. Moreover, students’ extracurriculars largely contributed — rather than eased — student stress.
But we students don’t need the statistics. It’s evident everywhere: in classrooms, at final clubs’ parties, in the absurd comping process for extracurriculars. I remember my first midterm season at Harvard, struggling through an incessant flood of schoolwork. I remember confusion in Math 1a — despite attending all the office hours — and my inability to find and keep a friend, someone to study with, because I also had a couple of papers (and hundreds of pages to read) within the next week.
After coming from a completely different high school experience, I didn’t have anyone to tell me not to do all the work. To tell me to prioritize my health, to show me how to navigate the college system. I stopped exercising and sleeping regularly, concerned about career-building. I remember walking through the Yard, my head down in stress, overwhelmed by a culture in which everyone seemed to take pride in being overburdened. Everyone was in a hurry, brushing by, hesitant to engage in extemporaneous conversation. Looking back, I believe I fell into a low-grade depression and lost a piece of myself during that time. But hey, I got great grades that semester.
It took a global pandemic, sending me home, for my rest to begin.
The spirit of capitalism is an evil one, and it needs an exorcism. While the University has attempted to ameliorate the situation of its students, the power to change our school’s culture ultimately lay in our — the students’ — hands.
On the institutional level, Harvard has attempted, unsuccessfully, to care for its students’ flourishing. Harvard is full of academic support, boasting in-House tutors and advisors and various career services. At the same time, Counseling and Mental Health Services is overburdened and under-resourced, and — though the University has tried — its attempts to encourage health often fall flat, jokes in the eyes of its students.
Take last year’s ”wellness days”, for example. Instead of spring break, we were offered a set of days spread across the semester on which class was canceled. The problem, however, is that canceling class doesn’t renew our framework for rest. In my circle, wellness days were merely work-all-day-to-catch-up days.
Wellness days were good — they just weren’t radical enough. They should have been shaped — encouraging the participation of administration, faculty, staff, and students alike — around a broader culture of wellness, where deadlines paused and work became more flexible.
To begin eroding the spirit’s control, we students must begin by choosing not to work, at times. If you’ve made it here, you have the work ethic and study habits necessary to succeed and find some rest in-between, even if that means you don’t end up valedictorian. Just do you. And rest too.
So let’s stretch the College’s wellness programming — school spirit events, like Harvard-Yale, or House-wide outing events, ping-pong tournaments, and intramural sports — for all they’re worth. Moreover, let’s demand an end to the ideological competitiveness that so deeply entrenches us in false performance. It’s time we demand finals clubs stop punching based on cuteness and that rigorous comping processes (Harvard tryouts, post-Harvard-acceptance) cease.
To overthrow capitalism’s spirit on our campus, we must look within ourselves and find the spiritual prowess to walk and not run, to breath in the fresh air around us, to see clearly again.
Sterling M. Bland ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and African and African American Studies in Quincy House.
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