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Why Harvard’s Performative Culture is Good

By Sterling M. Bland, Crimson Opinion Writer
Sterling M. Bland ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and African and African American Studies in Quincy House.

As I begin this op-ed, I’m tempted to harangue Harvard for its burdensome academics, its cutthroat extracurriculars, perhaps its general ambiance of competitiveness, especially during final exams period. And while such a critique is warranted, I also tend to believe it’s rather useless.

I’m both an optimist and a pessimist. I’m the latter because I don’t have confidence that student complaints — whether person-to-person, via The Crimson, or perhaps in focus groups — go far in making change. In particular, I tend to get fatigued by pessimistic stances about Harvard’s complicity in the suffering of its students. This isn’t to say student suffering is overplayed. That is far from the truth. Many issues facing students are deeply harmful and require Harvard’s institutional intervention.

Nonetheless, when grievances are presented without overwhelmingly forceful (and simultaneously palatable) evidence, many complaints — especially those critiquing Harvard’s education system — tend to fall flat before the administration's eyes.

When it comes to some campus issues, then, I might consider myself a campus-libertarian of sorts. And in this way I’m optimistic. It’s true: Harvard hasn’t listened to us well.

But, if we want to transform our school’s culture, the power lies in the student body’s hands.

One issue to test this theory — about which I have unlimited complaints — is Harvard’s performative culture. Over a casual lunch conversation, a GroupMe thread, a late-night study session among Harvard students, one thing is clear: We’re overburdened by our school work and further stretched by our self-perpetuated, competing priorities amongst extracurriculars, relationships, and jobs.

As a result, Harvard is a place where, at least for me, much of what I learn in the classroom is superficial. It’s a place where students come to class having skimmed the book, but not read it deeply, because they’ve got a bajillion other things going on at the moment, and the reading assignment was probably too long, anyways. Nonetheless, it is our task to talk up the section as though we were experts on the topic. The fruit of this sort of conversation is increasing performativity, lots of “I agree” and lots of hidden fears about not knowing enough masked beneath robust vocabulary and classroom conversational skills.

For some, this is a sign that real, deep education is in decline. But for me, it means Harvard is doing exactly what it was meant to do: preparing us for the real world.

A Harvard degree is less about the knowledge one gains and more about the skill set and type of person it represents. An employer looking at a college graduate is less concerned about what they know than how quickly they can catch on, how well they can work in a team, and how fluidly they operate under pressure. So while our education over these four years — especially for those of us who just love to learn new things — often seems underwhelming and busy, the stress we experience, the resolve we build, and the priorities we learn to manage are marketable.

Harvard, then, is not the problem. It is merely a symptom of a broader culture of overburdened, passionately over-engaged, too socially active people. It’s doing a great job at what it was designed to do: producing the next generation of “citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Deep learning can be found outside of the classroom: at parties, in dining halls, in late-night conversations about class content we fear would be censored by our own performativity.

Harvard’s performative culture — if measured by real-world preparation and effectiveness — is good. But what if you’re a dreamer and don’t want the real world?

In that case, it might be time for a revolution.

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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