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Divestment and preferred pronouns were foreign concepts to me until my first week at Harvard. For many other Harvard students, these ideas are commonplace topics, but in parts of rural America like my hometown, they threaten a way of life.
In my experience, any concept that could change the status quo is essentially forbidden in rural areas. Most talk of climate change is silenced because it poses a threat to rural economies dependent on oil and natural gas. Homosexuality is not openly discussed because it “contradicts” the traditional family structure. These and other ideas widely discussed on the internet and social media could shatter the rural way of life — so we don’t talk about them. A lack of awareness remains pervasive because of the regimented lifestyle of rural youth.
Regardless of location, school takes up a large part of students’ free time. School culture can either encourage or obstruct students’ awareness of social issues. In urban or suburban areas, it seems that schools often feed into social awareness; students can share different opinions about recent events, form groups or clubs that take on social issues, and, possibly, mobilize.
At my high school, on the other hand, the discussion of social issues and diversity of thought was limited. For example, country music was generally the only music genre teachers played in class. Country music totes a racist past, its themes tend to glorify the Old South or Old West, and the lyrics often affirm traditional gender roles and the objectification of women. More glaringly, many rural, majority-white schools, including my own, fail to tackle difficult topics like racial injustice in the classroom. Throughout my high school experience, pertinent problems like the racial wage gap and incarceration were never connected to relevant classroom curriculum.
Of course, rural youth are not always in school, but in my hometown, time outside of school is still largely dictated by a routine that limits exposure to new ideas — Friday night is for football, Saturday is spent attending other school events, and Sunday is a day for church.
This routine lacks free spaces for students to openly discuss taboo topics without being monitored by authority figures. While tradition and routine may foster a tight-knit community, they make it very difficult to interact with people of diverse backgrounds, further isolating rural youth from exposure to new ideas.
Graduating from high school can alter some aspects of the routine. I was lucky enough to be admitted to Harvard and begin my own social education. Here I have been exposed to a variety of people from different backgrounds. Divestment, preferred pronouns, and other previously unheard of concepts are now a part of my vocabulary. Besides offering social exposure through my peers, Harvard has also provided me the opportunity to take classes that inspire empathy, understanding, and awareness.
Some rural youth are not so privileged. Youth from rural areas are less likely to pursue higher education compared to their urban counterparts. Rural areas tend to see more people stick around than urban areas. Those who stay start a family that eventually follows the same regimen as the generation before. It is through this cycle that archaic traditions and ideas find renewed life, staving off social modernization or mobilization.
To the communities that cycle through the pattern I described, there does not seem to be a reason to upset a routine that has served generations of majority groups well. The flipside that these communities either do not see or do not wish to address, is that the side effects of adherence to such a prescribed lifestyle can harm rural people of color or rural members of the BGLTQ identifying community.
The events of the last few years have made it nearly impossible to ignore the fact that change is absolutely necessary in America, but for these changes to gain momentum and eventually come to fruition, rural support is crucial. Rural communities must realize that a comfortable routine is not satisfactory when fellow Americans are routinely experiencing disadvantage and discrimination.
And while routine and adherence to tradition might be more apparent in rural communities, we all develop and stick to a routine that, if we are not careful, can blind us.
We get used to studying with the same problem set buddies, hanging out in the same circle of friends, eating at the same restaurants, lamenting the same social ills without action, and awkward half-smiling at the same security guards. These habits may provide us comfort, but we accept them at a cost. We don’t meet new people, we don’t support other businesses, we don't dig deeper to find ways to improve ourselves or the community, and we become contently complicit in the bubble we have created. The confines of this routine can render some Harvard students unaware of life outside the Harvard bubble.
To my fellow students, it may be tempting to settle into a pattern that is satisfactory to you, but do not blindly accept it. You may find the status quo acceptable, but it also may be inadequate, unfair, or oppressive for others. Despite the social distance Harvard may seem to have from rural communities, we too may fall victim to the dangers of routine. Continue to challenge your ideas and the ideas of those around you. Introduce yourself to a person you have never met. Find new ways to support vulnerable members of your community. Ultimately, learn to embrace routine change rather than routine.
Libby E. Tseng ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor.
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