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In September of my freshman year, a friend and I scored tickets to see Wynton Marsalis in Sanders Theatre. I remember my excitement at entering the hip, artistic world of the Northeast, and the hour or so I spent getting dressed as I tried to craft an outfit that was both sharp and nonchalant. As we watched from the rafters, my friend and I slowly realized that we weren’t attending a jazz show, but a jazz talk. Marsalis spent an hour and a half lecturing us about the “sensual” beats of jazz, but he never touched his trumpet once.
While I appreciate the merits of talks like Marsalis’s, I’ve also sensed a strong bias towards such discussions at Harvard. Over the past few years, dozens of artists have cycled through Harvard’s campus, but only a small handful of them have actually performed. Most have appeared to receive medals and give academic talks, drawing broad lessons about the meaning and context of the art; very few come to create. There’s a constant, subtle pressure to zoom out from the specifics to see the “big picture.” And perhaps, in doing so, we are missing the point.
In the course of a year, I usually read between 30 and 40 books, many of them classics. But course curricula tend to deemphasize the specifics of each book in favor of the broader literary and historical trends that the books illuminate. Appreciating an author’s use of language or command of storytelling is often considered secondary to applying and developing theory that provide some broader “meaning” to the experience. Section discussions often take on certain monotony as the year progresses. Once students have isolated the “theme” of the course, a particular week’s readings become almost irrelevant.
While it is tempting to lay the blame entirely on Harvard’s shoulders, for me, the tendency toward crafting grand narratives began several months before I entered college. As a senior writing my applications, I found myself consciously omitting the parts of myself that didn’t make sense in order to shape my essay, resume, and recommendations into a coherent package. At college, the “packaging” impulse has only grown stronger as I’ve applied for classes, internships, grants, and jobs. In some contexts, the ability to form a tight, cohesive narrative is appropriate. What worries me is how easily this mindset slips into other aspects of our lives.
Consider summer vacation. Every year, thousands of Harvard students take part in internships, study abroad programs, and research. Many of us have a great time. Many do not. And yet almost no one would admit to having a bad time over summer break in casual conversation. Instead, boring internships in hostile work environments are reframed as “learning experiences.” Similarly, there’s a certain rhythm to Harvard conversations where anecdotes need to have a point—preferably an uplifting or edifying one. (For example, “My boyfriend just broke up with me, and I’m kind of bummed about it, but now I’ll have a lot more time to devote to class work.”)
If these observations seem a bit disorganized, perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Thousands of things happen to us every day that have nothing to do with each other. Instead of seeing them and appreciating them as they are, we spend too much of our time trying to draw the line of best fit that will give things meaning, omitting or ignoring the points that don’t quite fit. I would like to become more comfortable with the chaos and noise happening on the margins—the experiences that simply don’t add up to anything more. I would like a little bit less lecture and a little bit more jazz.
Taonga R. Leslie ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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