The Writing’s Not on the Wall

What we can learn from a Chinese rumor about Harvard

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Professor Robert C. Darnton ’60 described what he viewed as a remarkable and widespread belief in China today: According to a list that has been circulated widely on the internet in China and published in book form, Harvard’s libraries contain 20 inspirational sayings and fearsome injunctions written on their walls. The list includes exhortations to study hard, promising rewards including great wealth, happy matrimony, and all-purpose “success,” including, “Please enjoy the unavoidable suffering."

I missed that one the last time I walked into Widener.

Yet these last moments of the semester—when the rustling of hundreds of sheets of notebook paper echoes through Loker Reading Room, when Lamont seems busier at 2 a.m. than 2 p.m.—produce precisely the environment that this Chinese myth imagines. Harvard students may not “enjoy” the “suffering,” but we certainly can’t avoid it. But why does it strike us as so totally preposterous that our libraries would feature these exhortations on their walls?

When I spoke with Darnton, he gave one possible answer to this first question. “The Chinese are attributing to us a style of discourse that exists in China,” he noted, mentioning Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book as an example. Harvard, on the other hand, does not appear to engage in this kind of discourse.

“The University doesn't sponsor an official set of allocutions or exhortations to behave in a certain way and to respect certain principles,” Darnton said. “Even in the welcoming speeches by the president, there isn't a lot of formulating principles for guiding students through life like these supposed allocutions. We just don't go in for that.”


Harvard does have examples of quotations written onto its walls. Emerson Hall, which houses the philosophy department, includes a line from Psalm 8, spoken to God: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” These humbling words, set in stone in 1900, seem exceptional because they are, to Darnton, “almost the polar opposite” of the orientation of humanistic studies today, where “man is everything.”

Of course, even if most students don’t think about the words on Emerson as they walk through the Sever Quadrangle, the Old Testament quotation isn’t going to be replaced with “please enjoy the unavoidable suffering” anytime soon. The Chinese exhortations may seem impossible to us, but perhaps that feeling comes more from our sense of frustration with—and rejection of—the values that they endorse rather than a sense that we don’t want our walls to tell us what to do.

Darnton, who arrived at Harvard in 2007, said that he was initially struck “by the importance of money everywhere—in the minds of students, even first-rate students, and even the faculty,” as well as the consequent fact that students “pour into Wall Street.” This prioritization falls into a broader phenomenon of what Darnton describes as “implicit messages about how to behave that permeate the campus.” Indeed, in the experience of students that I interviewed for this column, these “implicit messages” include especially the idea that a career decision must be a choice between following one’s passion and pursuing a big paycheck.

However, throughout this semester, I have tried to draw attention to the original and exciting ways that students are finding to break down the passion-versus-paycheck mentality and imagine new career paths. This group includes students with literary interests who are helping to create the field of digital media and students with interests in China who are pushing the boundaries of what a country-specific career can entail.

These students are working hard, but they do not simply view their time at Harvard or their post-college career choices as needing to involve “unavoidable suffering.” They have heard the unsatisfying “implicit messages” that “permeate the campus” and responded with action and innovation.

Most broadly, then, these imaginary exhortations can serve one valuable purpose at Harvard: to begin conversations about our values and our priorities. As we react to what they reveal about what people in China think Harvard is telling us, they also offer us an opportunity to reflect—on what Harvard is (and isn’t) actually encouraging us to do, on what values underlie our experience of Harvard, and on what informs our decision-making about life after college.

As a result, we will be even more “mindful” as we consider the biggest questions in our lives—and, we hope, find even better answers.

Julian B. Gewirtz ’13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.