"Running from place to place" is not just catchphrase for Harvard students. Rather, it serves as their modus operandi, or so we are told. With this month’s Harvard magazine feature, "Non-Stop," the myth of the Harvard student—the over-committed, over-caffeinated robot, mechanically churning out assignment after assignment, frantically darting from one scheduled activity to the next, and perpetually teetering on the verge of physical exhaustion—is at large.
Here, Deputy Editor Craig Lambert diagnoses the pathology of modern undergraduates, who "routinely sprint through jam-packed daily schedules" and submerge themselves in a "frenetic tizzy of commitments," checking their "Crackberries" when they pause to come up for air. Gone are the days of searching self-reflection and shooting the breeze with friends; students these days just don’t have the time. As Lambert opines, Harvard undergraduates are not simply busy; they are intensely fearful of not being busy. In the undergraduate lexicon, boredom doubles as a swear word; we suffer from a "horror vacui"—a phobia of leisure time that precludes us from loitering, daydreaming, and meandering through the Square.
In an effort to illustrate the extent of Harvard’s hysterically paced culture, Lambert profiles Rebecca A. Cooper ’10. Far from censorious, Lambert’s description amounts to a 500-odd word celebration of Cooper’s CV, which glorifies the very mindset it ostensibly intends to critique. Reducing Cooper to an itemized list of "productive" activities, Lambert reinforces the myopic, resume-building mentality that provokes many Harvard students to overextend themselves in the first place. Through Cooper’s account of late nights spent in Lamont, his article ennobles ascetic suffering in the name of academic success—what could be more beautiful, after all, than watching the sunrise in a fluorescently-lit cubicle? When defined in toto by a set of quantified accomplishments, as in Lambert’s article, Cooper becomes her resume, her self-worth determined by the number of semi-colons her activities can command.
Admittedly, there is some truth to Lambert’s observations: At times, every Harvard student is busy, stressed, sleep-deprived, or an amalgam of the three. Many undergraduates do undertake a dizzying plethora of commitments; others harbor acute anxieties about unstructured time, as evidenced by debates over the lack of J-term programming. Rebutting Lambert’s assessment without subscribing to the same dubious strategy of generalizing from anecdotes proves difficult, if not impossible—in the end, no commentator can channel the undergraduate unconscious. Yet, regardless of the veracity of his conclusions, by drawing what he deems the prototypical "Harvard student" into discourse, Lambert entrenches the very stereotypes which he seeks to probe. Equal parts descriptive and productive, Lambert’s critique becomes aspirational.
Its empirical validity notwithstanding, the myth of the Harvard student—epitomized by Lambert’s subtitle, "Cradle to Goldman Sachs"—possesses an inherent regulatory power. The student who takes five classes, founds two clubs, and snatches a competitive summer internship becomes the model for post-college success—the ideal that all undergraduates must approximate if they hope to end up elsewhere than their parents’ couch. By reiterating the stereotype in painstaking detail, Lambert inadvertently expands its ideological hold: We are meant—whether consciously or not—to stack our achievements next to Cooper’s and see how they compare. The stereotype, therein, becomes both self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling.
Evidence suggests that this phenomenon of the student-cum-superhero has a gendered bent. While Harvard’s male-to-female ratio weighs marginally in women’s favor, the gender gap in higher education widens on the national scale: According to the American Council on Education, 57 percent of bachelor’s recipients this year will be female. An article in The New York Times, published in 2007, describes the rise of "amazing girls:" young women who exhaust themselves emulating the paradigm of the straight-A student who is simultaneously thin, pretty, and stylish. The author attributes this trend—situated within a distinctly white, upper-middle class milieu—to the consolidation of feminist gains: As she asserts, "if you are free to be everything, you are also expected to be everything."
Unobtainable demands for female perfection are not news: The ideal of the poreless, cellulite-free, and endlessly docile female body retains its resonance, even though, as skeptics opine, "feminism is dead." This stereotype, however, is inherently asymptotic: no matter how earnestly one tries, its realization perpetually eludes, then leaves one feeling inadequate for failing to make the grade. The same holds true of Lambert’s "Harvard student." Generically classed and superhumanly scheduled, this figure seems to possess no tangible weight—yet, its existence, whether real or theoretical, still makes us feel anxious for not measuring up.
Pressured to instrumentalize their educations for the sake of some bigger, better goal, Harvard students come to instrumentalize themselves, deflating holistic personalities into commoditized brands that can be bought or rejected. By replaying—and implicitly glorifying—the stereotype of the Ivy League overachiever, Lambert’s diagnosis helps produce the mentality that it superficially critiques, rehashing the religious notion that those who suffer—those malnourished undergraduates still typing in the library come daybreak—are the most worthy.
I, for one, would rather be sleeping.
Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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