Harvard students tend to skip introductions. Too excited to get to the really interesting stuff—or too hard-pressed between classes and extracurriculars to get through the week’s reading—we typically move straight from front cover to chapter one, passing over the history and context in between. I had been reading “Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis” for a good two weeks—having naturally skipped the introduction—before one day, searching for my bookmark, I flipped through the preface and saw an aged yellow sticker on the opposite page:
“In Memory of Wainwright Merrill, Class of 1919. Born at Cambridge, May 26, 1898; Killed at Ypres, November 6, 1917.”
Wainwright Merrill transferred to Harvard from Dartmouth his sophomore year. That November, he left Cambridge and faked his name to enlist in the Canadian Garrison Artillery. Deployed to Europe the next year, Merrill fought as a gunman in the trenches of World War I. He was killed in Belgium, at the Battle of Ypres, four days before the fighting there ended. He was 19 years old.
That was 100 years ago. Now, Merrill’s memory lives on a dusty Widener library shelf, next to a dry introduction that a 2017 Harvard student like me couldn’t be bothered to read. Now, Harvard College seems to have lost Merrill’s spirit along with his memory.
Merrill led Dartmouth’s military battalion in the spring semester of his freshman year. The battalion—filled with passionate supporters of the Allied cause—drilled in courtyards, studied combat tactics, and dug an elaborate system of trenches next to Dartmouth’s football field. But today, Harvard students tend to hide in more trenches than we build. We so easily dive into the predetermined ruts—the most prestigious concentrations and extracurriculars to lead to the most prestigious internships and job offers—that we’re afraid to venture outside these troughs built by assumed notions of success. As Professor Mihir A. Desai has compellingly written, we’re afraid to “go for alpha,” to reach outside the secure channels we’ve come to identify with success—even if it means sacrificing the chance to pursue what we really care about.
Merrill held no such reservations. In a letter to his father, who disapproved of his enlistment in the Canadian Artillery, Merrill wrote that “he could not, in honour, stay out [of the war] even if America should take no action.” Though the U.S. would enter the fray just five months after he did, Merrill didn’t wait for anyone else to catch up to his convictions. He dropped out of college, passed over ruts of conventional success, and fought for what he believed. He refused to live in any trench besides the one he dug for himself—the one he eventually died in.
To those of us who can’t imagine achievement without a shiny Ivy League diploma or six-figure starting salary, this seems incredible. “But it's part of the game,” as Merrill wrote to a friend shortly before Ypres. “And it is a noble end which we seek out of the ruck and jetsam of death and broken men and lasting sorrow.”
What’s the noble end we’re seeking today? The closest we come to Central Powers threatening our democracy is the Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging threatening our final clubs. Our idea of sacrificing for a higher cause means giving up free time for an extracurricular activity, studying on a Friday night, or squeezing an extra hour of community service into our Google Calendars (all of which looks great on a resume). We battle subpar social life, uncomfortable words, stressful schoolwork, and campus exclusivity instead of bayonets and bullets. We fight for celebration of our race, background, gender, or sexuality instead of preservation of our lives. And we talk about these problems as if the fate of Western democracy hung in the balance.
These struggles are not trivial, and Harvard students have certainly experienced adversity beyond these trials of undergraduate life. But do we really understand, as a generation, how much we’ve been given?
There’s nothing wrong with the privilege we have as Harvard students. Noble men and women like Merrill sacrificed their lives so we could worry about midterms instead of mustard gas. But they didn’t dig trenches so that we could use our exceptional opportunities to bunker down in the Harvard College rut—unable to see beyond our own problems or preconceived notions of success. Merrill fought for something bigger than a college campus that conformed to his own ideas of political, ideational, social, and emotional correctness. He sought something better than a lucrative job he knew he wouldn’t enjoy. How can we use our opportunities—secured by the sacrifice of those like Merrill—to do the same? It may not look like fighting in muddy trenches, but maybe it starts with keeping our own pressing problems in perspective—and realizing how privileged we are to be here in the first place.
So why does it take a misplaced bookmark to remember Wainwright Merrill? For the oldest university in America, Harvard seems strangely—and dangerously—determined to forget its past. We have no scruples editing out our Puritan founders from our alma mater when their ethnicity no longer serves the 21st century summum bonum of diversity and inclusion. Our idea of tradition is impish college conduct, rather than remembering the admirable men and women like Merrill who came before us. And, as a result, we’re missing what these true “citizens and citizen-leaders” can teach us—how to dig our own trenches and fight for noble ends bigger than ourselves.
If today’s Harvard students want to match the character and caliber of the generations that came before us, we should learn to stop skipping introductions.
Lauren D. Spohn ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.