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Columns

The Trouble With Writing — At the College and Beyond

The Postgraduate Way of Life

By Manuel A. Yepes, Crimson Opinion Writer
Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column, ‘The Postgraduate Way of Life,” runs on triweekly Thursdays.

When I was a junior in high school, I visited Harvard for the first time. Like all bright-eyed potential applicants, I shuffled around campus, following the lead of a student tour guide whose feigned enthusiasm about Harry Elkins Widener’s famous book collection now seems comical.

These tours are meant to offer high schoolers an inside look at Harvard College. The problem is that the impression one gets from these tours is hardly representative of life at the College. Sure, you may get a sense of the literal facts of student life. But the underlying social reality as a Harvard College student — its intangible flavor that isn’t easily put into words — is left hidden.

Four years after visiting Harvard for the first time, I’ve once again found myself in the same place. As a prospective law school applicant, I recently went on a walking tour of Harvard Law School’s campus. Yet this tour did little to satisfy my curiosity regarding life as an HLS student.

The moment when I felt I really did get a deeper understanding of HLS was last semester, when I embarked on my Board Plus-sponsored tour of Harvard’s dining halls. I didn’t learn anything about the history of the Caspersen Student Center or the structure of law school classes. I did notice the little things, though — how well-dressed the students were, or the Latin maxims written in gold lettering high up on the walls of the library.

The same went for all of the graduate schools I visited on my Board Plus spree. At each, I noticed the particulars of the underlying force and flavor that constituted each school.

Harvard Law School in the spring.
Harvard Law School in the spring. By Julian J. Giordano

For the past three months, this column has attempted to peel back that tour-esque veneer and reveal the intangible culture of each postgraduate school.

It has completely failed in doing so.

Here was the original idea: I’d interview students from every graduate school, gathering anecdotes from each and using them as launching points for a full-scale investigation of the school’s culture. I imagined myself wandering the campus, allowing myself to discover what it really felt like to attend said school.

Yet when I sat down to write each piece, pages of interview transcripts in front of me, I couldn’t help but feel lost. Quotes, pictures, and notes sat in a jumbled mess on my screen. Somehow, they had the audacity to remain meaningless and unconnected, instead of autonomously organizing themselves into some easily digestible narrative that I could then transpose onto my document.

I expected the narrative to jump out at me, but instead I found myself frantically rearranging ideas to fit into a ready-to-publish message. Whenever I heard conflicting information, I wasn’t sure whom to believe. Was this person’s unique description of the Kennedy School just an outlier, or was it the tip of an entirely new narrative I could pursue? I hurriedly tied off loose ends, knowing that if I pulled on one, I risked unraveling the entire article.

The feeling was familiar to me. I’d felt the same way writing essays for class. My Social Studies papers became the product of arbitrary choices entirely unsupported by evidence — or at least supported by very selective quotations. If I found a case study that disproved my thesis, I’d turn the other way, only looking back to include it as a counterargument that I could spin to my advantage. While writing my essays, I never felt like an unbiased vessel for truth. Instead, I was a fraud, molding facts to fit my message.

Pressed against a deadline, I could stand these moments of fraudulence. When it came time to consider what I would write my thesis about, though, I had a tiny crisis. I knew I couldn’t spend months of my life on a project that deep down I recognized was completely without merit.

I dreamed of being swept away by the facts, of my preconceived notions being shattered by unquestionable observations and data. That attitude, and a couple articles of this very good column, led me to enroll in an econometrics course and economics tutorial at the start of this semester. I coveted the lives of Applied Math/Economics concentrators and the analytical rigor with which they approached the world.

Yet a semester later, I leave with the same dissatisfaction I began with. Econometrics, it turns out, wasn’t the answer to my doubts. I had underestimated the extent to which this field was constrained by the same limitations I had felt elsewhere. Any question I asked was shaped, reshaped, and trimmed down by the availability of the data and existing statistical methods. Every result came with an asterisk. In the end, I found myself appreciating the cleverness of studies’ research designs more than their actual conclusions.

In his magnum opus, War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes, “Man’s mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man’s soul. And without considering the multiplicity and complexity of the conditions any one of which taken separately may seem to be the cause, he snatches at the first approximation to a cause that seems to him intelligible and says: ‘This is the cause!’”

Perhaps that is the situation in which we find ourselves. Gifted with the desire for truth, but cursed with the inability to ever find it, we are locked in a never-ending struggle. Is the only solution to break the loop and eschew this effort altogether?

I’ve certainly thought so at times. On the Editorial Board, we opine on a minimum of three topics a week. To inform our discussions, we rely on a very scrupulous agenda put together by our Editorial Chairs. Yet at these meetings, I always find myself wondering if a little more information or a couple more facts could completely shift the direction of our staff-editorials. We deal with complex topics, and it would be naive to think that in the hour we have to discuss, we’ve properly digested enough information to truly understand the situation and offer an accurately critical assessment of it.

The Crimson is a megaphone, and what’s more dangerous than handing a megaphone to those with reckless, uninformed opinions? Perhaps it would be better to not write at all. At times, I’ve been hard-pressed to think otherwise. Given the imperfections present in our capabilities of understanding the world, why risk it?

I’m still on the Editorial Board, though, and I’ve continued writing this column. The reason isn’t because I’ve found a way to be entirely confident with my opinions on our graduate schools. Instead, it’s because I’ve found a different way of viewing them altogether.

If I were to look back at every piece I’ve ever written for The Crimson, there’d be none that I’d be fully confident of. Even for those that, emotionally, I might be fully committed to, I would logically accept the numerous counterarguments that could well be made against my position.

I don’t write this column to convince people of my strongly held beliefs. In fact, if someone entirely agreed with me, I’d feel unaccomplished. Instead, I write to start a conversation about the other schools on this campus, to inject my words into a discourse that I hope is made more effective because of them.

Think about those often championed as society’s ‘greatest thinkers.’ We read them not to be persuaded by them, but to learn new ways of thinking, to build on imperfect ideas. The only way to come to terms with the limitations of our reason is to humbly recognize the role of our writing: as small cogs within the larger machine that is our discourse.

Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column, ‘The Postgraduate Way of Life,” runs on triweekly Thursdays.

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