Harvard and the American dream: the well-trodden routes
The Crimson ran two great pieces of writing today on the concept of recruiting and careerism. They are ostensibly contradicting each other: Sahil arguing that recruiting is a natural extension of Harvard and our previous lives and Henry arguing that it is a comfortable and sadly uninspired way to use a privileged and educated existence. But, in some sense, they represented a strange cohesion of perspectives on the dominant mode of Harvard students and the structure of a Harvard education. For me, Sahil's comment was about acknowledging Harvard's role in society- a place to cultivate social "heroes"- whlie Henry's comment was more about expressing sadness of what American society current views as those heroes.(more in expanded post)
Take Sahil's main paragraph:
Harvard has always attempted to exemplify the ideals of a society at a given period and recruiting is just another expression of this. We are, after all, not the University of Chicago, who have defined excellence as academic achievement and correspondingly produced intellectuals, regardless of society’s valuation for them. Harvard is instead in the business of producing heroes, living ideals of society’s idea of excellence. Were American society to idealize bookish grad students, Harvard would churn them out in droves. Instead, we like our grads competitive, young, and wealthy. And so, where corporate recruiting caters to this societal idealization, Harvard fulfills it, because that is what Harvard does.I think he's quite right. Unlike University of Chicago that has created a culture that is specific in the kind of education that it endorses, specific in the culture that it creates and the students it believes are valuable, Harvard is neutral on the question, allowing recruiters and culture to seep in and reflect, to a large extent, the dominant values of our time: money and status. As Sahil later points out:
What I am suggesting is that the majority of Harvard’s organization kids believe in excellence, but not much else. We have taken on the standards of other people not because we found them good and noble, but because we profited for them.So, while I disagree with his later assertion that it is somehow futile to try to change oneself considering this as our context, he is quite lucid about what Harvard is about, and why Harvard students have the tendencies that we do. Strangely though, Henry's column hits almost exactly the same note:
Most of us simply go with the flow—abdicating control of our lives to the conventional prestige we pursue and to the technology that effectively keeps us too distracted to ask the uncomfortable questions about where we are really going and why. Between our work-hard/party-hard lifestyle, any time or energy for actual solitary reflection is lost—as is any moment for original thought and conscious direction of purpose.While Sahil sees the same thing as a fatalistic reality, Henry has an optimism (or at least glimer of hope) that some will choose to change this culture, that we can acknowledge that there is something wrong with ourselves and Harvard through introspection and a little courage.
And thus many of us unsurprisingly head to posh post-graduation destinations. We are so busy thinking about the micro rather than the macro that we get to senior year without a clear purpose of why we are here and who we want to be. While some of us mindlessly pursue the status symbols, the more passive amongst us ambivalently follow along, soothed by the potential for easy money and the fact that “everyone is doing it.” Trained to be technicians–-people who think very creatively, but within specific parameters—we are content to sell off our brainpower to corporations, political parties, and law firms. Plus, between the money the firms will offer and the hours they will demand from us, we will continue to be able to live in secure comfort—still lacking the time to question ultimately what we are doing with our lives.
Still, when taken together, the two pieces paint a pretty depressing picture of the Harvard student. I'm not sure I agree with the writers that we are so uniform, that we are, in fact, of one type, but both certainly seem to be pointing out serious things about our dominant culture. And I don’t think, as some might, that taking the "well-trodden routes," as Henry calls them, is such an anomaly. I would guess that few in the world are true adventurers, are truly brave enough to wade into the unknown, truly believe that we as individuals can be radically different. That is, after all, why we so often celebrate those people-the revolutionaries, the innovators, the avant-garde. They are radical because they are rare.
But it is true, I think, that we are living in a moment of dramatic and sad conformity to a culture obsessed with money and status, raised by parents who learned to be politically fatalistic through failure, in a country where the state seems to continually slide away from reality and relevance. It is unsurprising, then, that many people approach this world, uncomfortable with what they see, and seek personal comfort over public good. It is unsurprising that there are few around us brave enough to be revolutionaries, innovators or avant-garde. The questions that naturally arises out of both columns, then, are: how long can our society trod this path before it implodes on itself? How long can money and status be the fuel for the American way of life before all else- a sense of meaning, of community, of morality- is lost? And, can Harvard possibly produce people who have the courage to be different enough to do something about it?