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Thursday, October 27, 2005

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.

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.
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.

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?


At 4:35 PM, Anonymous Yi-Ping said...

Just to add to what Andrew is saying, I think that in a way we Americans also have to consider what exactly a "radical" approach to life might be. It sometimes seems as if no matter what Americans do, we tend to do it with an excessive level of both angst and hubris (if I can mix two such ugly words in the same sentence) -- that is, our culture is dominated by the extreme expressions of a highly self-conscious, religiously inspired, neurotic guilt on the one hand and a kind of cowboy-going-into-the-void reckless sort of heroism on the other. That's why we start to feel tormented between "selling our souls to the devil of i-banking" or trying to" save the whole world." It's all about me and whether I'm good or bad.

This kind of drama in which personal identity -- the question of Who You Really Are -- becomes central, and all choices are portrayed in shades of black and white, distorts the real nature of life and of choice. Maybe in a culture where we're encouraged to see everything in those terms, the most radical thing to do would be relax and try not to take one's self so seriously. I'm not advocating a kind of conservative satisfaction with the status quo. Of course it really matters what you do with your life and how you choose to contribute to the economy that sustains us. But whether you believe that I Am Good Because I am Rich or I am Good Because I Refuse to Sell Out, whatever it is, you're still thinking about yourself, right? After a certain point that just gets in the way of seeing the society of which you're a part and how you can realistically contribute to it. I felt like the Crimson columnists today were indirectly raising a important point about how narcissism and an overemphasis on personal success, personal perfection, and personal excellence gets in the way of pursuing a meaningful way of life, one that places value on building a sense of community.

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous sarika said...

I think my parents see my Harvard education as an investment. When I say "investment" I'm not really talking about an investment to make me a "better person," though that is true to an extent. Really what I mean to say is that they see my education here as a financial investment for the future. They are willing to put in the $160K (well somewhat less thanks to financial aid) because think it can be paid off ten-fold in the future.

I don't think it's an accident that a Harvard education comes with an exorbitant price tag. Our university has a $26 billion endowment, and I honestly believe that if the folks in Mass Hall wanted, we could all pay peanuts to go here. Think of the possibilities: the privileged few who would gain admission to these hallowed halls of learning could access the world's largest university library system and hundreds of brilliant professors, without worrying about associated monetary costs. The university could focus instead on Learning and Self-Discovery and the Intrinsic Value of Education, whatever those terms mean.

So why isn't a Harvard education free? Because Harvard isn't in it for inculcating us with the aforementioned capitalized words. I mean they are to an extent, the same way my parents want me to become a more complete individual. At the end of the day, though, Harvard wants us to think in pragmatic terms. They want us to be able to put a concrete value on our education here, by which we can determine our self-worth. And what happens at the end of it all? Hundreds of us become wealthy young urban professionals, and soon will be ready to support this very system.

I agree that one of the reasons 600+ Harvard seniors are on the e-recruiting system is because its "easy" and "comfortable" (myself included). You attend the schmoozing events, submit your resume and cover letter (transcript optional) with a few clicks of your mouse, and a week later receive an email saying "Application Decision: Accept/Decline for [insert position title]." But beyond its simplicity, I think recruiting's popularity lies in how we've been taught we're deserving of such privileges. We can do "so much more" than earn entry-level salary as an assistant's assistant at some podunk company in rural Missouri. And we can do "so much more" than plan community-wide fundraisers for an ineffective NGO in South Carolina. We're part of a meritocratic elite, and why shouldn't we maintain this status in our professional lives?

I'm not saying that this attitude wouldn't exist if Harvard's $160K price tag was eliminated -- Harvard elitism has as much to do with money as it does with its non-monetary prestige. I'm saying that the huge fee enhances our ability to see our education in concrete terms. And based on this, it's hardly surprising that so many serniors whipped out their brand name suits and neatly typed resumes at the BCG info session 3 weeks ago.


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