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The Homogenization of Harvard

Antone Martinho '13

There is a part of me – and it would be disingenuous to suggest that it isn’t a prominent part – that finds itself railing against today’s model of the ideal Harvard student.  And though there are many reasons why a conservative such as myself might take exception to many members of the current student body, in this particular case my disappointment is not in some silly protest or inane awareness campaign, but rather an objection to the utter conformity of so many of my fellow Harvardians.

Supposedly homogeneity is antithetical to the modern notion of Harvard – the admissions office will be quick to provide plenty of data on the wide range of backgrounds, races, opinions, socio-economic classes, and, most recently, “genders” represented in each new batch of freshmen.  Yes, we do indeed have a veritable rainbow of diversity – but on closer inspection it’s comprised of students who turn out to be remarkably the same.  For though I may sit down with a corn-fed farmer’s son from Iowa, a minor rap artist from Queens, a Republican Jew from NorCal, or a lesbian minister’s daughter from God-only-knows-where, I can almost be certain before the first sentences are uttered that each took 6-10 AP classes, was president of their high-school’s NHS chapter, and will be taking two tough courses this semester, plus one easier requirement and one “gem” – easy A, little work.  One will have taken a gap year, one will be a varsity athlete, one will be a vegetarian, and one will try to be president of everything in which he or she is involved.  Each will concentrate in Economics, Government, or Science, with a dash of Humanities thrown in for balance. All of them will be obnoxious, and all of them will go on to be very successful, and this is of course the way things are supposed to be.

So what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that today’s Harvard students, in attempting to negotiate the politically correct slope to success, have become so boringly standardized, so totally conformist that we are now indistinguishable from our peers at Yale, Stanford or dare I say it, The University of Chicago. The very character of Harvard undergraduate life is in danger of being homogenized out of existence.

We have, in short, lost our eccentricity, our particular blend of seriousness and silliness that once made Harvard Harvard.

Perhaps it is a symptom of the modern age, of faster communication.  Until fairly recently, just what exactly went on “up there at Harvard” was largely the subject of myth and mystery to most people, and Harvard didn’t disappoint. But in the interests of creating an internal “meritocracy” (whatever that may be) and adjusting our lives and schedule to conform to other universities, we risk becoming far more normal than behooves us.

Once upon a time at Harvard, there were people like Arthur Darby Nock, the noted theologian and linguist who was famous for meditating in his Eliot House study – in the nude. (Can you imagine what would be made of that by today’s media?) Or what about Charles Kletzch, who, having decided to pursue a career in the arts, was cut off by his family, and simply moved into a secret compartment the Dunster House library, where he remained for decades? (How likely would that be these days?) Or how about FDR’s famous John the Orangeman, Harvard’s beloved mascot for 40 years, with his donkey, cart and secret stash of bootlegged booze? He happily supplied generations of dry Harvard undergraduates from his ass-drawn cart, and no one, ever, blew his cover. Today poor old John would be subject of a Crimson expose and arrested for selling alcohol to minors before he could shout the name of his donkey,“Annie Radcliffe.”

Nor was it just the faculty. The students too, used to have guts and glory.  Think of it! Hundreds of years ago the Harvard student body held a rebellion over the quality of their butter. A butter rebellion? Outstanding! Give me a musket and let’s duke this thing out!  Public ruckus was de rigueur then.  A young Cambridge woman once decided to seek a very certain sort of attention by removing her crimson garter whilst on the balcony above the Memorial Hall dining room. After a dainty little striptease, she hurled it down to the adoring boys below. The resulting riot was so great that numerous tables, chairs, place settings, oil paintings, and waiters were damaged in the ensuing scramble. Legendary! There seems to be no lack of lewd behavior at Harvard now – in fact it seems encouraged, with “sex week” and other such Babylonian diversions – but we could at least attempt to lend it a distinctly more Harvardian flavor. Even our Final Clubs have somehow slid from roasting pigs in freshman rooms to behaving like ill-mannered garden-variety frats with overly large budgets.

These days, even our streaking has become a scheduled event, with its own entry in Wikipedia.

Ho hum.

Replacing bland acceptance letters with roving bands of chanting students to welcome new House members on Housing day is a step in the right direction, but the very idea of randomization is yet another blow to our beloved eccentricities.  Randomized housing? No, that’s what other universities do!  We are anything but other universities!  I say let’s return to self-selection of House, and then let each House Committee devise some sort of gauntlet-esque task or series of quests or inventive competition to determine who gets to live there.  Something, anything! Just let it be less boring than a computer algorithm designed to ensure randomization with an “appropriate” gender ratio balance.

We Harvard students need to damn the torpedoes and do something absurd, something irresponsible, something outside of our pre-programmed career paths, something for those god-awful Hahvahd tours to scream about in future years just once before we leave these walls, or else risk slipping into the dull pages of deservedly unremembered history.

Rinehart, oh Rinehart, where are you now when we need you?

(Editor’s Note: For those of you whose half-homogenized time at Harvard, like mine, sadly omitted knowledge of the last reference, you may direct yourself here.)