Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Dear Brother: These are the friends I met

This is part 4 of a 4-part series addressed to the author's brother, discussing the author's perspective on "elite education".

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First, to wrap up our interlude of other people's insights, a zinger from one of my favorite professors ever, Dr. Margo Seltzer:

If I had as much disdain for my students as Deresiewicz appears to have for his, I'd get a new job. Seriously -- I view my students so differently from the way he does that it's hard to imagine we teach at similar institutions, and yet we do.

Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled...

Dear brother,

I haven't said much about my actual experience here, have I? Most of it's been the sort of broad descriptions you could have gleaned by just looking in from the outside; what's it like to actually live there, you ask? I'm glad you did.

Let's start with the people. Here are a few snapshots of my friends, in no particular order:

  • One helped me run a FIRST Lego League team at a Boston middle school last fall. Next year, she's looking at volunteering as a math team coach.
  • One is a brilliant cook, musician, artist, and software developer. She recently illustrated a children's book.
  • One is quitting an editorship and exec board position with the Crimson to pursue her real passion: the college radio station.
  • One is always there for me if I need someone to help me edit a blog post or a poem. Always. (And she's the glue that keeps our blocking group together.)
  • One quit the Harvard debate team to join the cheerleading squad, since that's what she likes doing better.
  • One is working her second summer at Los Alamos National Labs...on the policy implications of nuclear...something? It required a security clearance of some kind.
  • One is a physicist and a classicist and a mathematician. He's the one who takes incredibly detailed notes and emails them out to the whole class afterwards.
  • One directed a play for the first time this past spring. (I was on tech staff; it was awesome, even if the artistic quality of the production wasn't.)
  • One gets up at 8am to sing in the choir for morning prayers service. When she's not playing the violin instead, that is.
  • One is torn between physics and political philosophy, and is going to have taken enough classes to just choose which one she wants printed on her degree.
  • One is always there to lend an ear to friends who need to talk, even though she's a real derp about people and emotions.
  • One is the hardest-working student I know, but outside of class, she helps run the Sexual Health and Relationship Counseling student organization.
  • One gave up fencing to join -- and drag me onto -- the Ballroom Dance Team.
  • One was my best friend from the week we met. He's been my roommate for two years, and I can count on three hands the number of weeks we've been apart.
  • One dropped out of school to get a job in Silicon Valley and donate his excess income to charity.
  • One kept dragging me to contra dances until I got hooked on that, too.

The point I'm trying to make is not that we're high-achieving; the point I'm trying to make is that we're diverse. But here's the really wild thing: Each (horizontal) pair of bulletpoints describes the same person.

None of my friends are just one thing, and they certainly aren't all the same networking-obsessed, consulting-bound, compulsively-high-achieving stereotype. There's at least two mechanical engineer / dancers on the ballroom dance team with me -- one's dating my roommate. There's my friend who did lab work for that Cosmic Microwave Background experiment, and is now working as an economist in Paris for the summer. There's the math concentrator who founded the Transportation and Urban Planning Society. There's the ballerina-cum-choreographer who does service work mentoring at a nearby prison, and is now fundraising for the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.

I won't say that there aren't any zombies, just that I don't personally know any.

We do have our weaknesses. In large part, Deresiewicz's observation that "kids who manage to get into elite colleges have... never experienced anything but success" more or less rings true. And he's not wrong when he notes that "[t]he prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them."

Take it from me: the first few weeks (sometimes months; sometimes years) are jarring. Going from being the best in everything without really trying to -- if you're lucky -- good enough at one thing if you work really hard is pretty rough. "The cost of falling short" is something you become intimately familiar with -- just as the cost of doing business. "[N]ot trying to get an A in every class" is, for most students, a forgone conclusion. The question becomes: which classes are you going to try to get an A in? Just how much work is that going to take? Are you willing to make that tradeoff? (Hint: Sometimes "yes" is the wrong answer.)

Yes, it's disorienting; yes, it is at times terrifying. But the alternative to coming to grips with your own far-from-perfection at Harvard is...what? Choosing a less-challenging environment where you'll never be forced to grapple with your own fallibility? Me, I'd much rather fail in a safe place -- surrounded with other people also just learning to fail -- than do it in the real world, once the training wheels really come off.

It's not exactly like the post-college world is free of "toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation"; Joshua Rothman hits it squarely on the nose in What College Can't Do:

It would be comforting, in a way, if the Ivy League were a particularly soulless place. But is that really a plausible thing to say about a place like Yale, with its playing fields and courtyards, its libraries and theatres, and -- most importantly -- its population of energetic, intelligent, optimistic young people? I tend to draw the opposite conclusion from Deresiewicz’s data: the fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college.

That’s not to say that Deresiewicz’s essay doesn’t tell us something important about élite colleges. It puts into relief the stresses they are under, and the sometimes impossible demands that we make upon them as modern people looking for comfort in a changing world.

What I'm trying to say, in the end, is that the passage

"[M]ost of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice."

could not be farther from the truth in describing the passionate, multidimensional, (shoddily dressed,) and endlessly fascinating friends I've met here at Harvard. I hope that you don't just take the word of New Republic editorialists for it.

I'd be really sad if the Class of 2019 were made up solely of people who were fine living in the awful place Will Deresiewicz describes. Among other things, I'm really not sure they'd get along well in the community we've built here.

Wishing you good hunting and good decisions this application season,