When Harvard Jumps the Shark

Sep 8, 2017 by

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What the unrecognized social group debate tells us about Harvard’s identity crisis

By Lauren D. Spohn –

Wearing his iconic leather jacket and a pair of water skis, sitcom hero Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli jumped over a shark in season five of the 1970s television series “Happy Days.” But while the Fonz’s half-nude fictional cronies cheered on the beach, his fans and critics fulminated on the other side of the TV screen. Such a preposterous stunt, they cried, was out of the show’s character! In its desperate, ultimately unsuccessful ploy to revamp ratings, “Happy Days” had forgotten itself.

Like the Fonz, Harvard is jumping the shark—not with plastic TV props, but with unrecognized social groups. The witty banter between closed-door deliberations and public backlash over exclusive social organizations, and the meme-laden laugh track cued when faculty members filed a second motion against the College’s recommendations to phase out such groups, certainly seem like typical plot elements of the Harvard College Sitcom. But in reality, they’re stunts. Like the shark in “Happy Days,” the debate over unrecognized social groups shows just how much Harvard has forgotten itself.

Harvard College’s purpose is straightforward: “The mission of Harvard College,” the official statement reads, “is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Harvard achieves this objective, so it claims, through its “commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” In other words, Harvard is foremost a school, an academic institution designed to provide students an education in exchange for tuition, contributions to research, alumni donations, and a prestigious claim to the success graduates later achieve, which in turn attracts more students. Matriculation is fundamentally a business transaction. Diplomas are receipts for the service Harvard is paid to provide.

But as the debate over exclusive social groups shows, students and faculty have lost sight of this basic arrangement. Instead, they insist that Harvard is so much more than simply a school; it’s a transformational experience, a diverse community, a place where we all belong. Welcome videos, warm emails, Yard banners, convocation speeches, and fuzzy mantras like “community” and “belonging” push students and faculty into believing that Harvard is not primarily an educational transaction, but a home.

If Harvard is more a of home than a school, the administration becomes more of a parent than a principal, and the student becomes more of a child than a client. Faculty and students alike begin to believe all aspects of Harvard should be as welcoming, inclusive, and comfortable as their own homes. And as a result, they come to see joining organizations that don’t fit these homey descriptors—be it final clubs or Greek life—as a punishable offense, regardless of whether it falls under the administration’s principally academic jurisdiction. By endorsing these expectations, students and faculty license the College to overstep its bounds—to extend its authority beyond the classroom and into students’ social lives.

This isn’t to suggest Harvard should stop calling itself a home. As the College’s mission statement specifies, living on campus with diverse peers is a crucial component of Harvard’s transformational education. Moreover, some students consider the College the only home they have, and almost all students learn better in a comfortable environment than in an unwelcoming one. But we cannot mistake supplementary aspects of Harvard for its primary purpose. As the mission statement stubbornly insists, a transformational education begins in the classroom. Harvard is a school first, anything else second.

If we focus on Harvard the home to the extent that we forget about Harvard the educational transaction, we risk not only inviting administrative intrusions into students’ social lives, but also, perhaps more sinisterly, adopting expectations that put emotional or social comfort before intellectual growth. By insisting it’s a home before a school, Harvard invites students to view the discomfort necessary for intellectual development as an encroachment on their intellectual complacency, not as an essential part of the transaction they made by matriculating here.

At home, we’re used to being cozy. We view any discomfort or disagreement as an unjust threat to our peace of mind. But at the world’s leading research university, conflict becomes the means to progress. The discomfort of difference and debate is essential to intellectual advancement. As developing thinkers, we must not avoid strife by deferring to others’ opinions, or insist upon our right to be comfortable by forcing others to do so for us. We’re not supposed to be comfortable here; we’re supposed to challenged by opposing, even offensive, views, colliding in debates and wrestling with conflicting ideas. By no means should we stop calling Harvard home. But by no means should we forget we came here first to learn and second to belong.

The sitcom drama spinning around unrecognized social groups, then, is really just evidence that Harvard, by overemphasizing itself as a home, has forgotten its primary purpose as an academic transaction—a misallocation of priorities that seriously threatens the education it promises to provide. This social group shark, far from attracting more matriculating viewers, simply shows how far the College has strayed from what made it successful in the first place. Let’s just hope that unlike “Happy Days,” Harvard can remember itself before the season ends.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

Source: When Harvard Jumps the Shark | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson

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