Welcome Pre-Frosh. Do you feel psychologically inadequate or weak? Then Harvard University might be the perfect place for you. If you wish, you can go weeks or even months without reading a national newspaper, engaging in a political discussion, or talking about anything but that one Crimson editorial entitled, “On Grinding.”
Perhaps you have come to Harvard from a position as the head of your Sunnyville High School Young Democrats, Republicans, Policy Wonks, or Communists. If this is true for you, the Harvard College Democrats and the Harvard Republican Club are organizations that you might consider joining.
For those of you that sympathize with the tattered remnants of Occupy, you should SLAM yourself into place with the far-left element of campus. And for those who love play-acting The West Wing, you will forevermore call the IOP (Institute of Politics) your home.
Of course, you might also decide to write for a publication on campus in a political fashion.
However, even those interested in the political goings-on of the world might find these organizations as a hesitant home.
And so we come to the real question: What about the rest of us?
The Period of Ennui
I arrived at Harvard in August 2009, then a proud potential Neuroscience concentrator (pre-med, of course). However, even though I would eventually declare Government, I am more apathetic about political organizations now than I was then. My slackening fervor might have been caused by the increasingly besieged Obama administration, but also for the fact that liberals have it tough at Harvard. While in my home state of Texas I would be continually forced to hone my left-of-center arguments, at Harvard there is definitely a reduced need to defend things like public education or universal marriage rights. And, my political debate muscles have weakened with each passing discussion that concluded with, “Well I think we all agree on the unethical nature of corporate personhood.”
When I would “dorm-storm” for the Harvard College Democrats in 2010, six out of 10 doors I knocked on had the near-identical reply of “I don’t care about politics,” sometimes qualified with “I guess I’m liberal, but I don’t really think about it.” Now, a year later, political conversation in my extended friend group has ground to a halt. “Did you know that Santorum suspended his campaign?” was the singular statement that prompted a reaction recently: sighs from those who were frustrated he had been a legitimate candidate for this long and groans from those that wanted to prolong the Republican brawl. As shocking as this may seem, Harvard has been in the position before.
Past Views of Apathy
In a Crimson article published on Dec. 4, 2007 (one year before the Obama election), Alumni criticized Harvard students for “widespread apathy and political indifference.” But wait! Ten years earlier, in a Crimson editorial piece, the author mentioned a similar vein of criticism against Harvard’s lackluster political activist scene, making the argument that “We have a lifetime for political activism, of which many of us will take full advantage. We have only four years of liberal education (except for the few who study for a Ph.D.). With limited time, students must make a choice, and most students prudently choose their education over activism.” Three years before that, an anonymous student argued that “We are often so involved with our lives here on campus that these world-wide problems are relegated to a back burner.” At this rate, I feel that if I went back to the first editorial pages of The Crimson, I’d find a piece bemoaning the youth’s apathetic handling of Ulysses Grant’s re-election. (Then again, the drinking and voting ages were different in the good old days.)
When the argument didn’t stand in a similar fashion to “I don’t go to church because I’m too busy,” the general consensus from those bygone days, especially the snafu in 2007, lied in the supposition that Harvard students were more likely to use organizations such as the IOP and PBHA to create change. Teach for America’s hold amongst recent Harvard graduates is ever-tightening, and the disapproving reactions against Occupy Harvard (and the greater movement as a whole) give a hint as to student views on protest as an inferior form of political action to internal systemic change.
It is true that there are fewer and fewer incentives for college students to be involved in political campaigns. The Citizens United decision has rendered dollars in pockets more important than boots on the ground, a resource that young volunteers could provide en masse. With a shifting focus onto careers in finance, the sciences, and technology, the resources to be politically active dwindle as quantifiable proficiency is valued more than qualified rhetorical ability.
However, discussion is not dead. Harvard still provides the avenues to engage in a more societal approach to political ideas. To paraphrase and bastardize Clausewitz, what is politics but an extension of war by other means. Politics at Harvard can be a war on sexism, racism, or inequalities in schooling. In that sense, they are unlike the meaningless fear-mongering of the War on Drugs, Terror, or Christmas, because the ultimate goal is to find the causes of harm, and to muster the intellectual capacity and courage to fight them wherever they may be.
So prepare yourself for a deeper brand of politics, one that requires the flexibility to reference Katniss Everdeen’s lack of self-awareness or Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably, to cite a professor in one breath and an Atlantic column in the other, and to further dialogue between each other through a combination of the desire for truth and the freedom to find it completely on your own. No pre-packaged party-approved messages. No hopeless campaigns in Russia in winter.
You can be apathetic about that, but be prepared to deal in politics, whether it seems to be clearly demarcated as such or not.