BY CHRISTINE WOLFE
Why “following your dreams” might not be as terrible as it sounds.
The next time someone asks me what I’m doing after I graduate, I’m going to tell them I plan on developing a serious addiction to crack and getting a tattoo of a Spork on my thigh. That’s so ludicrous it’s almost believable: anyone who knows me knows I’m wiser than to get a thigh tattoo. But apply to graduate school in the humanities? I may as well cut off my left arm, which will be used against me by a mob of angry gay men clad in oatmeal-colored cashmere when I misquote Proust. Why would a girl like me — in need of stability and in want of a position in life, yet not pulled-together enough to be a trophy wife — spit on the opportunities I have been given as a Harvard student and walk down the path of likely unemployment?
I don’t know. I really don’t. All I do know is that I was possessed by the desire to try to do something I really want to do, something that would bring me great happiness, and something that — if it came through — would give me all I’ve ever wanted. Knowing that I might have the opportunity to pursue the study of literary craft is the first thing to make me truly happy in years. I can’t help thinking about it whenever I’m walking around campus, and if I’m feeling depressed about my inability to do triangles, or something, I consider the future and the worry dissipates. I consider the possibility that I could one day be sitting at a nice desk in a tweed skirt. I imagine myself passively intimidating at least 32% of people I encounter. I daydream about job satisfaction, something most adults I know have never experienced. And isn’t that exactly what we should be getting out of our college education: a lifelong commitment to intellectual pursuit? And if Harvard’s all it’s cracked up to be, shouldn’t we be able to pursue our personal interests while still finding some sort of professional success? Perhaps that’s just too much to ask, even from Harvard. That’s such a brutal revelation — it’s hard to take. And thinking back on the last time I looked forward to my future — my future as a Harvard student — I realize my expectations were misguided. What I looked forward to was not what I got.
Almost everyone at my high school was a Trustafarian: stoners backed by their parents’ money. Few of my classmates cared about learning. The faculty tried hard to foster an environment of dedication to abstract concepts while not pressuring anyone to do anything with their lives. As someone who has treated herself as an anxiety-ridden forty-six year old since the age of eight — and, more importantly, one of the only people in my high school who needed to work to get access to a stable future — this attitude bothered me immensely. I was patronized for caring too much about my assignments and getting in to a college normatively defined as “good.” So when I learned I was going to Harvard, I was ecstatic. Their generous financial aid policy didn’t really leave me with a choice, but heck, how could Harvard be bad? I would finally be in a place where everyone cared about learning as much as I did and where ski bums would stop telling me to stop working hard and, like, find myself.
What I have found at Harvard was not exactly what I thought I would, and I’m sure many of my peers who didn’t know about Harvard before attending would agree. I soon discovered that my classmates are not all here to learn. Some of them are here to binge drink in pastel shorts, some are here to play basketball, and many are here to get ahead in the professional world. These groups do not necessarily preclude a culture of academic devotion, but there does seem to be some effect, particularly when it comes to the social hierarchy. There is stigma attached to learning for its own sake: it is seen as either a replacement of social life or an unbearably pretentious sense of one’s own intellect. But as one gets along in one’s college career, it’s easier to ignore the inane rules set by anonymous peer groups. The social fears are replaced by the subtle but dominant institutional sense of pre-professionalism. Pursuing a career as a teacher? May as well find a dumpster to live in. Not pre-med? Maybe you’ll be happy until you’re double mortgaged and have lost all your teeth to a meth habit. Going from studying biology as an undergrad to English as a grad student? What kind of an idiot are you? When I see everyone I know suited-up, trotting up the street to OCI (which is, as I once discovered, not the Owl), I find myself contemplating the horrible possibility that I have become the person I once found so ridiculous. Pursuing something with a reasonable likelihood of instability just because I like it? I can’t be the only person who feels this deep unsettlement at following one’s interests. I’m sure everyone who isn’t participating in recruitment sees their friends in suits and thinks, as I do: What about them? What about those other people, who are doing something I wouldn’t like but that would guarantee the ability to have fabulous hair, nice clothes, and financial independence by twenty-five?
Maybe more of us aspiring intellectuals will end up going that route. Knowing how hard financial instability can be, it’s not something anyone should take lightly. It’s very tempting to go the structured route, especially when the Harvard administration provides so much support to find the way there. It’s still a new sensation to try what feels right for me and me only, but after four years of hard work at the most prestigious place in the country, I think doing what I want might be okay. When I think about it, I really want only four things: my own home, a family, a sense of professional satisfaction, and a tweed skirt. Most people have the first two at some point in their lives, and if we all work hard enough at what we enjoy, we just might get the third. And by my seventh year as an assistant-composition-lecturer-in-training, I will probably have saved enough to afford a nice tweed.
Or I guess we could all just go to law school.
Christine Wolfe ’14 (crwolfe@college) said “crack” again.