I just returned from the refugee camp on the border of Iraq, where new friends narrowly escaped having their heads removed from their bodies, to the Harvard Campus, where few seem to have escaped having their bodies removed from their heads.
Harvard is beautiful and crisp, old and shaded. And this makes an often cold city feel warm and livable.
But for being an Ivy League college, there is a surprising lack of actual ivy.
This loss of fusion between humans and nature is more than a mere aesthetic deficiency. Rather, it suggests a deeper shift in educational priorities. Harvard thinkers are all too often detached and restrained. Many of them seem solid and decent, yet dissociated from their bodies.
It is far from the ideal of humanistic education, which would have a person engage learning with the entirety of his or her being. But the seriousness that is brought to learning here pushes students to genuinely engage human differences in a way that all too often eludes the more spiritually inspired.
The campus is highly diverse and there is a great focus on global injustices. But the students and professors are often extremely ambitious, and the ambition can narrow their thinking into academic trivialities. The narrowing of thought also seems related to a lack of emotional intelligence, which is in its own way stupefying. If all things are related, we must know a bit about everything in order to contextualize anything. But even this is not enough, for once we know so much, we need to develop the moral intuitions that can tell us where true significance and meaning lie.
But it is hard for the generalist and the intuitive thinker to make headway at the pinnacle of academia.
My time at Harvard was spent over the course of the last year as neither student nor professor.
Rather, I resided at the Center for the Study of World Religions with the love of my life, who was getting her Master’s Degree in Divinity and focusing on strategic nonviolence. She brings to her work the sort of emotional and moral intelligence that comes from having cultivated oneself mentally, emotionally and spiritually—and it is a beautiful combination.
Meanwhile, I sometimes felt myself to be a sort of magical beast, stalking the campus, my hair, my eyes, my stride, my laugh—all too big. Even my reading list sometimes seemed too wide and extensive, like a river that overflowed its bounds.
Harvard recently went to tremendous lengths to make it is easier for poor students to attend. A middle class student can now attend virtually for free, and this brought tremendous changes. The old New England snobbery that is so often caricatured in films is now almost completely absent. And the campus is strikingly diverse. But this just adds to a sense of extreme inequality. Students come from all over the world and all walks of life, but they are on a fast track to success: most undergraduates no longer go on to become doctors and lawyers but rather join the ranks of Wall Street and become consultants.
Meanwhile, the homeless who line the streets of Harvard Square are treated as if they are nothing. But some of them are my friends, and it is easy to see our roles reversed through the change of but a few key life events.
The narrowness and inequality make me want to break out, to feel more deeply into my experiences, to be with the most downtrodden, and to break down the boundaries between subject and object.
Harvard made me want to write from the inside out; to use my imagination to feel into the lives of distant and foreign peoples; to break down all barriers to thought; to bring everyone into a global conversation; and to be absolutely flamboyant in my public expression of both personal and impersonal love.
It can sometimes seem like everyone wants to criticize Harvard, though. And this can look a lot like envy. In a society of winners and losers, there will be a strong tendency to want to tear down the winners. But there is also something wrong with the very structure of a society in which the success of some means the failures of others. It is inherently degrading and it forces those who might succeed to narrow their minds, bringing to the top the people who are most prone to shutting out the world around them.
This capacity for sublimation can lead to great improvements in human well-being, so we would do well to check our criticism. But everything about it can appear out of tune.
Let the great mind spin its wide and rippling circles.
It is time we put the ivy back into the Ivy League. We need more of that nature, which creeps across the windows of our human edifices and unifies the landscape of nature with the constructions of the mind.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own