Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Footfalls...and Failures

September-October 2006

As thesummer months trickle through my sweaty fingers, September looms, bringing with it the first of my Lasts. For the last time, I will return to Harvard an undergraduate. For the last time, I will listen to the distant growl of plastic luggage wheels on pavement abruptly shift to a clatter on the courtyard’s bricks as each student returns, like me, to Quincy House.

Ahead, the last two semesters, the last eight courses, the last 24 weeks of lectures beckon. I am uncertain whether the enumeration is a countdown to launch, or a cautious rationing of dwindling resources.

The course catalog holds so many courses, and I must choose just eight. Already I have crossed into territory where pages that I dog-eared as a freshman list courses no longer offered, and I must abandon the now-ancient plan to take Government 1246: “Post-Soviet States.” I can no longer set good courses aside on my (long) list marked “Take Next Year” because, for the last time, it is next year.

Reluctantly, I look over the list and discover that somehow all of my science requirements are still on it. Now how did that happen? Though I am a government concentrator, I do not have the mortal fear of science that stereotypically haunts students who answer questions with arguments, not decimal places. In high school, I took all the science I could find—and here, perhaps, lies the problem. My familiarity with basic science renders dull the first six weeks of “Life as a Planetary Phenomenon,” which introduces us wide-eyed government types to the brave new world of the periodic table, yet I am not so bold as to tackle neurobiology or organic chemistry, courses that even the self-titled geeks find challenging. Shopping period, I fear, will find me skipping around the Science Center like an academic Goldilocks, muttering “Too hard,” “Too soft,” and with any luck, “Just right.”

Yet even once happily enrolled in the courses of my choice, I cannot simply put my head down and charge forward to meet their challenges: the ominous footfalls of real-world concerns have at last reached my ears. Jobs? Graduate schools? Vagrancy, perhaps? Notions that once were fodder for lighthearted speculation and fantastic yet half-serious plans become fully serious now, divested of their levity. People will still laugh at optimistic remarks expounding the virtues of corrugated cardboard as roofing and insulation, yet the laughs are self-conscious. We Harvard students fear nothing more than failure, I think. Grades and classes are bad enough, but life itself? This is a test we must pass, yet none of us is quite certain how to study.

Among my friends, few know what they will be doing a year from now. We envy those cocksure investment bankers and pre-meds for the stability of their futures, if not for the content of their careers. The common solution is more school—hitting the snooze button on reality and rolling back to hide under the warm covers of academia. Here are challenges that we know how to meet, tests for which we know how to study. So my fellow seniors throw themselves into preparation for the GMAT, the LSAT, and the GRE, still intimidated by the stakes, but secretly relieved to deal one last time with the familiar menace of a standardized test.

Last spring, the Harvard College Law Society sponsored an LSAT test-prep session. I attended, because I had speculated once or twice about going to law school. Besides, there was free pizza. The session turned out to be a sales pitch from Kaplan, one of the many national firms that teach how to take standardized tests. A man in a purple tie stood at one end of the room to explain that the LSAT test was a great test. Why? Not just because it was a logic test, but because the LSAT predicts—better than any other marker—how well students will perform in their first year of law school. He paused a moment to let this sink in. Seven points, he explained, made the difference between the fiftieth and ninetieth percentiles. Law schools, he explained, don’t even look at your application at first. They look only at your LSAT scores and your GPA, and sort into three piles: Yes, no, and consider.

He did not need to explain that if we didn’t study for the LSAT, our scores would be too low even to be considered. If we weren’t considered, we would never get in, and if we didn’t get in, we would never get a job with a good firm, never get rich, and never become senators—and then our whole lives would be failures. In less than 10 minutes, he had persuaded us that seven points on an aptitude test would mean the difference between a full partnership and waiting tables. But! This test-prep course would save us.

Students taking his firm’s course scored seven points higher on the LSAT. Seven points! This course could move us from the fiftieth to the ninetieth percentile!

I thought about this for a moment, irked that this knight in shining armor was no more than a mercenary. I doodled a bell curve on the sample test he had handed out, and thought about what he had said so far. If the LSAT really did measure how well you would do at law school, and his course really did produce such a significant improvement in your score, then by extension, it seemed, the course actually turned you into a better student.

Looking at my bell curve, I thought there was something fishy about the numbers. Any small margin above the median score would dramatically shift the percentile (the number of people scoring worse). But the farther from the median it began, the less useful a small change would be. It was like running a marathon—if you were in the middle of the pack, moving seven feet ahead would let you beat another hundred people, but if you were in tenth or twentieth place, moving seven feet ahead might not even catch the runner ahead of you. Essentially, the sales pitch offered to move us seven feet ahead—a small change that helps the students in the middle most, and the students doing best, least. This was the sales pitch for a logic test? It depended more on insecurity than reason. I finished my free pizza and left.

From the distance of the summer, it is easy to look at this frenzy of mixed ambition and fear and laugh at the purported importance of the whole affair. But while in that room, I was just as caught up by the panic as anyone else there. I went to the session seeking help in applying for law school. I left not because I saw through the hype, but because I was late for another meeting. The price tag, not the glossy sales pitch, awakened my skepticism. A cheaper class and a shorter sales pitch and I, too, would be enrolled in a professional prep course, clinging to each morsel of advice as a talisman against failure.

 

When did failure become so bad? I think back to elementary school, when my classmates remarked, “You missed a point!” Whether stated with glee or mere surprise, the expectation was clear. Anything less than perfection meant failure. But even if that was the beginning, as is often asserted, many of us who have made our way to Harvard have invested personal meaning in these all-or-nothing standards.

We do not confine these standards to our judgments of ourselves; they travel with us, out into the world and the workplace. I visited a friend in New York in June, where we ended up among a group of recent graduates whom I did not know. One new alumna recounted her first day at the office: “The security guard asked me if I was a new secretary.” Everyone laughed. Though I did not know what she did, this graduate was clearly a success. “And I thought to myself, ‘Now look here, Rent-a-Cop….’” More laughter. Security guards are failures. The group disdain for secretaries or security guards made me uncomfortable. If I am less than extraordinary, will I, too, merit such condescension? Will I be less happy than these new alumni?

The more pessimistic of my roommates believes that he would be unhappy with anything less than excellence. “I want to be the best,” he says, as he plans to apply to the best graduate schools. “I know I could continue studying at Arizona State, or somewhere, but it would signify that I was not good enough. It’s a step down, after Harvard.” He explains that the stamp of excellence is indispensable. “Even if I really like a job, it would not make me happy to do it at a level that was not the best.”

These standards are his own, yet in his words I see a dangerous perfectionism, equating normality with misery. I have confidence that he will do great things, but I wonder whether he will accomplish enough to satisfy his own taste for excellence. Even more, I wonder about myself.

I tell myself that I want to help people, and this will make me happy. Still, the lure of perfectionism is seductive, promising me everything I’ve always wanted—money, fame, glory, attention, power. I know that as they return to Harvard, my classmates will bring stories of high-octane internships, tense applications for schools and scholarships, and endless banter about starting salaries in this or that profession. It will be easy to get swept up in the tension, ambition, and excitement that senior year will bring.

When I hear the suitcases clatter into the courtyard, I will wonder: When summer rolls around again, and the suitcases roll in the other direction, which of us will be happy with where we are headed?

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