The Motto and the Millennial
The reputation of today’s college students has, by now, been raked through the mud in the pages of most of America’s prominent publications. We’re coddled, spoiled, out of touch, addled by an overdose of political correctness, desiring nothing other than to be swathed in comfort, shielded from anything our social-media fueled, reactionary hysteria might deem “unsafe.” Heralding the death of both free speech and American excellence, pundits and writers of op-eds have sounded the alarm on what they see as a veritable epidemic; the prognosis is dim.
For the generation raised in an era dominated by apocalyptic climate-change predictions and the post-9/11 discourse of terror, this may come as no surprise. All signs point to doom and destruction, and we are reminded tragically and frequently that danger is still unequally apportioned along age-old lines of identity and privilege. Can we be blamed for running to safety?
In 1866, The Harvard Advocate was founded to run in the opposite direction: For 150 years, Dulce est Periculum has been our magazine’smotto, rendering danger—not beauty or truth—the value by which we orient our writing and art. As President and Publisher, we have found that our organization lies in a disjointed cultural position: far from aligned with the op-ed pundits, but sensitive to their appraisal; a step out-of-sync with undergraduates and administrative deans who discount the real merits of danger. It’s an uncomfortable spot.
And it has lead us to believe that these warring factions have conflated two forms of safety. On the one hand there is physical harm, slander, discrimination, perils that tasted sweet to the wrong people in the past and must never do so again. On the other there is intellectual insecurity and combative debate, the grit of a challenge. To banish the second in name of the first robs undergraduates of the risks we need to both better ourselves and tackle more ambitious, collective pursuits.
The millennial generation has long been derided for ignoring such challenges. Before the reign of the “coddled” epithet, we were “apathetic.” To prioritize the perfect selfie angle over issues of global importance signaled our narcissism, we were told. But as we have turned our attention from Instagram feeds to more pressing social movements—Black Lives Matter, Occupy and its offshoots, the newly prominent campaign against campus sexual assault—a different source for our apathy has surfaced: fear. Cautioned and discouraged by the inability of our predecessors to adequately and definitively succeed, we worry about stepping on each other’s toes, panic at the thought of leaving someone out. When so many things are problematized, the scope of our ambitions narrows, and we begin to focus on small, immediate, and—in the grander scheme—relatively trivial concerns.
And nowhere does triviality seem so trivial as at our crimson-colored bastion of American academic elitism. Harvard, as understood by administrative envoys and Crimson editorials, applies too much pressure with its comps and cut-throat classes, generating an exclusive, hierarchical, and unsafe environment. This is sound reasoning, but reasoning that has come to inflate the relative smallness of collegiate pressure—and to ignore its many merits. As any top-rate athlete knows, if we want to improve, we must work hard, usually very hard. A small group of admission officers did not grant those who matriculate a carte blanche of permanent validation, and sometimes, we will deserve a C. Sometimes we will not want to hear a Marxist professor invalidate our future professions. Sometimes we will be cut. Insecurity in these moments, in a classroom or comp, can be a productive sort of discomfort.
But something about the Harvard bubble has obscured this logic, letting us equate personal invalidation with structural injustice and, most insidiously, ignore actual injustice. True, there remains on this campus a cornucopia of traditions and organizations tinged with distasteful remnants of archaic power structures, and there is much to be reformed within Harvard if it is to uphold its promises. Progress starts small, and it starts at home. But something is wrong when every student opines on exclusivity in Harvard’s elite social clubs, while remaining silent on issues far more central to our global future. We argue more about the politics of an introductory comp meeting than about actual politics. These conflations, these slidings of scale, arise from the same fear: a fear of offending each other, of potentially disagreeing, of confrontation. When we hold back, we stop talking, we stop listening, and we stop connecting. Very often, we stop acting.
Over the past four years, the two of us have seen a rise of that paralysis at 21 South Street: a tendency to swap sweet danger for bland cordiality, to keep meetings serene lest one undergraduate provoke another. Too often, the Advocate’s members say no to perils before tasting their flavor, closing their ears to each other and falling prey to suspicions that fracture meetings before they have begun. This fear of real engagement is particularly disquieting when it bears on relations to the broader Harvard community. Amidst the best intentions for organizational improvement, the Advocate find itself caught up in obsessive analysis of its own culture—in examining a minute position on this campus and trying to divine the mental states of all who perceive it. A quote spoken at the wrong moment, a candle misplaced—these are the details that have become invested with the greatest weight. Constant inward-facing dialogue has inflated our membership’s sense of self-importance beyond reasonable proportion. Hyper-concerned with imagined complaints, many become deaf to valid criticism and distanced from the magazine’s actual purpose.
As we bid farewell to the Advocate, we hope those left behind will recall that purpose’s primacy: This magazine should serve as a space for fearless debate over literature and art, our aesthetic risks ideally playing a small part in a campus culture that boldly demands not just extracurricular and dormitory justice, but racial, gender, sexual, environmental, and economic justice. The fear that narrows our focus to trivialities and personal affronts should impede neither pursuit, so we must remain vigilant to differentiate between species of fears, and of safeties.
To fuel that vigil, we return to our timeless motto, and to the firm belief that beyond its appeal as a decent spot for a cocktail, the Advocate still holds a commitment to one or two lofty ideals. On its sesquicentennial, this magazine—be it a victim of Comstockery, an organ of responsible criticism, or great organic zilch—has something to teach us muck-raked millennials: Danger, when shaken right, is still sweet.