Friday, April 25, 2014


"It’s only after finishing a 15-page paper on the undercurrents of Jewish culture and Marxism in 1970s American folk music that you realize you’re in a bubble."

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A Dash of Insanity


It’s only after finishing a 15-page paper on the undercurrents of Jewish culture and Marxism in 1970s American folk music that you realize you’re in a bubble.

Harvard’s red-bricked, nostalgia-filled, mold-inundated learning facades (or, some would say, facades of learning) protect students from the real world and every practical skill one may need to survive in it. The openness of the liberal arts education forces every student into a backward retreat from the forward driving effort that got each student noticed by the admissions office in the first place. And that makes it sort of an anomaly in our culture—a highly valued four years that serve as an essential part of the American Dream, but also four years that work completely contrary to the driven, hard-working nature of that same Dream.

Simply put, it’s a highly inefficient step in an overall efficient path to achievement, serving as a break in the characteristically capitalist drive to success.

It’s hard to say whether this bubble of inefficiency is really necessary. But I think if we analyze it on a smaller scale, we can see just how valuable this not-real-world inefficiency can be. And a perfect example can be found at Harvard—not it its halls of education, but rather in its halls of gestation.

Each House dining hall acts as its own mini bubble, existing to protect students from the papers, problem sets, classes, and office hours of the Harvard bubble at large. They allow each patron the opportunity to sit for a while, eat, and socialize after a long day, as students eat seconds and thirds in order to delay any chance of going back to the library or dorm alone.

And I think the main reason why this small bubble survives at Harvard is its surprisingly inefficient and anti-capitalist policy: the compulsory, unlimited meal plan. Because every student pays for (or is funded by financial aid for) infinite, all-you-can-eat meals every semester, there is no reason to eat anywhere else. In addition, there is no incentive to avoid seconds or leave for more paying customers (since everyone has already paid anyway). The result is that each place becomes a kind of relaxed European café shelter in a larger, competitive academic world.

However, everyone who has taken Economics 10 knows that choices are good. They make nice straight demand and supply lines that, when they meet, make everyone can get what they want at a price they are willing to pay. And people, on the whole, are happy.
But at the same time, socialist nations with more compulsory taxes, health care, services, etc. (especially from Northern Europe) occupy the top spots of the happiest countries rankings. And “socializing” nations, such as countries in Southern Europe, have cafés that serve not only as hubs of inefficiency, but also as hubs of happiness for people to enjoy their friends—their inefficiencies correlate with greater happiness.

So is forcing  every student, each with different dining habits and preferences, into the same meal plan inherently flawed or inherently beneficial? Well, at first glance, it seems more like the former. Like most mandatory programs, the compulsory unlimited meal plan is vastly inefficient. Let’s assume most students end up only going to lunch and dinner, meaning that they attend an average of 336 meals per year. Using some math (we Crimson columnists definitely know math), that comes to about $16.21 per HUDS meal. This may be a good price for a decent all-you-can-eat place. But when you’re getting meals at the same place every day, you’re not going to eat all you can eat. The result is that you end up paying more than double than you do at other student-frequented spots. In addition, many students believe that patrons often take more food than they can eat. That’s because taking extra bread, for example, doesn’t cost any extra dough, resulting in a large amount of food waste. And finally, when students decide to actually eat all that extra food they pile on their trays for free, they put a Harvard multiplier on the freshman 15, resulting in a less healthy student body (literally).

As a result of these many inefficiencies, students have argued against the compulsory meal plan, suggesting plans with more choices. And the meal plan has changed many times over the years.

But at a time when mental health is on everyone’s mind, the inefficiency of Harvard’s meals may just be what students really need. Eating at Harvard is not really about the food—you’re not really paying extra for the food, you’re not really wasting the food, you’re not really getting unhealthy from the food. Rather, you’re paying extra for the atmosphere around the food, you get social value out of the “wasted” nutritional value of every thrown-out meal, and you become more mentally healthy as a result of the few extra, losable pounds you gain.

So just like an educational bubble in a driven capitalist world, the dining hall serves as a fulfilling refuge in a driven academic world. And just like a liberal arts education, its inherent inefficiency is its greatest strength, making students happier and giving them support for later on, when doing “actual work.” Personally, I know that on most days, with a whole host of issues outside of Café Winthrop’s walls, there’s no other place I’d rather be.
At least, not on Scheherazade Casserole night.

Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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