Monday, November 3, 2014


"As a part of the amazing and extremely diverse class Harvard had assembled, I was about to interact with a fantastic group of peers to challenge the views I formed from my Jewish, upper-middle class, suburban household with Russian-Polish ancestry. It was thrilling.

But two years later, as a junior, I sat on the couch of my dorm room with a couple of familiar faces: two young men raised in Jewish, upper-middle class, suburban households with Russian-Polish ancestry, who happen to be my two (and only two) roommates."

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A Dash of Insanity


As a wide-eyed freshman, trying to contain my twitching excitement for the next brilliant and formational four years of my life, I came to Harvard ready to participate in, as Dean Khurana put it, “the pursuit of connecting with people who are different from you and learning from them.”

As a part of the amazing and extremely diverse class Harvard had assembled, I was about to interact with a fantastic group of peers to challenge the views I formed from my Jewish, upper-middle class, suburban household with Russian-Polish ancestry. It was thrilling.

But two years later, as a junior, I sat on the couch of my dorm room with a couple of familiar faces: two young men raised in Jewish, upper-middle class, suburban households with Russian-Polish ancestry, who happen to be my two (and only two) roommates.

It only hit me a few weeks ago that, even though grade inflation has made it almost impossible to do so, I was failing Harvard. Every administrator from the beginning told me to seek out people different from myself. Despite all that, here I was, sitting on a couch in a room apparently covered in mirrors. Where did I go wrong?

I didn’t mean for that to happen. I go to Hillel events very rarely. When I do, it’s for the food. The clothing I wear, exclusively from Target, doesn’t seem to scream upper-middle class. And the only non-DNA methods of identifying people as a mix of Russian and Polish blood would make the Jew in me very nervous.

The notion of “self-segregating” is common on campus. There are many groups here that bring members together based on their shared athletic and academic interests, parents’ education, geographic background, race, sexual orientation and a number of other factors. These groups form for a variety of reasons. And, often, they form lasting friendships.

As with most phenomena, there seems to be a normal but powerful social psychological force at work here. Studies have shown that people tend to befriend people similar to themselves, in terms of race, personal beliefs, and a host of other factors.  

To fight this trend, there’s an obvious solution. We could actively seek out other people of different backgrounds to make sure we build friend groups with a solid level of diversity. Sometimes, it seems the administration’s rhetoric suggests this tactic. 

But that strategy has one flaw: In practice, it’s extremely weird. 

Let’s think of one particularly cringe-worthy example. According to one estimate, in the 2010-2011 school year, about 45 percent of Harvard students came from families that earn more than $200,000 a year. Only about four percent came from families in the bottom quintile of U.S. incomes. Those figures obviously speak to a broader problem of socioeconomic diversity at Harvard. But, for now, it begs the question: Should the plurality of richer kids actively try to find members of a small minority of poorer kids and befriend them just because their family earns less money? It felt awkward just writing that question. In practice, it would be brutal. And, if one generalized this example, students would be walking around with clipboards, making sure they balance and keep track of their friends with people of different academic, ethnic, athletic or other types of backgrounds.

The natural reaction to such an image is discomfort or disgust. And there’s good reason for that: Such a practice ignores individuality. Ideally, we want to be friends with a person because we like that person, not their academic interests, religious beliefs, wealth of their parents, or color of their skin. In actively pursuing friends because of aspects of backgrounds, we diminish the individuals in the foreground. And that makes the “me” in me very nervous.

Thankfully, there is a middle road. Whether in class or in the House, it’s hard to walk a few steps without finding someone with a fundamentally different background or set of beliefs. Through a natural interest in interacting with others as individuals, it’s easy to be exposed to Harvard’s great diversity in the process.

So that leaves us with the question: is it wrong to “self-segregate?” Is it wrong that somehow, through some mystical social psychological force, I ended up living in a room covered in mirrors, with two young men who come from Jewish, upper middle class suburban homes with Russian-Polish ancestry? Not really. Because, even though we share in familial stories and social contexts, we are diverse. One of us is a science major, the other a social science major, the other a humanities major. We have different personalities. And I’m smarter and better-looking than the other two.  

More than that though, we are fundamentally different people. Sure, it may not be the ideal level of “diversity” for which the college advocates. But the “clipboard-style” path to that “diversity ideal” is a strange and scary road. To talk about diversity in such a way is actually to diminish the diversity we see in one another. This is true at Harvard especially—a community of people who stood out as individuals in their home communities to gain admission.

For now, in an unideal world, it’s best to strive for another ideal: to think of groups that share a common trait as a group of diverse individuals, who may or may not share so much more.  

Here, or anywhere else really, there are no rooms covered in mirrors.

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

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