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Campus tourists are annoying.
At Harvard, this stance is a basic tenet of undergraduate life. Most of us adopt it quickly and uncritically, expressing disdain from the first instance of uninvited photography or blocked walkways. Our annoyance seems reasonable — this campus is our place, so goes the common refrain, and we shouldn’t have to deal with the constant, near-voyeuristic intrusion of outsiders in our place of living and learning.
Our unspoken logic is simple: We belong here, and they do not. Naturally salient but not explicit are claims of entitlement (we deserve to be here; they don’t), superiority (we’re good enough to be here; they’re not), and ownership (Harvard is ours, not theirs).
This line of reasoning is awfully precarious. Our sense of entitlement, superiority, and ownership all rely on status gained from a single decision made by the Admissions Office. Is it truly reasonable to claim that acceptance to Harvard — a mark of “merit” steeped heavily in chance, privilege, and legacy status — effects such immediate and certain distinction? Undoubtedly, Harvard students have a claim to ownership at Harvard — we’re the ones who power its research and pay its tuition. But we’re not the only ones who can rightfully claim ownership.
Whether we like it or not, Harvard — the school, the symbol, the mythology, the history — is a project of joint ownership. As a practical matter, the university benefits from massive indirect public investment via hidden taxpayer subsidies disguised in the form of its tax-free endowment. As of 2015, this benefit was equivalent to $48,000 per student, almost five times the taxpayer investment per student at Massachusetts’s flagship public university. From a historical perspective, too, Harvard is a monument, a national symbol. Our university has educated eight U.S. presidents and is older than the nation itself. It is inextricably linked to American history. From any perspective, it’s only reasonable that Harvard be, at the very least, available for public viewing.
Most importantly, Harvard’s immense cultural clout marks it as an object of public interest and ownership. Consistent media coverage, recurrent public debates, outsize importance in politics and business, and regular Hollywood attention all contribute to a near-obsessive level of public attention — a veritable “cult of Harvard” in American popular culture. We’ve all encountered it in impressively uncreative nicknames from high school friends, copy-and-paste Linkedin entreaties from Harvard hopefuls, and the oddly exhilarating dread that arises when asked “Where do you go to college?” It’s the same cultish attraction driving the tourist swarms. And we hate it.
Or so we say.
But we don’t actually hate the cult of Harvard; in fact, for many, if not most, of us, it’s part of the reason we’re here. It figured in our decision to commit to Harvard, and it undergirds our self-image and self-worth — whether we admit it or not. This makes sense: In our putatively meritocratic society, going to Harvard is the ultimate mark of success. The clout, attention, and brand power of the Harvard pin on our lapels provide real goods — both material and psychological.
So why do the tourists irritate us? If their presence is just a particularly immediate manifestation of the cultural fixation we seem to enjoy, our exasperation makes no sense. Shouldn’t we enjoy all the attention they provide? Rather, our excessive annoyance with campus tourists reveals something else: an ambivalence about the cult of Harvard — a preoccupation with several unresolved questions over our university’s peculiar cultural role. For example:
Is the cult of Harvard just? I assume many would join me in arguing that the immense prestige afforded to Harvard alumni in the professional world produces and exacerbates systemic inequities.
Is the cult of Harvard democratic? The predominant bias toward Harvard graduates in American politics, almost by definition, is not conducive to representative government.
And perhaps most importantly, is the cult of Harvard really good for us, Harvard’s students? Does it set realistic and healthy expectations? Does it prepare us to participate in our communities with humility and integrity? Each semester I spend here, I become increasingly concerned that the answer is no.
These are reasonable and important ethical questions. They should be pondered by every critical and compassionate thinker in this community of enormous privilege and cultural power. We should shout them at administrators, job recruiters, admissions officers, and each other. They should become topics of debate, reason for self-interrogation, and fodder for genuine unease.
No matter where it takes us, the targets of this unease should not be campus tourists, who are merely partaking in a cult of Harvard they had no part in creating. So long as the cult of Harvard continues to benefit us, we need to let go of the antipathy. Let the tourists be tourists.
Noah B. Kassis ‘25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Mather House.
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