What’s in the Harvard name?

BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS

I almost didn’t apply to Harvard. To me it was a name and a place far away and full of vague notions of elitism, and in some sense I saw my own life as a less ambitious affair. I wanted to go to law school partly to learn a profession, but I also had a desire to get beyond the external manifestations of power and come to know the system from the inside. And so I applied, knowing that Harvard’s name, network, and faculty could equip me for these goals better than others.

When I came here three years ago, I felt like I had snuck in the side door by figuring out the secret handshake, and now that I had gotten inside I would start to learn other secrets and crack even more devious ciphers. By the end of 1L year, I was fairly well disillusioned. My classmates no longer seemed so different from me. My professors were starting to seem less lofty and inscrutable. And the contours of the law were already forming a sort of a superstructure that would later be reinforced and walled in to form a solid body of knowledge.

Soon enough, the Harvard name too had also lost its luster, already looking more bizarre from the inside. I realized at some point that it was just another brand name, this one with an “established” date earlier than others and with a longer list of successful graduates, but essentially just a label on a product and an institution. I also realized that I too could use this brand name like a badge, a shield against doubt and scrutiny. Whether it was a resume or this newspaper, prominently placing the Harvard name next to my own became second nature before long.

But Harvard is more than a name. It is a global symbol of academic success, but it also serves as a nexus for a massive self-selection process, and those who are drawn by its name and reputation soon become the corpus of the institution and a part of its history. By the time we have crossed the last threshold and stand in the halls of Langdell and Austin, we have by and large identified ourselves as holding particular values and goals and have ascribed to particular means of achieving our objectives.

Thus, whether we know it or not, the common bonds of achievement and aspiration that draw us together also drive our assimilation into the culture of the place and its people, where we are saturated with the Harvardness of where we are and who we are becoming.

Walking back out of the gates I entered three years ago, I can also feel the inertia that Harvard has lent the course of my life. I have a path in front of me now, a yellow brick road, that makes the unpredictability of life seem less daunting. We will all land on our feet, that mantra inculcated by our mentors, seems true enough now, despite some bumps and delays for all of us. But the road ahead is not really so simple, and the destination is not some magical crystal city where all our problems will be solved. Life remains complicated and full of change.

Writing for this newspaper has given me the chance to speak to the world as a member of the Harvard community and define the reality of this place for outsiders. Now, I too will become an outsider to the place and its institutional forces. Leaving here I will lose that uniquely local attitude to Harvard as a place that comes with being a student, but I will retain a share of the name, a right to stand in as an ambassador to the world and part of the extended Harvard family. So in a certain sense, as an alumnus I will no longer be a part of the institution, but I will shape the perception of it by the outside world by wielding its brand name.

Thankfully, this does not mean that I will be required to proselytize a set of orthodox views, nor will I be penalized if I decide to file away my degree and keep my education a secret. I can choose on my own whether or not to be associated with the Harvard name and community, but the legacy of my time here will shine through in ways I will probably not even recognize. The tools I have acquired, the attitudes I have accepted, and the friends I have grown close to during my time here will stay with me after I have left here and influence the course of the rest of my life.

I am thankful that I could study at such an interesting and challenging school, and indeed I am proud of having “attended Harvard.” Nonetheless, I remain suspicious of those who would make too liberal use of the Harvard name. I do not believe in treating Harvard like a label that certifies quality or an icon of an exclusive club. Harvard is a place to which we chose to come to be amongst like-minded individuals and an institution that has gathered exceptional people who have now passed on to us some of their collected wisdom. Now we each must make the choice of how to direct our efforts in the world, and it is the fruit of those efforts that will some day serve as the scale by which the world measures Harvard.

Matthew W. Hutchins is a graduating 3L and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Record

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