A Harvard Senior’s Call to the Home Front
I submitted my senior thesis the day before undergraduate Armageddon. Monday, March 9, five days before spring break. I stood on the steps of Widener Library holding the 108 double-spaced pages I spent the past year writing and smiled for the traditional senior-spring photo. About 30 other students were performing the same ritual a few feet away. The English department hosted a champagne reception after the submission deadline, and as we gathered in one of the Barker Center’s high-ceilinged rooms, the head of the department proposed a toast: “I know there are rumors floating around to the contrary, but we all very much hope that we will be able to gather together once again in a few weeks—this time to celebrate the Commencement of the class of 2020!” We cheered. The next morning, just before nine o’clock, University president Larry Bacow sent an email saying that all undergraduates had to vacate their dorms by Sunday at 5 p.m. The coronavirus was coming. The Harvard community had to “de-densify.” For the senior class, post-college life had already commenced.
The next five days played out a drama that has since rerun on college campuses nationwide. Seniors dropped the books and grabbed the alcohol. Parties spilled out of dorm rooms and onto the streets, and barely anyone slept. The mood was less celebratory than desperate. How do you squeeze whatever closure is supposed to happen in the final college semester into a few apocalyptic days? Every moment spent alone felt like a moment wasted. The seniors made a 1,200-member group chat and threw together class activities usually organized for senior week, just before graduation. In the middle of our impromptu senior photo—when almost a thousand students were hugging and taking selfies on the Widener Library steps—President Bacow sent another email announcing that two Harvard affiliates had tested positive for COVID-19.
Two and a half weeks later, the majority of us, along with most college students in the country, are watching lectures from home, earning credit toward a virtual graduation. I’m one of the lucky ones. Less fortunate students had nowhere to go when senior spring—along with international borders and most of the American economy—was shut down.
What, exactly, has the class of 2020 lost? Community? Ceremony? Closure? Many of us were counting on spring career fairs to find jobs. Others were planning to finish the artistic and academic capstones that would springboard us from college into adulthood. All of us wanted to say good-bye to our friends and professors on our own terms. Instead, we’ve been thrown into the plotline-nightmare of The Graduate meets The Walking Dead. How can we commence our adult lives from the kitchen table? How do we make sense of the ways we have changed in the past four years, when we’re cut off from the people and places that have changed us—even as we’re still expected to take midterms online and oral exams over Zoom? And for what? So a diploma will materialize in the mailbox 10 weeks from now, and our time as college students will be over as soon as the mailman drives away? Seniors have been denied the pomp and circumstance that normally mark the end of an undergraduate career.
But who is to blame? For the first three days, my classmates and I thought it was the Harvard administration. At that point, we still thought of the coronavirus as some new kind of flu in Asia. The few colleges that had moved classes online were letting their students stay on campus. It was easy to pillory the College administrators for caving in to fear, defying tradition, and ruining our senior year.
By Saturday, messages in the senior group chat changed from “How many shenanigans can we fit into four days?” to “Maybe we should start social-distancing. I’m going home, and I don’t want to get my grandmother sick.”
But we soon began to realize that the problem was much bigger than our lost festival rites. Italy had become a war zone. The U.S. case count shot into the tens of thousands. Travel bans grew tighter, and international students worried if they could—or even should—make it back home. By Saturday, messages in the senior group chat changed from “How many shenanigans can we fit into four days?” to “Maybe we should start social-distancing. I’m going home, and I don’t want to get my grandmother sick.” A week and a half later, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker ordered all non-essential businesses closed, and President Bacow tested positive for COVID-19. The world is on lockdown, and scientists estimate that the virus could kill up to a quarter-million Americans. No one thinks this is a fight between college seniors and administrators anymore. This might be World War C.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Danielle Allen, director of Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, likened our current moment to the weeks after Pearl Harbor. She called for Americans to be “on war footing” against the spread of the virus, just as they mobilized against the spread of fascism 75 years ago. Her analogy is fitting. Counting this year’s Commencement, Harvard has missed only 10 graduation ceremonies since 1642, and all were canceled because of either a war or a plague. But in 1942, my grandfather didn’t wait for administrators to suspend his graduation. He dropped out of high school, lied about his age, and joined the U.S. naval forces on the Pacific front. He wasn’t worried about closure or capstones. He was too busy worrying about Japanese bombers. He wasn’t thinking about what he had lost; he was thinking about what he could give. There’s a reason we still call him and his peers the greatest generation.
How will our grandchildren remember our generation 75 years from now? My call to war pales in comparison with my grandfather’s. To paraphrase a viral tweet, our forefathers fought in trenches and aircraft carriers. We fight Covid-19 on couches and screens. What do we have to complain about?
These war analogies are sobering, but they’re helpful only to a point. Many students today are fighting the coronavirus in conditions as cold, impoverished, and deadly as a war-front. Not everyone has the luxury of a Netflix subscription. We shouldn’t trivialize the real danger this virus presents—especially for those with unstable incomes, families in need, and spotty social support—just because our conscription looks different from how it did three-quarters of a century ago.
Even for those students fortunate enough to feel boredom, though, the war comparison indulges a misguided narrative about Gen-Z-ers and Millennials. Today’s college seniors, right at the boundary between these much-maligned age groups, are alleged to be the “snowflake generation”: self-obsessed, addicted to social media, coddled by our universities’ diversity and inclusion initiatives, and oversensitive about the ugly realities our predecessors simply lived with. And when spring-breakers ignore public-health guidance and congregate at Florida beaches amid a pandemic, it’s not hard to see why so many Boomers think my generation doesn’t measure up to our grandfathers.
But are we right to mourn a lost golden age? Poets have lamented their contemporaries’ fall from heroic forefathers at least as far back as Homer. The Iliad rings with nostalgia for the Mycenaean warriors who predated Ancient Greece—men stronger, faster, and fiercer than even the great Achilles, Ajax, and Hector. Sound familiar? If even Homer’s champions fail to measure up to the past, what chance does Gen Z have?
In an 1864 essay, Victorian critic Matthew Arnold reframes this question. Arnold sets out to explain the conditions that make literary genius possible. How do works like Dante’s Comedia and Shakespeare’s Hamlet emerge? He arrives at a humbling definition of heroism: “...for the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment; the creative power has, for its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those elements are not in its own control.”
The insight applies far beyond epics and tragedies. Greatness is a condition of circumstance as much as it is a condition of character. Heroic men and women are not dropped deus-ex-machina from Mount Olympus; they emerge contingent on conditions of heroic possibility. And just as we are shaped by the elements available to us at our given historical moment, so our given historical moment can be reshaped, in turn, only through those same elements. Each age has its own problems, and the problems are best solved by the people who best understand the age.
The “Millennial” stereotypes we hear constantly maligned will be key advantages in this fight.
The coronavirus pandemic is not World War II. More people are on lockdown today than were alive in 1945. We are not fighting planes, tanks, and torpedoes; we’re fending off an enemy we cannot see, in a hyper-connected world of geopolitical, environmental, and cultural challenges our grandparents could not have imagined. And though we are not now that strength which in old days set occupied Europe free, we are the generation that is coming of age in the Covid-19 crisis. We have been given this moment, and we are the women and men who must help resolve it with the elements of the century in which it came about—the skills, connections, and ingenuity we went to college to acquire in the first place. The question is not how we march into battle like our grandparents. The question is how we win a war while quarantined on the home-front.
The “Millennial” stereotypes we hear constantly maligned will be key advantages in this fight. Our obsession with online media? It’s how we stay connected with friends and family in social isolation, and it’s how we cultivate the academic, entrepreneurial, and interpersonal communities that will help end this crisis. Our hyper-sensitivity? It’s how we create art that captures this moment in history, so this epidemic won’t fade from cultural memory like the Spanish Flu of 1918—which killed more than twice as many people as did World War I in half the time, with only a fraction of the literary fame. Our fixation on startups? It’s how we use this time in quarantine as a laboratory—space to think, read, and test solutions for the problems growing more complex every day. Our passion for social justice? It’s how we make sure that the solutions we create work for everyone, and that they address the social inequalities this crisis has laid bare, from food and housing insecurity, to unequal access to employment and health care. What can we build? What can we sacrifice? What risks can we take?
When Cambridge University closed its doors during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665, Isaac Newton returned to his family home in Lincolnshire and wrote the Principia Mathematica. What age-defining works will come of this crisis, and remake the world after the world-epidemic?
The class of 2020 has suffered a loss. It’s painful, and we cannot trivialize the physical and psychological distress that this crisis has caused everyone, no matter what form that suffering takes. But neither can we let our lost festival rites turn into lost opportunities. This is a moment for our generation to refocus on the world beyond senior theses and college graduations—the world we have the chance to renew and redefine for the day after Armageddon.