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How Can Harvard Students Be So Stupid?

This posting is probably going to cause me to lose my job – but I just have to vent.

It’s September. It’s the Boston area. We all know what that means: the students are back. Generally, I love it when the students return. The streets are livelier and the city (well, cities: Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline) all feel so energized and alive and optimistic.

And I’m fortunate enough to work at one of the local universities. In fact, I work at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, if not the world. So why is it that the students here are so damn stupid?

I work at the law school. That means that students have gone through at least four years of undergraduate education to get to where they are today. Not only that, they had to be one of the top students in their Bachelor’s program to even get admitted to this ivy league school.

Yet after all this time, they still can’t comprehend the most simple things. Things that I recall learning in elementary school. For example:

I witnessed people being taught how to use the cafeteria yesterday. It’s quite simple, really: you enter the cafeteria, grab a tray, proceed to a counter that interests you (options include cold sandwiches, pizza, entree, grille, vegetarian bar, and salad bar), wait in line, order your food, grab a drink from the refrigerator section, go to the cash register, pay for your food (either with cash or your student ID), grab some plastic utensils and sit down. Aside from the option of paying with a student ID, these are procedures I was taught in the first grade. Why is it, then, that the woman at the cash register had to leave her post and drag the customer in front of me to the other side of the cafeteria to explain how to do something? Meanwhile, I waited…and waited…and waited.

Example #2: Another thing we learned in elementary school was to form single file lines – one behind another – when waiting in queues or when walking along corridors. Why is it that Harvard students can’t grasp this concept? Instead, I’ll be walking down a stairwell, corridor, or narrow outdoor path (as a result of on-campus construction) and the students will stop in the narrowest portion to chat with their fellow students. Meanwhile, people actually using the WALKway have to constantly say “excuse me” to get by. The part that kills me is that the students just move a step to let the person pass, then they go back to their original position. Do you think they’d realize “Gee, this is a tight fit for 4 friends to chat. Perhaps we should walk 5 feet over to that big open space?”

For the record, that thought apparently never crosses their mind.

Example #3. Elevator Etiquette. Granted, this is not something I learned in elementary school (seeing as there were no elevators in my village except at my friend, Katie’s mansion), but it is something that I learned as an adult. And it’s something I’m sure most students must have been able to figure out as an undergrad (this etiquette rule also applys to boarding subways and trains). Here you go, plain and simple: let people EXIT the elevator (or subway, bus, or train) BEFORE you try to squeeze your way on. You see, the elevator (or subway, etc…) is a small space compared to the place your’e standing outside. Once the crowds exit the small space, there’s more room for you to fit! Isn’t that neat!?

Exampe #4: Email etiquette. There’s a student who is now in her third and final year here (thank god). Her email address is nearly identical to mine so for the past 2+ years, I’ve been getting her emails. LOTS of her emails. I’ve notified her to tell her friends and family to change the address in their address books. I’ve emailed the people who sent me things in error to tell them that I’m not the person they’re seeking. TWO YEARS I’ve been doing this. Do you think they could stop sending emails to me? Of course not. I’ve given up…now I just delete them.

Example #5: Following instructions. The program I work for has a printer and photocopier for the students to use. There are clear instructions on how to replace the toner cartridges for both machines. In fact, I drafted these simple step-by-step instructions and taped them on the wall above the printer (the copier’s instructions are built in: there is a diagram that appears on a screen showing you exactly what to do). Anyway, the second the toner is low and their copies don’t appear crisp, I get asked for help. Why? Is it beneath them to do it themselves? Are the instructions in basic English too difficult to comprehend? Do they feel entitled to pampering? Well, I’m not even remotely paternal so they’re not going to be getting it from me.

Phew – that felt good. Now, I don’t think these students are stupid. Well, at least not intellectually. I’m sure they’re quite astute when it comes to book smarts. But common sense? Forget about it. Courtesy? What’s that?


  1. Comment by Randy on September 5, 2007 10:13 am

    Most people are just too wrapped up in themselves to be bothered with dealing with anyone or anything else. Thats the biggest problem you face. And well the toner cartridge… that doesnt fit cause honestly no one likes to do it cause if you ever have you know you will end up with ink on you so let an admin do it. Sorry Snarl but this one you may lose on! 🙂

  2. Comment by snarl on September 5, 2007 10:15 am

    I’ve never gotten toner on me from a printer. The copies, yes…the printer? No.

    Oh, and I should say that not ALL students are this stupid/self-involved/ignorant. The majority probably aren’t. But the substantial minority should stand out.

  3. Comment by snarl on September 5, 2007 10:15 am

    I mean “the substantial minority SURE stand out.”

  4. Comment by Lise on September 5, 2007 10:22 am

    Totally 100% agree – and those of you who do not work at Harvard believe me he is not exaggerating. In fact, my post would have been way more scathing – and I even like the students I personally deal with. How these people have stumbled along this far in life and have no freaking clue is amazing (I guess a fair number grew up coddled, in privilege, but still – we’re talking basic common sense). Just yesterday on our way to lunch at the Hark we were discussing the same thing – this person had student emailing her the most inane questions all morning – like, how do I tie my shoe questions. This after years of college already – COME ON. We type up clear instructions on memo/syllabus, idiot-proof. But it’s like they can’t read simple English sentences. The congregating in the doorways and narrow hallways is a particular pet peeve. The LLMs are the worst, they use the hallway in the Grad office area like their own personal room – last year it got so bad I literally pushed a tiny girl with my whole body to get through, no amount of excuse mes was working. I think this is some training they go through on their way to being Professors, because they are the masters of doorway/hallway blocking. OK, I’ll stop typing now because otherwise I’d go on for pages about the PARTICULAR idiocy of Harvard students (walk through the Yard and listen to conversations and you’ll be shocked these people got into college, much less Ivy League.

  5. Comment by Mark on September 5, 2007 11:27 am

    You expect too much, poodle. I can give you example after example of how awful the Harvard students can be. I think my favorite example was when a friend of mine was carrying a large piece of network equipment over to HBS and was struggling with trying to open a door. When he finally got it open, a student rushed by him, pushing him slightly, then yanked the door shut behind him, almost sending the large piece of extremely expensive equipment crashing to the ground. The student then proceeded to strike up a conversation on the other side of the door, ignoring Ken’s knocks for his conversation.

    Gotta love them. That’s why I fled… over to MIT.

  6. Comment by Fred on September 5, 2007 12:16 pm

    One thought – I think that tendency to congregate in and block narrow arteries is some innate, hardwired general human stupidity: I see it EVERYwhere, not just Harvard. It does seem to have become worse/more widespread in recent years, which one can ascribe to a general breakdown of civil society, people being raised right, the coming apocalypse, etc. (grin). Americans are particularly bad about this in the English-speaking world – perhaps part of our tradition of being obmoxious nonconformists… The British queue up nicely and instinctively, and I’ve noted far less of a tendency to stand around blocking public ways in bovine fashion…but, then, they can be obnoxiously CONformist…so, one canna’ win…

    But I’m definitely with you and Lise and Mark on wanting to just plow through, and maybe even fly off the handle on all these corridor-cows…I mean, JEEZus….that networ-equipt. story…had that happened to me, genuine blood would have been shed, at least from the student in question’s ears after I had finished dressing him (or her) down at top volume…


  7. Comment by Doodle Bean on September 5, 2007 12:24 pm

    Most of your complaints have to do with class and privilege differences than dumbness. Think of it as the Paris Hilton Syndrome:

    Cafeteria? There was no cafeteria at Milton! We were served! We shall be served here, also.

    Step aside for our lessers? What an interesting idea!! It shall never happen! (applies to walkways; applies to the elevators)

    Change an incorrect address in my address book? Never! Let that peon change his email so my friend receives her email at the address I choose.

    And finally,

    Toner? What’s that? Change it?!?! Heavens NO!! Let’s ask this servant over here for help.

    The moral of this little tale? We need to continue to work for education – good education – for all. It is time to reverse the economic trends in this country which favor the rich, especially of late. If we do that, we’ll start to see general levels of civility increase.

  8. Comment by Fred on September 5, 2007 12:59 pm

    Correction to my ownlast comment – what I meant was people NOT being raised right, to be courteous, respectful of others, etc. – and, indeed, I agree with Doodle Bean – “Paris Hilton Syndrome” about sums it up – certainly what I saw, in spades, all over the ‘new’ South End, which led me to flee…”My children are so fabulous, their feet shall never touch the dirty ground, thus, you peons must step aside for my triple-wide stroller with airbags and Bluetooth technology, especially in the small, overcrowded coffeeshop, while I wait for my triple-shot, nonfat soy lattecino with just a tiny sprinkle [not TOO much, or I’ll send it back for offending my delicate palate!] of cinnamon, which I shall pay for with a credit card….”


    Then again, I’m thinking the failure has more to do with a breakdown of mores within that class of folks, not the privilege, per se – and I might ascribe this to a Boomer mentality in the parenting of these little monsters (Karl – I think I’m right in assuming both of us were raised by pre-Boomer parents, and can remember other children, of more Boomer parentage, who were encouraged to “express themselves” more – much to our consternation and that of our parents…maybe I’m wrong…I certainly remember it…). I went to a Milton-like school, and to WGU as an undergrad, and don’t remember it being this bad – we were actively told (and not everyone was filthy rich, though some of the more egregious types were…I’m certainly a middle-middle-class kid who happened to luck out….) to behave ourselves properly, made to wait tables and clean classrooms and sometimes dishes, etc., ourselves, and that old maxim “Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected” (in paraphrase). That all seems to have disappeared in a generation where all the children are above average….

    Boy, do I ever sound like the old fart I guess I’m becoming….


  9. Comment by Anna on September 5, 2007 1:02 pm

    Wow, I have to applaud you for this rant. I worked at a local college a couple years ago and was continually astounded by the stupidity I encountered. Reading room numbers, throwing out trash, and manners were completely mysteries to the students. I also loved the exchange students who neglected deodorant. Eh, the stinkiest will probably donate a cool million to the endowment so who cares?

  10. Comment by snarl on September 5, 2007 1:05 pm

    Wow -this topic apparently hit a nerve (particularly with my Boston-based readers). I think this city gets a lot more of this than most since it’s a college town.

    And I agree with you Fred. I was raised by parents “of a certain age” who lived through the depression (as children, of course). They have a VERY different outlook on child-rearing than the spawn of baby-boomers who ALL think they’re children are equal and special.

    News flash: they’re not.

  11. Comment by pierce on September 5, 2007 1:39 pm

    Give me a break…. this stuff happens everywhere. People congregate in tight spaces (duh, thats where they encounter each other), people are self-concerned, people are confused in new–though typical–environments, people are lazy about changing toner cartridges. It happens at Harvard, it happens at city hall, it happens in every building and every institution on the planet.

    You put up a sign? Quite pointless; there are 50 million f-ing signs up at Harvard, all in black Arial or Times New Roman font on bond paper. I notice those like I notice a single leaf on a tree as I walk by.

    As for the socio-economic/class theory, I think that’s rather ridiculous. As a grad student at Harvard I can attest that in my experience the social system is decidedly different than that of a 1980s spring break movie or a Horatio Alger story, as Doodlebean seems to think

  12. Comment by snarl on September 5, 2007 1:47 pm

    I do agree with you, Pierce. You’ll find such examples in most places.

    That said, though, I expect certain behaviours and a lack of intelligence in public places where the masses aren’t ivy league educated.

  13. Comment by Doodle Bean on September 5, 2007 2:24 pm

    Wow! Which prep school did you attend, pierce? I think you are exhibit A for my thesis!

  14. Comment by Rhea on September 5, 2007 3:29 pm

    I think some of it can be chalked up to privilege, some of it to international students who are not familiar yet with the ways of the Harvard/Western world, and some of it to plain, ol’ bad manners that lots of younger folks display these days.

  15. Comment by Gregg on September 5, 2007 4:47 pm

    Intelligence and education are not the same as common sense and courtesy. People are people no matter what institution they attend. There was possibly a time in the past where parents taught their child common courtesies such as waiting for riders to exit before boarding the train. This has apparently disappeared along with music with melodies and conversations sans the F word.

    Manners are just too archaic 🙂

  16. Comment by Fred on September 5, 2007 6:12 pm

    Indeed – now let’s not get too nasty about where anyone was schooled: there’s charming courteous prepschool grads (and not all Eddie Haskells) as well as boorish public high grads, and vice versa. I’m far more of the school of thought that basic social norms and mores have broken down of late, across the culture – or, perhaps, the clash of many cultures. Presumably, however, rudeness begins at home…
    Wow, Karl – you’ve really hit on a hot topic with this one!!
    CF: this week’s new “Weekly Dig” – there’s an open letter to all new students in town that sums it up rather well: it’s not personal, but the locals are going to hate you for a few weeks, so please be nice and courteous, don’t take offense, and don’t add fuel to their fires, and, who knows, maybe come October or so, we can all just get along and be friends…. Nice thought, anyway…

  17. Comment by Jodie on September 5, 2007 6:13 pm

    Funny, when I was a student and worked at UMass in a computer lab, it was actually my job to change the toner. All for the princely sum of $0.10 above minimum wage, and that extra $0.10 was only because I was a manager. At any rate, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for someone to assume that someone else who might look like an employee in a computer lab would be the one to change the toner. A simple, “I’m sorry, but we expect users of the lab to do that,” might go a much longer way than whining on the internet at how entitled Ivy League students are.

    Oh, if the Law students at Harvard are anything like the graduate students in the Ivy League school that I’m attending, they aren’t rich. They’re just taking out a lot of student loans. There is one girl in my class who went to Milton, but it was only because her dad taught there and she got free tuition. Shockingly, sometimes stereotypes aren’t accurate.

  18. Comment by jeff on September 5, 2007 6:14 pm

    I can’t believe this really goes on. I’m sure it’s for all the reasons discussed above and perhaps more. I work with plumbers and lots of “blue collar” types and don’t encounter nearly as much inconsideration as you’re describing. Nobody at work would let anyone struggle with something heavy, or not hold a door open. The language, well that’s another story.

  19. Comment by snarl on September 6, 2007 9:32 am

    Hi, Jodie! Thanks for the comment. Oh, I fear I wasn’t clear about my job…I don’t work for the IT department. Hell, I don’t even use the printer (I have my own in a separate office)!

    Also, to be clear, my blog post never mentioned the class or wealth of students. It mentioned common sense (or lack thereof). And I agree with you, this lack of common sense permeates all socio-economic levels. I just would have thought that some of the smartest students in the country would know better – whether rich or not.

  20. Comment by mindy on September 6, 2007 10:12 am

    Over in my building, we get the idiots who can’t figure out how to get to the fifth floor (only through library) even AFTER we say “go down the set of stairs, go into the LIBRARY, ask at the DESK.” Yesterday we even said “DON’T get back in the elevator, it won’t work” and they did and had to come back.

    I feel you on the path-blocking. On Tuesday, there was a group standing in that little bit of path next to the construction fence on the Hark plaza and nobody could get by in either direction. And I couldn’t get down the stairs in Pound (to the GINORMOUS EMPTY LOBBY) because students were standing blocking the entire bottom of the staircase.

    And don’t EVEN get me started on visiting professors who send their syllabi less than 5 days before their first class and expect you to make a webpage AND a coursepack without sending you any of the materials (electronic or paper). And who have their legal secretaries call you four times a day asking questions that were answered months ago in nice easy-to-understand emails from IT, the registrar, the visiting-faculty coordinators, the dean, etc.


  21. Comment by ShaneMcCoy on January 28, 2008 12:12 am

    While serving in the USMC I served with two Platoon CMDRS who graduated from Harvard. They were both relieved of command for poor decision making skills.

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