Good Will Hunting is one of the classic movies every Harvard student needs to watch at least once. During one of my many repeated viewings, I paid particular attention to the bar scene, where Matt Damon’s character, Will Hunting, gets into an argument with a Harvard student at a bar. Amid an intellectual cockfight, Matt Damon tells the student that one of the few certainties in life that he’ll one day discover is the fact that the student “dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f----n' education [he] could’ve got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.” While that’s true, the Harvard student concedes, he’ll have a degree, and that’s what seems to matter at the end of the day.
Were they right? Is a flimsy piece of paper really what distinguishes a Harvard education? Remember, Matt Damon went to Harvard when he started writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting, so he has at least some prior experience to support that claim. The question of “what makes Harvard different?” is one that many of us asked ourselves in our senior year of high school and still do so now.
There is some merit to the fact that a Harvard diploma really does make a difference, regardless of the quality of education received. The name by itself is one of the most useful tools in a student’s arsenal when facing the real world. At the same time, though, it seems dissatisfying to think that all the value provided by such a seemingly elite institution is an arbitrary and illusory divide that is fueled by exclusivity and continually widened by the society we live in.
There have to be some differences in education though, right? Even though I’m taking the same Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science" class that millions of people have taken online for free at home, and even though I’m learning the same multivariable calculus concepts that people are studying on Khan Academy, some classes are unique to Harvard. Not everyone has the opportunity to nod off in class while the former United States Treasury Secretary lectures on the political economy of globalization, or surf the web while a Nobel Laureate teaches chemistry.
But do two hours of lecture per week really make a difference? How different is the information gained from attending a professor’s lecture from reading the textbook that that same professor wrote on the same topic? Of course, you have the chance to ask questions, stay after class, go to office hours, and access other resources that increase the effectiveness of the learning process. But at the end of the day, you’re still learning the same information. In other words, what differentiates a Harvard student from a highly motivated individual reading the same readings somewhere else? Information is no longer as hard to come by as it once was. I mean, how many books have you checked out of Widener that someone else couldn’t have acquired for less than $150,000?
Of course, I’m being cynical on purpose. There are many reasons that I haven’t dropped out of Harvard yet (besides the wrath of my parents). A Harvard education does offer something more than connections and the Harvard label. The search for what makes this education different brings me back to March 2019, when I first toured Harvard’s snowy campus. The tour guide, when asked this same question, answered with the cliche answer that every Harvard student responds with: the people. At the time, I wondered why nobody seemed to be able to produce a more unique and satisfying answer. However, now that I’ve experienced this institution first hand, I understand — the students, faculty, and staff really are the one true factor that differentiates Harvard from a library card.
It’s true, the texts read in class are probably readily available at any major library. At the same time though, without the constant pressure around me, I wouldn’t be likely to spend a large amount of my time reading the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and microeconomics textbooks (as riveting as they are). I could take Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s Justice course online, but I wouldn’t get the same experience of arguing over the ethics of college admissions in a way that expands my views and inspires me to write op-eds.
The real value of Harvard is being surrounded by people who push you to your limits, who help you realize how much you don’t know, and who inspire you to see how much potential there is in the world for you. It sounds cheesy, but you realize how important Harvard’s environment is once you find yourself exploring the law libraries, starting podcasts, and writing books, all because of the motivation given to you by your peers.
No one can live in a vacuum. Even Will Hunting, for all the discrete mathematics he does in his free time, ultimately realizes that there’s a limit to what you can learn on your own. In his own time at Harvard, it seems Matt Damon recognized that the one factor that really differentiated the education was not the famous lecturers, long problem sets, or name on the degree. Instead, it’s the people around you who force you to realize that college isn’t a straight path of readings and lectures, but rather an opportunity to discover interests and pursue less-traveled paths that lead you to create a new social network, start a computer software company, or write an Oscar-winning movie screenplay.
Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Cabot House.