Op Eds

Nothing Matters. Everything Matters.


“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”

Those words could’ve been spoken yesterday, perhaps by a cynical citizen or an apprehensive Harvard student grappling with the latest campus crisis, or even by me, a jaded former president of the College’s largest political organization. But they are actually the opening verses of the millenia-old biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.

Amid the myriad intractable quandaries our community has recently faced — diversity in higher education, the Israel-Hamas war, and freedom of speech, to name a few — such ancient dejection has frequently occupied my mind.

As a senior, I’ve contemplated these concerns alongside more existential questions: What do we do with our lives, and can we really make a difference in the world?


Given recent events, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that we cannot: Protests extend into impasses or are met with diluted promises and administrative hardball. Attempts to exchange ideas end in offense and disappointment. Our own democracy stimulates conflict and treats civilians like collateral damage despite domestic discontent.

Caught in a loop of vanity and complicity, how do we engage in a world that seems to take two steps back for every step forward?

One option might be to focus on education and conversation. The more we know about this complicated world and hear competing ideas for improving it, the more equipped we’ll be to spearhead that improvement, right?

In recent months, this model — education as progress — has seemed to be Harvard’s modus operandi. When defusing the pro-Palestinian encampment in Harvard Yard this month, interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 committed first to discussing “academic matters” with protestors, and administrators have repeated that University affiliates hold a “shared responsibility” to create a campus climate safe for “reasoned dissent” and “true and meaningful dialogue.”

Certainly, learning and discoursing have immense value, but without follow-through, they’re unsatisfying — necessary but insufficient. My four years as a member and, eventually, president of the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics taught me this. Repeatedly, feedback we got from peers called for less instruction and more doing; fewer speaker events and more service. Our students were acutely aware that, in the words of philosopher-scientist Herbert Spencer, “the great aim of education is not knowledge but action.”

Fulfilling that aim, though, is no simple task. First, fully grasping complex issues is usually costly and inconvenient, and after performing the work of gaining real understanding, we can trick ourselves into thinking the mandate for action ends there.

Second, history teaches us that old solutions often create new problems: Independent of all our toil, the world is still broken. Suddenly, we are back where we started, disconcerted by but impotent against the somber realization that every action we take just might be meaningless.

This is not an uncommon view: The IOP’s Spring 2024 Harvard Youth Poll of 18 to 29-year-olds nationwide found that young Americans are disillusioned, with 41 percent saying they don’t believe their vote will make a difference in the 2024 election. A 2022 Pew Research poll found that citizen majorities in several countries worldwide, including more than two thirds of American adults, think their political systems disable them from impacting politics.

Such feelings of futility are neither new nor dependent on social standing: In about 950 BCE, one of antiquity’s most powerful kings wrote the grim, nearly defeatist lines with which I started this piece. The seemingly broken link between people’s actions and good outcomes does not discriminate.

To discern why we feel this way, it’s helpful to ask: What is “good?” If goodness is perfection — perfect liberation, perfect justice, perfect equity — then yes, most actions, careers, or movements likely won’t create a good world. And how big is the world that we’re trying to fix? The fact that no one has yet succeeded in saving all of it can be debilitating.

However, when we redefine our metrics for efficacy, action becomes more tenable. As I learned in “Making Change When Change is Hard,” a general education course taught by Cass R. Sunstein ’75, former President Barack H. Obama did just that, motivating his team with the mantra: “better is good.”

Perfection need not be the only objective. Instead, good might also just be an improvement on yesterday for one specific community. In classic Ec10 style, maybe the measure of meaning is on the margin.

A world free from social, economic, and political ills is probably unattainable, and to suggest otherwise is to be blindly optimistic and incognizant of history’s nonlinear trajectory. More importantly, by aiming for perfection, we set ourselves up for speedy disenchantment when the future lets us down.

But that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of our ideals. If “better is good,” then our work, our advocacy, even our education all have potency, because it is easier to make the world better than to make the world perfect.

Easier, though, does not mean easy. The “arc of the moral universe” cannot “bend toward justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, if we don’t push it with force and conviction.

Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy ’40 — the IOP’s namesake — perfectly captured this sentiment in his address on the moon landing, explaining that we choose to pursue our goals for a better world “not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Hard is still possible. Hard is meaningful. Hard things are what we did to get here. They are what we will continue doing once we leave.

Amen H. Gashaw ’24 was the president of the Institute of Politics in 2023.