Why I'm leaving Harvard

The day I stood on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado must have been the first day of the Harvard semester of my second year of graduate school. I looked down into the canyon in the morning sun and cried without meaning— cried at its sharp depths, its lit chasms, above all I cried at its existence without me. Desert roads leave a long time to say a hard thing, and I took all the time before saying, 'I think I need to leave Harvard.' At that point, like a question. There are years that ask questions, and years that answer (Zora Neale Hurston). I have some answers.

I have learned too little. My years as a student engulfed me inside, hunkering in solitude and silence as the conditions of purest study. Under artificial light, central heating, digitally-scheduled packed days, text messaging as solace, quiet as convenience, screens as reality, walls and roofs, quick meals and quick greetings; under the token features of contemporary university life, I became less alive.

The ailments of emotional and physical indoors have become blatant to me after a year in contrast—stinging eyes in quick changes of light, stuffiness in sleeping, subduedness in spirit, lethargy, impatience, headache, dullness. These effects are less evident the longer we remove ourselves from the rhythms of the natural day. When these symptoms can't be felt as a crisis, it is only because we have been desensitized by the temptations of seeming comfort and apparent convenience.

Last year as I prepared for my general exams, I had roiling headaches that went on for weeks at a time. I visited a primary care doctor, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, an optometrist, a neurologist, an acupuncturist, had an MRI of my brain, had blood tests, took supplements, did stretches, and received conflicting conclusions from each of these professionals. Still, many days I woke up in such pain that I couldn't get out of bed. I cancelled arrangements, I bit my lip in anger. In time it was clear. My body was speaking, and I wasn't allowed to listen until it spoke louder and louder and louder. I needed to be able to believe what I already knew; we need to pay attention to what is killing us and not just what symptoms we are complaining about (Bernie Siegel). In the deepest, snowiest parts of that year, my pulse marked my energy low and still in my bones. I was literally less alive.

The school I wish to start is so far an imaginary palace where I put my ideas about education and the oneness of things. In it, Dewey sits talking about time; we always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. We live not only at the time we live, but in the place and in the body. My formal education has situated itself outside time, place and body— it prevails to the extent that it suppresses these conditionals. My intellect succeeds to the extent that it smothers my pain.

While preparing for my final exams at Oxford, the culmination of three years of study, I attended a pastoral care event in which we were advised that these exams were our chance to give everything. You can repair your friendships and family relationships after Finals, they told us, but you can't repair your marks.

This is what I mean that I have learned too little. Before I can continue with a life of learning, I need to learn how to live— how to care for my family, how to let my body be alive as possible, and how to be where I am because when where I am is generic, constructed, controlled, it is only by illusion, while the real world thumps and dies.

But really, I need to leave Harvard because I have learned too much. Like many of my peers, I believe that humans are changing our climate and destroying our environments. I believe that how we respond to this is the foremost challenge of our lives and a condition of our existence which cannot be ignored. At the first meeting of the introductory History graduate seminar, I said I was there seeking slowness. Amidst crisis, I wanted to preserve a place for long-term, thoughtful thinking on the intellectual conditions of environmentally destructive political and economic structures. There is certainly a place for that. But no longer at the cost of living at odds with the natural world I was describing, and no longer at the cost of being comforted into thinking that what I was doing was ever enough.

When living untruthfully, there is little that is more unsettling than to hear Annie Dillard tell us that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. This is just the beginning. The History of Science shows us that how we spend our days is also how we make all sense of the world— the discovery of what is real and what is true in our time emerges from the material circumstances of our living; our food, movements, noises, air, water, spaces, what we think, how we think, in the in-betweens.

This is what I know from reading history. There is no way to dismantle an unjust and environmentally lethal capitalist system when even its critics allow themselves to remain beneficiaries. It is not too late in history if the living beings whose turn it is choose for it not to be too late. And it is not foolish to speak in a supremely hopeful way— words have power, and ideas have long lives. I feel for my planet and my country the same thing I feel for my soul— there are no non-radical options left (Naomi Klein).

I did not expect the prospectus I would write in my third year after enrolling in graduate school at Harvard to be of this nature. But there is a problem that has to do with more than one dissertation, and rather with the conditions of contemporary academic institutions at a time of dire need. While Harvard and many of its peers profess to prioritize endowing students with skills to confront a changing climate, the material circumstances of study curtail opportunities to actually envision alternative, sustainable ways of living. The hegemony of the indoor, technology-centered, high-stress academic lifestyle becomes a condition of knowledge production, and the screen, the artificial space, the processed food and the unnaturally long days become what is implicitly real. But these things are not what is real, and our students learn more from how they live than what they read.

Before this year, I almost hoped that living outside was not actually as good as it seemed, in order to check my own longing. But the extreme beauty of untrammeled natural places is real, the extreme health and joy that accompanies being among them is real. I have slept outside in -15F in Minnesota and 105F along the Colorado River, I've reached volcanoes and glaciers and passes and peaks in Patagonia and New Zealand, sung in caves in Joshua Tree, worked long days on an organic farm in Chile, skinny dipped in turquoise waters, watched the moon come and go. Maggie Nelson describes being real as a sensation, which, among other things, makes one want to live. 

This is what higher education, what any education, should do at its best— it should make one want to live.

The answers of how will be a lifelong becoming. I will continue to live, teach and write outside in the knowledge that there’s not time for holding off. While I won’t always live as well as my words, I want them to stretch towards the people who do. I'm so glad you’ve had this year, my grandmother said. I said, I'm so glad I have this life.