Today’s Harvard student versus 176 years ago

July 30, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Entrepreneurship, Nature

Let’s look at two former Harvard students from now and nearly two centuries ago.

176 years ago

Henry Thoreau finished Harvard in 1837, one of its best-known students of his age. Let’s look at him before looking at this generation’s most prominent Harvard student.

Thoreau wrote Walden, his treatise on living simply, escaping petty human affairs and gossip, appreciating nature, self-reliance, and such. He lived for two years mostly on his own, growing his food, building his shelter, figuring out how to spend his time, and so on. The book opens

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.

The chapter titles also describe his life’, which the book’s Wikipedia page summarizes, if you don’t have time to read the book now.

  • Economy
  • Where I Lived and What I Lived For
  • Reading
  • Sounds
  • Solitude
  • Visitors
  • The Bean-Field
  • The Village
  • The Ponds
  • Baker Farm
  • Higher Laws
  • Brute Neighbors
  • House-Warming
  • Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors
  • Winter Animals
  • The Pond in Winter
  • Spring
  • Conclusion

I love reading just those titles… and perusing quotes from the book.

(I’ll note that writing about Thoreau seems to compel some readers to point out he didn’t live entirely on his own but interacted with others, helping them and receiving help from them. I’m writing this parenthetical note to save them the effort.)

He also wrote Civil Disobedience, about how he refused to support government policies like slavery and an imperialist war. He preferred going to jail and did, learning, growing, and developing ideas that continue to inspire others working for freedom.

He wrote poetry.


I think few would object to naming Mark Zuckerberg as this generation’s most prominent former Harvard student.

Longtime readers know I don’t like Facebook (Leaving Facebook is Easy and Fun), though I like entrepreneurship and have no problem with people making tons of money. In today’s post I don’t want to criticize the site — rather to compare it with Walden and Civil Disobedience. I find the comparison thought-provoking.

Facebook seems what Walden sought refuge from. It’s designed to get users in each other’s affairs, show off, and communicate superficially. Studies suggest using Facebook creates envy, unhappiness, stress, addiction, alienation, and so on. It seems to promote the opposite of the freedom, independence, and appreciation of Nature Walden promoted.

As a business, it seeks to find out as much as it can about your personal life.

In comparison to Thoreau’s sacrificing his physical freedom to help others in the face of government pressure, Facebook seems willing to cooperate with governments to spy on users, though I don’t know Zuckerberg’s role in those decisions. Thoreau found greater mental freedom, inspired centuries (so far) of others working for freedom for others, and in so doing increased his humanity, at least in my opinion. Zuckerberg seems, to me, to sacrifice his humanity.

If only he’d modeled his business on Thoreau more than on Bill Gates, another former Harvard student, whose company also seems happy to spy on users for the government.


I obviously cherry-picked three people whose values contrast each other’s and mine.

I’m not trying to make any meaningful argument in juxtaposing just three out of hundreds of thousands of former students — only to spark thoughts in you about your values. I didn’t cover these people comprehensively so you’re probably thinking about important points I left out. I’m curious how others view the juxtaposition, or how they would do it differently.

Many people enjoy using Facebook — billions more than will read or even know of Thoreau — so I know my values or at least behavior differ from the mainstream in this area.

Of course you also know my obvious ignorance since I don’t know any of the people or their environments. I can only guess through reading their books, observing their companies, and through reporters.

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2 responses on “Today’s Harvard student versus 176 years ago

  1. Zuckerberg Thoreau and Gates attended Harvard but so what? I did too. There is no magic taught at Harvard. The college use its reputation to suck in individuals who show early promise. Some great people peak early, some peak later, some never amount to much. We would like to think Harvard finds the best and brightest then turns them into awesome people who change the world for the better. I think it would be more accurate to say that some people change the world and Harvard and a few other institutions manage to place four annual mats under their feet as they move through life. Thoreau probably would have written Walden Pond regardless of Harvard.

    • Thanks for calling attention to something I should have clarified. I intended to use Harvard only as a high-status institution to establish the people’s status and one bond between them, not to criticize or say anything about Harvard itself. I can see how it might look like I was saying something about Harvard or its changing over time, but I didn’t intend too.

      I mainly wanted to get people thinking about different people’s values and reflect them on their own.

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