Walking On Grass, Others

Amelia Rawls in a Post OpEd:

During four years at Princeton University and nearly a year at Yale Law School, I have been surrounded by students who dazzle. … But they are not always nice people. … the kind of “nice” that involves showing compassion not merely because membership in community service groups demands it. The kind of “nice” that involves sharing notes with a student who is sick or lending a textbook to a friend who doesn’t have one. The kind of selfless, genuine “nice” that makes this world a better place — but won’t get you accepted to college.

Of course, top universities accept hundreds of individuals who have demonstrated the highest levels of citizenship. These teenagers have volunteered in more food banks, sponsored more fundraisers and lobbied more officials than any previous generation. … Sometimes some of these students will denounce world hunger but be unfriendly to the homeless. They will debate environmental policy but never offer to take out the trash. They will believe vehemently in many causes but roll their eyes when reminded to be humble, to be generous and to “do what is right.”

It is these people, though, who often climb America’s ladder of success. They rise to the top, partly on their own merits yet also partly on the backs of equally deserving but “nicer” people who let them steal the spotlight. … Watching the race for the presidency, I cannot help but wonder whether our candidates, with their prestigious degrees and impressive credentials, are nice people. I wonder if, in their trek to the top, they have pushed aside the kind of quietly brilliant altruists who mean what they say and say what they mean. I wonder if our society is crippling itself by subjecting its youths to an almost-Darwinian college selection process.

Supporting Amelia, here is a pict I took at Harvard Thursday:


There are many foot paths, but even so without fences students cut across and kill the grass, to gain that extra few seconds.  (Fences come down when parents show up for graduation.)  Many other campuses have social norms that keep folks off the grass, but not Harvard.

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  • Enlightened campuses build the sidewalks after students have worn paths in the grass.

  • Most people most of the time are selfish, myself included, to be completely honest. But I am not pessimistic about humanity, because I believe that it is possible to design social systems that work with human nature, instead of cajoling people to behave against their natural inclinations. For example, Wikipedia is a system that works with human nature. Contributors to Wikipedia are not cajoled to contribute out of altruism.

    We will not fix the big problems that face us (e.g., global warming) by cajoling people to be altruistic (e.g., “please, please, take a bus instead of your car”). We need to accept human nature as it is and figure out how to work with it.

    Consider the problem of keeping people off the grass. First, why do we need grass? There are other plants that are hardier, more attractive, and don’t require cutting. Second, if we must have grass, then we can learn from Disneyland. When I was in Disneyland, I was amazed by the level of thought that went into management of people flow. Paths were carefully designed to disperse people and prevent congestion. In particular, I noticed that I could see a lot of well-manicured, healthy grass. The grass was clearly visible, but the paths were cleverly designed so that it was almost impossible to walk on the grass, and this was done mainly without fences.

  • Caledonian

    Things will never get better until people stop seeing ‘selfishness’ as a sin or a failing. ALL actions are taken on behalf of the self. The key is recognizing that the bounds of the self depend on perception and identity.

    The students at Harvard do not perceive the grounds as being part of themselves. Thus they don’t care whether the grass is harmed.

  • Kat

    Preferring to err myself on the side of being a pushover rather than trample on anyone else, I sympathize with the viewpoint of the Post article. On the other hand I’ve seen someone by being bulldozer-like, self-promoting, and what I think of as generally obnoxious, to have taken an idea of mine further than I could have, even if I didn’t get credit. I still prefer to work with the nice people.

    But I don’t think the fences on the Harvard grass are a good illustration of her point. They seem like a better illustration of a campus that values the appearance of its grass over allowing impromptu games of frisbee or reading outside, and over putting in sidewalks where they would be most useful. Having to fence off flowerbeds would tell a different story. I’ve never spent much time on a campus that had a social norm against staying off the grass entirely, though the majority use the sidewalks. (And some of my smaller undergrad classes were held on it, in nice weather…)

    Someone I know at Harvard says what he dislikes about it is that it’s not considered cool to really love what you’re studying, what you do. And perhaps it’s not so much that the not-so-nice become successful the author laments as that the insincere do — but you’ve posted yourself that sincerity isn’t enough. Perhaps the insincere, or less than perfectly sincere, often get more accomplished, at least by any means we have to recognize and measure success. Especially if the goal is not the underlying cause, but success itself.

  • michael vassar

    Wow! I’d like to second the article and ALL of the comments so far.

  • Julian Morrison

    More details on the grass thing can be found by Googling “desire line”. Every urban planner, and especially bureaucrats in charge of grass, ought to have the idea hammered into them in bureaucrat school. Pave the desire lines! Never obstruct an informal path or an informal entrance.

  • ad

    without fences students cut across and kill the grass, to gain that extra few seconds.

    Instead of putting paths along the routes that students want to follow, Harvard forces them to follow paths along the routes Harvard decided.

    Obviously they have the wrong students.

  • poke

    I wonder how much of what the author observed is simply a product of the weird American emphasis on extra-curricula activities? When you have to do volunteer work to pad out your application it’s not surprising that most people come across as especially hypocritical about it. What I find most disturbing though is that apparently investing time and money in an education so you can become a doctor or scientist or even a lawyer or politician is not considered part of being “nice” and doing “what is right.” I mean, sure, these things pay well (eventually; except academic science) but they involve a long period of “self-sacrifice.” So excuse me for not volunteering in a soup kitchen and being a bit snippy when you wanted to copy my work.

  • Guys, if you put in a path for every pair of points on the perimeter of a grass area, it will cover the entire area.

    Kat, sure, if you want someone to trample over others to get your idea to the top, you will want a trampler.

  • Caledonian

    Guys, if you put in a path for every pair of points on the perimeter of a grass area, it will cover the entire area.

    Yes, but that’s not relevant. Why?

    1) Not every combination of points will be equally travelled.
    2) Humans naturally follow paths until they perceive the price of remaining on them to be greater than the advantage to departing them. If you let people wear paths on the grass, certain paths will be reinforced and others will not.

    Your objection is correct as a point in itself, but a complete non-sequitur to the problem.

  • John

    A lot of people walk on grass because it’s nice to walk on grass. Not “to gain that extra few seconds.”

  • A truly great architect (I wish I could remember the name) said “Put the paths where the people go.”

    And I think a truly great institution would encourage walking in the grass–bare-foot if possible.

  • My Yalie friends, seeing this, immediately noted that Yale doesn’t have this problem, and offered pix of the grounds to prove it: http://www.facilities.yale.edu/Campus/TourGreenery.asp

    No fences necessary, they say! Yale is famous for its grounds and greenery and its students take pride in that reputation, apparently, unlike those at Harvard. Perhaps this is like public housing: it is often said that residents destroyed it because they had no stake in it.

    How then might Harvard invest its students with something like pride and a feeling of ownership, as apparently Yale can? (Please note that as a Greek-reading Johnnie, I have no dog in this fight!)

  • Dan

    A few points in the student body’s defense:

    1) Harvard students are in a hurry. The efficient number of people crossing on the grass is almost certainly not 0. Unfortunately, Harvard cannot allow the really desperate students to cross without allowing everyone (except inefficiently with the fences). What we need is a FAST LANE type system that charges students when they walk onto the grass so that the destructive students bear the cost of its upkeep.
    2) Harvard Yard gets a lot of tourists. Tourists are not exposed to Harvard’s cultural norms and therefore sometimes do walk on the grass unless they are guided off it.
    3) The paths are poorly organized. Certain paths that are really important are unpaved.
    4) I don’t think the problem is that Harvard students care little about the costs of their actions to their fellow students, I think that Harvard students in general care little about the yard looking pretty for commencement. That’s the administration’s priority, and yes I think that most students harbor nothing better than mild resentment for that crew.

  • Julian Morrison

    Desire lines are effectively a sum over the human choices to walk “here” and not “there”. So while they aren’t a totally connected graph from every A to every B, they connect everywhere important in the most sensible way. It’s rather like solving “traveling salesman” with ants.

    • Luv singh

       hey whats this-“traveling salesman with ants” problem.

  • Tom P

    Is there any (non-anecdotal) evidence for the proposition that people at elite schools have “steamrolled” over others in the effort to gain admission, and therefore might be less “nice” than the general population? Certainly that might be a factor predicting their niceness, but I doubt the prevalence of “not nice” people ate Ivy schools has much to do with this. I think it has more to do with the fact that most people, regardless of educational background, are not “nice” in the sense of the article — i.e., like to give to homeless people, take out the trash, etc. Is there anyone here who really enjoys taking out the trash?

    That also explains why Ivy students are perceived as hypocritical. If no one likes to take out the trash, it’s only the people who have at least done something to combat environmental damage (as some Ivy students have) who will be perceived as hypocritical. But it’s certainly better to be hypocritical (half-wrong) than completely wrong on the issue of trash disposal, or any other issue.

    It’s fairly clear that ambition makes people do bad things, and sometimes ambitious people get ahead because of those bad deeds. But it seems like a little of a broad brushstroke to claim that somehow this explains the political situation (among the other claims made in the article). “Politics as usual” has much more to do with the fact that that is what wins votes. It is not really the politicians but the structure of government that is to blame for the situation. This fits into my earlier point that, since most people are actually not nice (in the sense of the article), it makes more sense to change incentives, rather than call people out for being “not nice,” if one really wants to change behavior.

    Obviously it’s possible to change behavior over long time periods culturally (by calling people out for being “not nice” – using social pressure), but why not just create institutions that incentivize good behavior?

  • Dan wrote, “I don’t think the problem is that Harvard students care little about the costs of their actions to their fellow students,”

    I suspect you don’t know that much about Harvard students. I know a fair amount about them, and yes, they’re culturally different than Yale students. It’s a more socially competitive, selfish environment.

  • I stumble into these places from Naked Capitalism, into which I stumbled some time ago on account of Hyman Minsky, so admittedly, I am ignorant of the social norms and graces… But something or some things about the post and comments reminded me of G. H. W. Bush’s Starfish Morality, and so I thought I’d make that confession. (To paraphrase the moral of the parable in case you forget or never heard: It matters to the single Starfish one saves while ignoring the plight of the thousands beached around it ….) I do recall reading, once upon a time, that some landscapers solved the grass problem by letting people walk where they would and then putting in sidewalks, but maybe that’s apocryphal.

    I do wish I could say I wasn’t pessimistic about humanity, but as those sages over at Comedy Central have too often demonstrated … ooohh, oooh, look at the shiny bubbles…

  • Dan

    @Hopefully Anonymous (“I suspect you don’t know that much about Harvard students”):
    I actually am a Harvard student. I don’t think the competitive spirit at Harvard makes students particularly selfish with regard to the lawn. It’s really just that none of the students really care, and we have no solidarity with those who do care.

  • Are we looking at the same picture? I don’t see any places that look trampled. There are a couple of thin patches, but that’s not what you get when heavy walking kills the grass.

    Any decent grass should be able to take occasional feet. The only thing that does damage is many people regularly walking in the same place. When that happens, you get a little dirt path through the grass — killing no more grass than if you created a cement path.

  • John

    Huh… Maybe I should stop cutting across the grass at my college.

  • David Robinson

    Hopefully Anonymous wrote, “I suspect you don’t know that much about Harvard students. I know a fair amount about them, and yes, they’re culturally different than Yale students. It’s a more socially competitive, selfish environment.”

    I’m another Harvard student, and I really don’t see the same “socially competitive, selfish environment” that you do. Naturally I’m working from both a biased perspective and a fairly small sample size of students (though probably larger than the one you’re working from), but I’m still interested in whether you could back that claim up with evidence.

  • Amelia Rawls must be a very nice person. I mean, she’s willing to call out her fellow students generally (and that in a major newspaper) for not being very nice.

    Thankfully, though, it’s not like her suppositious account plays into any stereotypes about Snobby East Coast Elitists.

  • Jor

    @Tom P.

    Only non-anecdotal evidence I’m aware of people in higher-up places being less just/nice than those lower down on the totem pole comes from freakonomics (or some similar book in that vein) about a guy who would deliver bagels to businesses.

    He would deliver a basket of bagels on each floor, with a tip jar, and a sign, saying, take one bagel, and leave a dollar in the jar. He would come back at the end of the day, and collect the basket and the money. So basically you were on the honor system.

    One particular corporation was very hierarchically organized, with people on the bottom on the first floor, middle management on the second floor, and the top on the third floor.

    Anyway, since the guy knew how many bagels he left on each floor, and how much money was in the jar, he could by proxy, get a sense of honesty. The higher up you were in the building, the more the chance you took a bagel without paying.

  • Jor

    @ Tom P

    Actually, I can give another example of people higher up on the food chain not being as nice. Medical students who choose high status specialities, have
    significantly lower visceral empathic responses than those going into lower prestige specialities.

    HT: Tyler Cowen

  • Jor, those are two great data points.

  • spindizzy

    If I were an Ivy-league student (which I’m not), I think I would be pretty annoyed by this display of sanctimony.

    On the other hand, if I were an Ivy-league student, I wouldn’t be half as smart as the people around me.

    To combat my sense of inadequacy, I’d probably try to imagine some immeasurable quality… something which I possessed (or believed I posessed) in greater abundance than my peers.

    Even better, I could make up a story whereby my peers weren’t actually smarter than me at all. They just weren’t handicapped by this virtuous quality.

    I’m sure this would make my college experience much more bearable.

  • David Robinson,
    I’m sure “argument from google search” will be it’s own logical fallacy on wikipedia soon, but here’s a good faith effort at response. I looked at what most would consider to be the peer universities to Harvard and Yale in the U.S., without any cherry-picking. The positive deviation of Harvard is striking.

    Results 1 – 10 of about 98 for yale “socially competitive”.

    Results 1 – 10 of about 98 for princeton “socially competitive”.

    Results 1 – 10 of about 103 for MIT “socially competitive”.

    Results 1 – 10 of about 100 for Stanford “socially competitive”.

    Results 1 – 10 of about 246 for harvard “socially competitive”.

    By the way, I’m not posting this pejoratively about Harvard- there are benefits to being in a socially competitive environments if one already has relatively strong social skills, and wants to test them against the best, and to use the challenges to drive and measure improvement.

  • Dartmouth ’08

    I’d second the commentators above who point out that the existence (or lack of) social norms keeping people off the grass doesn’t have much to do with to whether said people are “nice” or altruistic. (Although this is perhaps my Dartmouth bias – the Green here [what’s called the quad at most other schools] is meant to be walked across and sat upon, and most of the campus can be found sitting upon it on a sunny Saturday, so no one here would deduce anything about someone’s personality from observing whether they stepped on the grass or not. [I might also note that our usually well-traveled Green currently has similar fences up because the operations staff is reseeding and fertilizing it, and they don’t want students accidentally sitting in their fertilizer. I imagine Harvard might be doing the same thing.])

    It’s a clever little jab at Harvard students, to posit that their entire system of social relations can be summed up in a photo of a lawn, but it doesn’t actually have good evidentiary value. One can care deeply for one’s fellow human beings without caring very much about how many blades of grass one crushes while walking across a yard, because these are very different social and moral issues. (Conversely, one could faithfully avoid walking on the grass and still be self-centered and thoughtless in other ways.)

    The picture is obviously intended to be humorous, and humor’s a lovely thing, but I suppose I just found it odd that your commentary was so quick to disparage Harvard students without much logical support for that position, Robin. Nor was the original post that convincing. The anecdotes of one college student don’t prove very much; I’ve met many more kind, altruistic people at Dartmouth than selfish ones, and more kind people than I knew in my suburban hometown, but I’m not going to assume that that experience is representative, any more than Ms. Rawls’ is. The type of data that Jor offers is convincing, and carries the type of logical rigor I’m used to seeing marshalled on this blog; I suppose that’s why I was a bit surprised to see a rather poorly reasoned post pop up.

  • Ira

    Having found this article soon after reading the post entitled “Bell’s Theorem: No EPR ‘Reality’,” I had already assumed a scientific perspective on the matter. Naturally, I chose to explain this grass-walking phenomenon in terms of thermodynamics. At this point, I would normally insert a quote introducing my position, however, I chose to instead include two in hopes of introducing thermodynamics to anyone who hasn’t taken a course in the subject–I’ve taken it twice, once from a Biomedical Engineering professor, lecturing from a mechanical perspective, and then from a Chemical Engineering professor, from a chemical perspective.

    Thermodynamics is a funny subject. The first time you go through it, you don’t understand it at all. The second time you go through it, you think you understand it, except for one or two small points. The third time you go through it, you know you don’t understand it, but by that time you are so used to it, it doesn’t bother you any more.
    –Arnold Sommerfeld

    Zeroth: You must play the game.
    First: You can’t win.
    Second: You can’t break even.
    Third: You can’t quit the game.
    –a common scientific joke explaining the laws of thermodynamics

    Back to the topic at hand: Is it possible that the students who walked on the grass had no alterior motive? They didn’t seek to disobey authority, had no personal agenda against the grounds crew, weren’t even running late to class. I doubt altruism entered a student’s mind at the point of lifting one leg over the fence to get to the other side. Nor was he concerned for the abundance of natural life which he was preparing to crush under the overwhelming weight of half his body’s mass. And when he placed the first foot down to pick the second foot up, transferring the entirety of his body’s force (weight) onto the hundreds of life forms that couldn’t even make a noise to resist this intrusion, I doubt he was listening to The Beatles – Within You Without You (And to see you’re really only very small, and life flows on within you and without you).

    Perhaps, there is a slightest of chances, that a student running late to class had forced his way through a small crowd of people, who up until this point had been peaceably walking on the sidewalk. And instead of getting angry, or making a nasty comment, one of these displaced walkers decided he would take the path less traveled so as to prevent further mis-overstandings (Rastafarian for understanding).

    Equally likely, he wasn’t a University student anyway. Visiting from another school, he was unaware of the rules and regulations. He had been thinking of his grandfather, and the two replacement-knee surgeries he’d just undertaken. Then he thought of the advice his father gave him regarding his sore back: “For the rest of your life, never do anything with both knees straight.” Connecting the dots, and worried not so much about his aching back, but about his healthy knees, he climbed the fence, and upon reaching the other side, silently exclaimed, “Ah, the grass is much softer on the knees than concrete.”

  • Nate

    which is more important, grass or freedom?

    i was personally responsible for killing a huge swath of grass at hopkins in order to make baltimore’s longest slip ‘n slide a few years ago. no regrets!

  • Ira

    I like Tom P.’s comments regarding basic human tendencies. My dad is a pediatrician, generally regarded as one of the hardest-working, most underpaid medical professions. As I’ve learned from many a dinner table conversations, pediatrics is as much of a teaching profession as a medical profession. While providing medical care to his patients, he is also responsible for [dealing with] the parents.

    When he joined his first practice, he was the third doctor. The other two had a long established practice–sometimes random, most often around the holidays–of delivering freshly baked donuts to the nurseries at local area hospitals, as a token of appreciation for all the hard work involved in childcare before the pediatrician is even involved. My father, upon being introduced to this practice, insisted that he deliver the donuts. They politely agreed.

    As the practice grew, to eventually over a dozen doctors, the office manager suspended the donut-giving ceremony, for what I’m sure in her mind, was a logical, well-thought out way to garner support from the hospitals’ nurses. When my father left this group and went into practice with one other doctor, he proposed that they take up this thanks-giving ritual. His partner was not so open-minded, and wouldn’t allow use of the business’s funds. My dad, for a few years, paid out of his pocket to continue the tradition.

    For reasons I will leave unexplained, my father’s partner was forced to sell his shares of the practice to my dad, forcing upon him a new philosophy of businessman, in addition to his profession as care-giver. At least now my dad can use company funds to buy donuts for the nurses.

    Moral of the story: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes it means saving money, other times it means making people happy. In the end, to quote Rich Boy, a rapper from Mobile, AL, “What did you do this for? What difference did you make?”

    p.s. I need to read more philosophy.

  • Lillian

    Frankly I was disappointed to see this post come from a blog dedicated to overcoming bias. As a Harvard graduate, I’m really tired of people picking on Harvard just because it’s Harvard. Some people have more rigorous arguments for the various statements they make about Harvard, the elite, etc (ex. the non-anecdotal evidence Jor pointed out), and I welcome those. However, snapping a picture without any context while strolling through the Yard and thinking that it justifies making a generalizing criticism of the people there is simply one of the worst arguments I’ve heard. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this kind of generalization displays bias.

    Like Dartmouth 08 pointed out, around this time of the year Yard Operations would indeed be reseeding and fertilizing the lawn in preparation for Commencement. The fences aren’t up year round; they’re only up for reseeding and comes down, like Robin said, at Commencement. I think it’s more a demonstration of the extreme care the administration takes in being super careful about making the campus look pretty when all the parents, donors, etc come than a demonstration of how much havoc students would wreck on the grass if there were no fences.

  • Michael Sullivan

    Wow. As a New Haven resident, I’m fairly familiar with the culture of Yale students (more Grad than Undergrad), and your last sentence describes them well in comparison to every other academic environment I’ve observed.

    What’s striking to me is that the administration and star-faculty are much more extreme than the students. I can deal socially with the level of competitiveness among 90% of the grad students and 2/3 of the faculty. I’ve yet to meet any real yale brass that I could stand. It’s all about being *Yale*, which is all about being better than, well, everybody else, including Harvard. Especially Harvard.

  • Michael Sullivan

    stripping out html now? I attempted to italicize the following quote from Hopefully anonymous before my last comment. Sorry I failed to preview:

    “I suspect you don’t know that much about Harvard students. I know a fair amount about them, and yes, they’re culturally different than Yale students. It’s a more socially competitive, selfish environment.”

  • Actually, the administration has to put up fences not because the students aren’t “nice” but because the sidewalks are poorly designed. This is really about path dependency (heh) and not about students being less connected or elitist as other comments have stated. It can feel good to denigrate large groups of people as an exercise in projecting insecurity but the truth is that jerks and nice people at harvard, yale, stanford, etc follow a similar distribution as just about everyplace else.

  • Luv singh

    Does walking on grass cause pain to them? Do reply