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The Dean's Address: A Very Un-British Introduction to America

09/13/2013 05:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013

From one bizarre academic microcosm to another, the Dean's Address at Harvard was all too much for this British onlooker.

Two weeks ago I moved to the USA to take up a Masters at Harvard. It's not the first time I've been to America, but it is the first time I've properly lived here. So far, the experience has been a surreal one.

I'm British, you see. And for Brits, America is -- well -- quite a weird place. From calling the "ground floor" the "first floor," to the sugar in the bread, to taking your restaurant leftovers home in a box, we're just not used to this.

All of the bizarre oddities I've encountered, however, pale in comparison to what has been the most extraordinary experience so far: the Dean's welcome address.

There we sat in the heart of Memorial Hall, surrounded by the splendor of Harvard's Sanders Theatre. And so it began. Forty-five minutes, with barely a breath as a break, on how great every single one of us in that room were. How amazing, how fantastically diverse our class was. How, individually and collectively, our potentialities knew no bounds.

People nodded. Some in the crowd whooped. Others hollered as the crescendo of self-congratulatory felicitations trundled ever upwards towards echelons that the Brits in the room had only ever read about. It was like being in the academic equivalent of a Baptist church. I half expected a first year graduate fresh from college to topple off his seat, frothing from the mouth, into praise-induced convulsions and for them to be proclaimed as one of the "chosen few." Perhaps a goat would be brought out on stage and sacrificed in front of us (it wouldn't have surprised me).

The seating in the theatre was semi-spherical, they said, to improve acoustics. But as the un-ending back-patting showed little sign of abeyance, I began to think the original architects ordered the benches in such a way merely to facilitate this 700-strong marathon circle jerk.

The Brits in the room anxiously eyed each other in between nervous squirming and awkward smiles. What were we to do? Nod along, clap, just kick back and lose ourselves in the moment? Is this how one gets sucked into a cult? One split-second's lapse in concentration, a moment's dalliance in this self-congratulatory guff, and next thing you know you're signing a celibacy pledge and transferring the deeds to your house?

I came to Harvard via Oxford. There, humility was the name of the game. Outside of the crenellated walls of university buildings, going to Oxford was something to be whispered, mumbled over in conversation, like admitting you were a Conservative, or that you were an investment banker. The system bred it into you -- sure, you were smart; but don't go getting above yourself. You'll never be as smart as your professors, so your best will never be enough. Society was even less forgiving. When I'd tell people I went to Oxford, some of them would laugh because -- well -- they didn't know how else to respond.

At Oxford, humility was not just a necessity. It was a virtue. It was an acceptance that for all the brains you may have, for all the passion, drive, and va-va-voom you possessed, you were nevertheless a small part in a big machine, and a human force in an infinitesimally large, and increasingly inhuman world.

And there I sat. In front of the Dean. In the magnificence of Ware and Van Brunt's masterpiece. Surrounded by suppressed smiles, sweaty palms and salivating mouths: symptoms of a seedily stimulated ego.

"We have searched the world for you and we have found you," said the Dean.

"We picked you because you have the gift of pursuing your dreams - and because your dreams can change the world."

"Welcome to Harvard." Welcome to America.