I wore headphones all throughout my freshman year at Harvard. Big headphones, with earpods the size of tennis balls. At the time, I’m sure they seemed essential, a crucial aid in my ongoing romance with music. But in hindsight, it’s clear they had far less to do with enhancing my sonic experience than they did with dissuading casual approachers. After only a few weeks there, in the fall of 1993, I realized how difficult conversations on the Yard could be. No sense inviting them.
I was happy to be there, but I was slowly coming to realize just how little I understood the place. If I recall correctly, I was the only person from either of my two childhood zip codes—11234 in Mill Basin, 11235 in Sheepshead Bay—to arrive at Harvard that fall. And while my high school, Stuyvesant, was one of the biggest feeders to the Ivies every year, the lived experience of the two places couldn’t have been more at odds.
At Stuyvesant, everyone was a hustler—a striver—from the school newspaper editors to the immigrant kids on the math team down to the jocks, perennially ignored and forever losing (Stuy had a profoundly inverted food chain). Almost no one took the days there for granted. In contrast, Harvard kids were, how you say, comfortable. Entitled. When someone recently asked me how I didn’t know I was signing myself up for a four-year course in the ethic of the privileged classes, all I could reply was that growing up, I didn’t really know any wealthy people. That they had their own mores, their own networks, and their own strongholds never entered my thoughts.
At certain moments while reading Ross Gregory Douthat’s new book Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion), I thought the author—deep down, under his carefully layered conservative bona fides—might be on my team after all. In analyzing the dynamics of his freshman dorm—where by coincidence, two years prior to his stay, I had been a prefect, a sort of upper-class adviser—he acknowledges that “our flesh bore different pigments, and we had been raised in different places, but most of us were creatures of the same comfortable, upwardly mobile slice of the country—a slice that looks like America, but isn’t.” Indeed, for all of Harvard’s admirable internal conversation about diversity, class hardly ever entered the conversation. Kudos to Douthat for acknowledging the homogeneity that dare not speak its name, and for indicting himself in the process.
But considering Douthat’s first year was such an eye-opener, he still manages to err on the side of comfort. He swipes at Harvard’s “parlor liberals” with the honed sneer of the school paper columnist he once was. He gets rejected by Harvard’s Waspy final clubs, yet can’t figure out whether or not he’s grateful to have been spared the face-to-face confrontation with his own inner elitist. Failing at Brahmin privilege, he instead opts for stone-cold conservatism, all the better to achieve the feeling of superiority he’d been longing for all along. It’s the only bully pulpit available to him, and he mounts it with vigor.
Like most kids at Harvard, he feels better peering down his nose—it just takes him a while to find the sub-hierarchy in which he’s top dog. He practically squeals with glee when commenting on a classmate who’d embezzled funds from an extracurricular group. So do the old-money types who frown upon the girl who tries to step above her station—it’s one of Douthat’s few moments of self-doubt.
One of Harvard’s unspoken assumptions is that privilege, in short, is good for those who have it, and a worthy, unassailable goal for those who don’t. Still, a schism separated the two groups. Even the university’s president wasn’t immune. In Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University (HarperCollins), Richard Bradley’s admirable investigation into the campus upheavals of the Lawrence Summers era, Bradley writes that Summers’s predecessor, Neil Rudenstine, seemed “like a scholarship kid who becomes the most passionate pledge in the rich kids’ fraternity.” This was a cardinal Crimson sin.
Summers, as he has made plain in recent months, bothers little with self-doubt. And while the Harvard he inherited from Rudenstine was rich—with a $23 billion endowment—it struck him as remarkably insular and tradition bound. He didn’t want to replace the entitlement, only to speed it up.
To this end, he launched his first broadside—against Cornel West and, by extension, the Afro-American studies department. Harvard Rules recounts in some detail the conversation West and Summers had in their first meeting. “I am as much a part of the Harvard tradition as you are,” West told an almost certainly incredulous Summers, “and we all have our distinctive interpretations of it.” Of course, Cornel had chosen to further the Harvard tradition by returning to Cambridge to help build Henry Louis “Skip” Gates’s Afro-Am dream team (West was my thesis adviser and mentor). But I like to think that he was hinting at something more subtle in this conversation: that to be at Harvard you didn’t need to be of Harvard, and the “tradition” need not be something you wear on your sleeve.
Most of my four years in Cambridge were spent figuring out how to do just that, and so my education became a test of will and ingenuity—finding ways to operate at the margins and still benefit from the university’s fullness. The advantage of a school the size of Harvard is that while the nearly half of my graduating class who majored in government or economics may have dictated the tenor of the place, several small pockets of difference—if not quite resistance—were flourishing. It was easy to develop a passion about something and find a nurturing, if slightly undernourished, home for it.
“The problem of being a complete outsider,” one particularly progressive Harvard lecturer is quoted as saying in Harvard Rules, “is that you have no power. But you have a certain sort of freedom as well.” And it’s that notion—because of and in spite of Harvard’s prevailing structures—that allowed Harvard to be something more than a place of mythology. Douthat calls it, in a fit of tough love, “An incubator for an American ruling class that is smug, stratified, self-congratulatory, and intellectually adrift.” Sure, and also a place where you can carve out a niche in relative silence while the university churns around you. In March, for the first time in the school’s history, the faculty issued a vote of lack of confidence in its president. It was largely symbolic—the Harvard Corporation has say over any hiring or firing decisions—but in a way, in his bullheadedness, Summers got his wish. The hidebound institution had been awakened. The headphones were off.
Jon Caramanica has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Vice.