The Case Against Club Harvard
CALIFORNIANS and graduates of posh suburban high schools are guilty of popularizing one of Madison Avenue's most banal advertising campaigns.
I'm talking about Club Med--you know, the posh resort chain that bills itself the "antidote to civilization," where decadent New York singles trade in dollars at the beginning of their stays for the clever, back-to-nature currency of beads.
But if some people have their way, t-shirts proclaiming "Club Redondo Beach" or "Club white-preppy-affluent-school x" will be supplanted by a new breed of shirts much closer to home.
Yes. It's the imminent creation of Club Harvard.
I know, I know, Leverett House has already seized upon the logo "Club Lev" in one edition of its annually creative house t-shirts. (I believe it was the year after the house spent itself in another flurry of originality by copying the "Banana Republic" safari logo.)
But now it seems there is a ground-swell sentiment in favor of turning the concept of a club into more than a distasteful slogan; these people want to bring such groupings into reality. In other words, it is the drive to create artificial social divisions at Harvard.
"We are looking for people we enjoy being with, and that cuts across any social, economic, religious or ethnic barriers," one would-be fraternity founder told The New York Times last week. The student's sentiment--echoing a familiar plea at this large College--is natural, even admirable, but his would be method is not. Pursuing the end of social contact, fraternities create the illusion of trading in the difficult, human endeavor of understanding each other in the real world for the phony bonhomie of a club.
No one needs to say it is easy living at Harvard. No one need declare that social isolation necessarily makes students here smarter, stronger or more compassionate. But even assuming that such isolation is endemic here, is it so patently false to believe that independence--intellectual and social--contributes to a sensibility that helps one meet the severest challenges, like those of private conscience?
The alternatives to such ideas are becoming obvious, taking shape in a group-think mentality so frequently condemned at Harvard.
We have, right here, one of the grossest examples of social distinction still active at the collegiate level. The final clubs, dating from the 1870s, have carved out a place for elitism beyond the norm even at Harvard. Santayana called the system "the secret society...to which everybody of consequence belonged."
This is obviously an extreme case. But on a more intimate level, we have an ongoing debate over "diversity" at the College, which is really simply a plea that Harvard students even in their houses make every genuine attempt to experience and understand each other across external divisions.
Criticism directed at institutions like The Crimson for exclusivity and narrow-mindedness reflect uneasiness about unwarranted social identification. To know that fraternities deserve at least such scrutiny--and remember that they exist only for such social identification--one need simply look at the news. Reports of some fraternities' problems with sexual harassment, racial insensitivity, alcohol abuse, etc., are not unfounded.
BUT there is a simpler, more elegant argument against such clubs.
Most undergraduates here would admit to believing, at least for a moment, in some special quality in Harvard. My moment came and went the summer after my high school graduation. Then, on the advice of a girl-friend, I got hold of a copy of Smithsonian magazine. The magazine, following the summer 1986 bandwagon, published an essay commemorating Harvard's much-ballyhooed 350th anniversary. It was written by a Melvin Maddocks--who like many authors of such pieces boasted a class year--'46.
Maddocks' tone took off from the headline of his piece, which read, "Harvard was once, unimaginably, small and humble."
The Smithsonian article touched on a perpetual bane for its students: Harvard loneliness.
"What New York has been to loneliness among cities," Maddock mused, "Harvard has been to loneliness among colleges: the big league."
Good enough, I thought. And then I read the end of the article. I've never been able to forget it. And in it lies the plainest argument for preserving the community of Harvard, not Club Harvard.
The essay concluded:
"`The true Harvard, said William James [a Harvard graduate himself], `is the invisible Harvard in the souls of her more truth-seeking and independent and often very solitary sons.' This was an exact description of his Harvard. When it became a piety--a chesty motto suitable for fundraising or for framing on a new common-room wall--the golden age was over."
If there is any golden moment to preserve from a "Harvard education", it more than likely belongs in this solitary pursuit of all of ours.