Predictably, the perpetual battle over final clubs has flared up again this year. Some champion the clubs as the last bastions of student social life in Harvard Square. Others deride them as elitist, since they exclude the majority of Harvard students from membership. This exclusivity really irks the clubs’ opponents, who claim that the clubs are the last remaining vestiges of the old WASP elite at Harvard.
The opponents are right in that these clubs are vestiges from the times when old money reigned and blue-bloodedness was an important criterion for Harvardians. In the first half of the century, a student could truly feel that he was part of an exclusive power structure if he was accepted into a final club.
But in modern America, the blue-blooded elite has lost its relevance. The last half of the twentieth century was predominantly a meritocracy, not an aristocracy. As the influence of old money diminished, the aura around the old, revered families dissipated. Now, unless you’re a Kennedy, nobody cares. Just look at Harvard’s student body. Although we still have students from pedigreed families, most students cannot trace their lineage back to Rockefeller or DuPont. Instead, students are much more racially, geographically and economically diverse.
The image of a collegiate FDR sitting in the basement of a final club, smoking a cigar with powerful alumni and preparing for the presidency, might strike envy in the hearts of ambitious Harvard students. But the final clubs of today don’t exercise this kind of power or importance. Sure, members of the clubs can make some alumni connections, but so can any Harvard student involved with any other organization on campus. The question is, why do people still envy them?
Some people legitimately dislike the final clubs for their exclusion of women. Many students feel that the clubs, by refusing to admit women, remain symbols of the male chauvinism that should have died decades ago.
But many students hate the clubs mainly for their social policies. It probably dates back to high school, when some students experienced icy rejection by the popular crowd. They weren’t cool enough or social enough to get the right boyfriend or girlfriend, or to be invited to the right parties. Now, people resent being excluded from the final club social scene.
But most people have forgotten the popular crowd of high school. The sting of rejection has long since disappeared. As they attend important board meetings or travel around the world, I doubt that many recent Harvard graduates sadly ponder their exclusion from a Saturday night party at the Fox in 1997. Nor do these successful alumni sit around and cry about how this snub affected the rest of their lives. The final clubs simply don’t play a large role in the formation of successful students like they used to.
In the old days, if the final clubs claimed to be part of a powerful elite, they were right. The men who belonged were truly the elite of Harvard. Now, many Harvard students don’t even know where the final clubs are located. These clubs mainly exist for fellowship among a small subset of socially minded students, not as powerful oppressors. At other colleges, these clubs would be called fraternities. And if women start their own clubs, like the Bee, they will be nothing more than sororities with a fancy name. Just look at some of the students outside the clubs on a Friday night; they act very similarly to the drunken frat boys at the Universities of Alabama or Texas (although they’re perhaps a bit tamer).
If you feel socially excluded, feel free to hate them, just as you would hate the frat that rejected you. Just don’t give them more credit than they deserve by conferring upon them an importance that they don’t possess.