Bolger’s mop of blond hair is never mussed, from his poses with an unshaven Al Gore ’69 to a Yankee-cap-clad Spike Lee. How he serendipitously managed to be having a good hair day every single time he snared a celebrity photo-op is inexplicable. But serendipity is nothing new for Bolger.
The doctoral student at the Graduate School of Design explains on his webpage—and repeats almost verbatim for anyone who asks—that when he was two years old his family was in a near-fatal car accident, and he feels very lucky to be alive. Since then, he has overcome severe dyslexia to graduate from college at age 19—without knowing how to read—and amassed eight degrees. Now juggling work on his ninth while teaching four sections for three different courses, he shows no signs of slowing down. “When I hit double digits [of degrees] I’ll definitely retire,” he says.
Bolger was born outside of Flint, Mich., in 1975 to Donald Bolger, an engineer with General Motors, and Loretta, a retired teacher. At age four, his parents enrolled him in a gifted pre-kindergarten program at Michigan State University, but when he could not learn to read, they discovered he was dyslexic. His parents traversed the entire state of Michigan trying to find a suitable program for him in both public and private schools, but he couldn’t keep up. “My self-esteem and self-worth were really impacted,” he recalls. Finally, after fourth grade, they decided that home schooling was the best option.
Bolger boasts that he had no summers off during the four years when he was exclusively home schooled. “It was intensive, pragmatic and experiential. When we were studying the Civil War, we got into our Ford pickup truck and drove to Gettysburg,” he says.
At age 12, however, with his family now living in Grand Haven, Mich., Bolger and his mother decided he should augment their private curriculum with courses at Muskegon Community College. “No matter how skilled one parent is, it is still only one person,” he says.
After four years, he earned an associate’s degree and moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan. So did his mom.
She continued to read his assignments out loud to him because most textbooks weren’t available on tape. At Ann Arbor, he took his exams orally and did well enough in school to get into in Yale Law School after he graduated from the University of Michigan in December 1994. At that winter’s commencement ceremonies, the attorney general addressed the graduates and spoke about Bolger’s accomplishments in spite of his dyslexia. After graduation, he interned at the White House before starting at Yale the following September.
But he says he was too young for law school at age 19 and only stayed a couple of months before deciding to go to school abroad. “I was more interested in getting a date than in clerking for the Supreme Court. My maturity level was just not compatible with my peers,” he says of Yale. He headed to Oxford and Cambridge next, an experience he calls reminiscent of home schooling because of the one-on-one tutorial system and the long term breaks that allowed for lots of travel.
Oxford was similar to home schooling in another way, as well: his mom came to England, too, continuing to read him his assignments. While his mother had the most hands-on impact on his education, his father, from whom his mother is now separated, also influenced his educational choices. “My father has an MBA, a J.D. and an advanced engineering degree. I definitely modeled his excitement for multi-tasking career interests,” Bolger says.
While studying in England, Bolger also began working with Pat Lindamood of the Lindamood-Bell learning processes to combat his dyslexia and slowly gained literacy skills. Now, he says, he is a “sufficient” reader, but still dictates most papers out loud because he has trouble spelling.
Since Oxford, he’s bounced from Stanford to summers at Dartmouth and then to Columbia. The total tally, after the associate’s degree, is as follows: A.B. from the University of Michigan, 1994; M.Sc. from the University of Oxford (Sociology), 1997; M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge (Politics), 1998; A.M. from Stanford University (Education), 2000; M.S. from Columbia University (Real Estate Development), 2001; M.A. from Teachers College (Politics of Education), 2001; M.Des.S. from Harvard University (Urban Planning & Real Estate), 2002. Now he’s working on a doctorate (D.Des.) in Urban Planning and Real Estate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
This semester, Bolger is teaching for Government 1300, “The Politics of Congress,” Social Analysis 58, “Representation, Equality and Democracy” and Moral Reasoning 28, “Ethics and International Relations.”
“Ben, it seems, has been everywhere and done everything,” says Assistant Professor of Government Barry C. Burden, who teaches Gov 1300. “That kind of experience is probably helpful in adding to the section discussions.”
Bolger hasn’t been at Harvard that long relative to all the time he’s spent at other institutions of higher learning—only a year and a half at this point—but he’s completely indoctrinated in the spirit of the place. He says he spends most weekends in Widener and that he stays two to three weeks ahead of the reading in most of his courses. “I try to sleep as little as possible. I try to be as involved as I can,” he says.
His involvement here makes him bizarrely ubiquitous. Last semester, he TF’ed Foreign Cultures and Government courses, and with the additional three courses he’s teaching now, six degrees of Ben Bolger is a viable (if not very interesting) party game.