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"HOORAY, hooray, soon it will be Commencement Day!" the bright-eyed Idealist inside me burst out the other day, radiant and eager, dancing with imaginary sheepskin and mortarboard in each hand.
"Harumph," said my Realist side. On a rainy afternoon, post-collegiate life looms ahead like a string of paychecks due in the mail.
But now, with my thesis past amd friends taking honors hourlies--knocking off courses one by one like mechanical ducks--it's time to pull up a chair, relax. Except for one nagging issue.
This spring each senior received an invitation that stood out from the pitches for seven kinds of car loans, cheap health insurance, "authoritative" newsmagazines and Visa cards from every bank west of the Atlantic. It was the Harvard Club of New York City calling.
At last, apparently, The Payoff for college.
THE invitation was a reminder that there's a world of difference between our pre-Harvard and post-Harvard lives. A reminder of the fact that we don't leave Harvard without the privilege of Membership.
In a comfortable eight-floor Georgian building in midtown Manhattan, the invitation promises, lies the exclusive domain of The Club, 96-year-old bastion of tradition for the highest circles of American society--one of the first real-world rewards for attending Harvard.
Those who pass their interview with The Club's admissions committee receive their own "permanent slice of Cambridge": banquet rooms, masseur, squash courts, valet, ticket office, boot black, cigar stand and barber. Not to mention the games of bridge and backgammon, evenings of brandy and wine, entertainment by a capella and a play-wright's dialogue, a cozy library and the opportunity to tap into a "valuable resource for business or personal use."
It induces a feeling as warm as an overcoat or cream and maroon muffler, a feeling that tells you, "You've made it."
THE feeling also may say, "Was this my slice of Cambridge?" The Club's peculiarly anachronistic view of what Cambridge and college represent to many undergraduates reflects a pervasive ambiguity about Harvard. It is part citadel of learning, part bastion of snobbery; part university, part national power center.
We can fool ourselves while we're here that Harvard means one thing, but once the class gift requests arrive, once the invitation to The Club comes--or much more importantly--as the employment opportunities miraculously appear along with the raised expectations and judgements of strangers, we had better acknowledge the facts.
The message from the New York City association reminds us that what matters is not who you are, but where you went to school. To The Club, Harvard isn't just postsecondary education. It is an institution that trains the elite to run the country, and in the process, helps willing hands slip into the white gloves of proper society. Harvard takes that special pool of talent, enhances it through association and, upon completion, yields up its Harvard men and women--sealed and stamped with the hallowed VE-RI-TAS.
The Club tells us: Get used to it. Become familiar with the notion of exclusivity. You are someone different. Why not keep your own "permanent slice of Cambridge" wherever you go? And never forget it's your Cambridge, not anyone else's.
DON'T get me wrong. I'm as much in favor of the right to associate as much as the next person. And I readily acknowledge that The Club may just be a simple extension of the privileges we already receive--access to the world's largest private library system, contact with world-renowned professors, and lest we forget, the ability to stamp Harvard on our resumes.
So what's wrong with cheap lodging in New York, a convenient gym, a few pleasurable hours in the good company of old friends, and genuine business opportunities? Why not take advantage of the system and not let it take advantage of you?
Fine enough. But beware that nothing is free.
One's minimum commitment far exceeds the $700 a year membership fee for a 32-year-old city resident--dollars that could buy membership to the local YMCA donors' board, a computer for a neighborhood high school or part of a semester for a student at a public college. No one else can provide that money, that time, that expertise.
And then there's the real world consequence of membership. Association with any group exacts costs of inclusion, some ideological, some financial and some ethical. For four years I've seen too many folks in tuxedos and sequins with glassy teeth and eyes roam down Mt. Auburn St. on weekend nights. Not that the people inside them are bad. But they may already believe that wearing the tuxedos is the real thing in life.
Is that what we've learned at Harvard, exclusivity?
OR HAVE we only learned hypocrisy? Is turning down The Club a weak attempt to stay "a little nobler, a little cleaner" than the rest of alumni, when we shamelessly accept the rest of the inherent benefits of a Harvard education?
That sort of reasoning is the easy way out. We don't escape hard choices by ignoring them. There is a moral domain, even for Harvard graduates. And as far as choices are considered, perhaps the finest thing about Harvard is that it present you with many of them, with a corresponding responsibility.
Say no to The Club. If you want to do business, do it at the Rotary.
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