The Daily

First Person

Harvard and Class

July 11, 2011 | by

As told to Sheila Heti.

I grew up in Montreal and went to an upper-middle-class Jewish day school where kids had parents who maybe owned a carpet store or maybe were dentists. And then I went to Harvard for college. And it was pretty weird.

When I applied, I thought it would be great because I would get to meet lots of smart people. Those were the kinds of people I liked to be friends with, and I thought there would be more of them there. That was the main reason I thought it would be a fun place to be. I don’t think I was super ambitious or professional minded or even a very good student.

The thing I figured out soon after I applied was that, on Gilligan’s Island, it wasn’t the Professor who went to Harvard, it was Mr. Howell, the rich man. That was something of a revelation.

It’s funny, because what a lot of people talk about when they talk about going to Harvard is being really intimidated by the place when they arrive. I wasn’t at all intimidated by the place when I arrived—but I was really intimidated after graduating.

I arrived at Harvard from Montreal, which is a pretty fucking hip place to be an eighteen-year-old. I’d been going to bars for a while, and I was in a political theater company that did shows in lofts with homeless people and South American activists. And we went to pubs and got old gay men to buy us drinks. It was a pretty cool, fun, and exciting life for a kid in Montreal. It was a very vibrant place, and young people were really part of the life of the city.

Then when I went to Harvard, the place was full of these nominally smart, interesting people, all of whom at the age of eighteen seemed perfectly happy to live in dormitories and be on a meal plan and live a fully institutional life. And that was completely maddening! This was the opposite of everything I’d hoped for from the environment I’d be in.

By design, the university wants to be an enclosed institution, so you’re required to live on campus, which means that you’re not living in the city. You don’t have a landlord or neighbors or those kinds of things. You’re pretty much required to sign up for the meal plan, which means you don’t interact with people in restaurants or grocery stores or any of that kind of stuff. The drinking age is twenty-one, and it’s strictly enforced in the city but mostly unenforced on campus, which means if you want to drink or go to a party, you can only do that on campus, but if you want to go see a band at a club, you can’t do that.

I spent my first year trying to figure out how to participate in the life of the city in some way, but by the end of my first year I think I gave up because the pull of the university community was so strong and the boundaries were so hard to overcome.

By the end of university, I ended up living somewhere that was considered off campus—a place called the Dudley Co-op. The Dudley Co-op was located in a building that was owned by Harvard. About thirty or forty Harvard students lived there. We did our own cooking and cleaning, but we were on the university phone system and the university did the building maintenance. That’s how fully institutionalized life at Harvard was: even Dudley House, which was the organization that looked after off-campus living, provided university-owned accommodation for people who wanted to live off campus.

There actually was a small percentage of students who genuinely did live off campus—like 1 percent—but you had to get university permission. I think the explanation the university would give is that going to Harvard isn’t just a set of courses, it’s an experience and a community, and they’re interested in people being part of that community, which means living there and participating in what they call the “house system,” the different dorms students live in.

But the end result is that it makes the university into an ivory tower—I mean, incredibly so. It would be one thing if you were out in the woods, but this is Boston. In four years of living in that city I pretty much didn’t come to know anybody who wasn’t affiliated with Harvard. And I’m someone who’s interested in cities and who’s interested in meeting different kinds of people. The university is a completely isolated environment, and the fact that you’re inside a city somehow makes that more insidious and terrible.

All the parties were on campus. So when you went to a party—and that’s what you would do Friday and Saturday night, you would go to a party—the party would be on campus, which means, sort of implicitly, that if you’re a student at the university, you’re welcome, and if you’re not, you’re trespassing. So even at parties—and I went to parties for four years—the average number of people at a given party who weren’t Harvard students was zero. All of this serves to create a very weird, very contained environment.

When I was at university, it shocked me how focused so many people were about their careers, in ways that often seemed pretty narrow. I guess I knew that Harvard attracts very ambitious young people, but I was still surprised. In Montreal I knew a lot of really interesting people doing interesting things, and there was a lot less of that at Harvard than I would have expected. In retrospect it’s not surprising. At a certain level, an institution like that is going to attract people who are very good at playing by the rules.

Of course there were many great people there, and I made lots of great friends, but it was a weird, weird fucking place to be. If you were interested in biology, you could go to Stephen Jay Gould’s office hours and talk to him. When I took a survey psychology course, the lecture on behaviorism was given by B. F. Skinner. I was on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon, where we’d do things like invite John Cleese to accept an award, and he’d come have dinner with the forty of us. George Plimpton would sometimes drop by unannounced. So really the most notable thing was the social access.

Then, in terms of work possibilities, too: if you were someone on the Lampoon, and if you liked making jokes, then a very real job possibility you faced after graduation was to go write for The Simpsons or Letterman, at a time when these were the best shows on TV. Many people got book contracts while they were still in college, partly because if you go to Harvard, the eyes of the country are on you in a certain way. So if you want to write a book about taking Prozac and being slutty, that’s not as marketable as a book about taking Prozac and being slutty at Harvard.

After I graduated, I moved cities a few times. I lived in Boston for a bit. I lived in London. I sort of thought about living in New York but it never quite worked out. I moved to Montreal. I ended up in Toronto.

Now, America really has an upper class, though they don’t like to talk about it much. And class in America is pretty fluid, so people at Harvard really do come from different backgrounds. There are people there whose families have gone to Harvard for generations and who run the world, and there are people there from pretty middle-class backgrounds, and there are people there who are the first person in their family to go to college.

A thing that’s very nice and very terrible is that those class differences are very rarely talked about at Harvard. So you might have some sort of movie image where the snobs are sort of looking down their noses at the poor kids, but the reality is that once you’re at Harvard, no one’s a poor kid anymore. You’re all, instantly and at that moment, in one of the most privileged positions of the American upper class.

I did an event for my fifteen-year reunion called Interviews with Harvard Alumni Who Feel Weird About Harvard. It was based on a theater project that my friend Darren O’Donnell created, a wonderful show called Q&A. How Q&A works is this: Darren gets a bunch of people to sit in an audience in a theater and then, one by one, people are randomly chosen to sit onstage, and everyone in the audience can interview them and ask them questions. The rule is that the person onstage can refuse to answer any question. By its design, people are encouraged to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions. There are cameras on the people being interviewed, and their faces are projected on a big screen to make it more theatrical.

I proposed this project to my alumni association and I explained that I specifically wanted to get people who felt that the whole experience of going to Harvard was confusing or weird, and the alumni association was like, Great. I mean, they are such a classy organization. A lesser institution, I think, would be threatened, but Harvard booked me a lecture hall in the Science Center and set me up with a really good PA system, and we did this show.

Harvard has all the reunions at five-year intervals at the same time, so there are people who graduated five years ago, fifteen, twenty, all the way up to forty, forty-five years ago—and one by one these people got onstage and talked about all the stuff they couldn’t or didn’t talk about at the time. In five minutes they would say things they had not said in four whole years at school.

There was someone who was the first person in her town to go to Harvard, and she talked about how this completely tore her apart, and how the whole time she was at Harvard she always felt out of place and everyone treated her badly, but when she went home everyone thought she was stuck-up so she felt out of place at home, too. We had people who were fourth-generation Harvard people who talked about the pressures of that world. There was this African American guy who described a kind of racism that had been invisible to all of us. Those few hours felt really important.

So much of the world works around social networks. Harvard functions as a crossroads early in life through which the people who are going to be the most privileged people in America can meet and form social bonds. And it’s nice in a way that there is a real effort to bring new people into that system. I guess. I suppose that a meritocratic elitism is a little better than a purely inherited or wealth-based elitism.

If you go to Harvard and then you live in New York, no matter what you do, the fact remains that you will have old college friends who are in the top positions in whatever field of endeavor you’re concerned with. If you’re twenty-five, you’ll know people who are getting their first pieces published in The New Yorker. If you’re forty, you’ll know people who are editors of The New Yorker. You will know people who are affiliated with every level of government. And across the board, just everywhere, you will know some people at the top of everything.

But in Canada, if you went to Harvard, it’s just a weird novelty, a strange fact about you, like that you’re a member of Mensa or you have an extra thumb. There’s no Harvard community here. There are equivalent upper-class communities to some degree, like maybe people who went to Upper Canada College prep school, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. I mean, partly there just aren’t the same heights to aspire to. There’s no equivalent to being the editor of The New Yorker in Canada, or being an American movie producer or anything like that. Partly, the advantages of class aren’t as unevenly distributed in general.

So while going to Harvard constitutes an invitation to join the American upper class, this invitation is pretty useless if you’re living in Canada. I often think about how I was given this invitation—this tremendously valuable thing—and I just kind of threw it away. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

Excerpted from The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Play and Work in the City by Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti, published July 12 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti. All rights reserved.

22 COMMENTS

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18 Comments

  1. T. L. Moyle | July 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Very much enjoyed your perspective here. Just one note on your statement, “And class in America is pretty fluid.” Class might be more fluid in America than in other places, but how successful you are and where you go to college (and if you go) often determine one’s social standing and opportunities. People will size you up and make assumptions about you (as in the case of the woman who was the only Harvard student in her town) based on where you went to college ten, fifteen, twenty, even thirty or forty years later. In this sense, class is actually a lot more fixed than people would care to admit.

    Your experience reminded me of a friend who attended another prestigious university after leading a somewhat disadvantaged life. Later, she reported that socially, those four years were the worst she’d experienced, and that she felt as if she wasn’t being authentic when she met new people and told them where she went to school. They automatically assumed she was upper class.

    Have only been to Montreal once but loved it, and imagine that it’s much more fun than a gated ivory tower!

    Cheers,
    T.M.

  2. cc | July 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    “class in America is pretty fluid”… this is one of those propaganda lines that americans tend to turn into a mind numbing mantra and you fell for it. The OECD published a report on intergenerational social mobility last year which shows that Canada (among many others) is far ahead of the USA in class fluidity. So, Canada should snatch the “land of opportunity” slogan from the US.
    http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com/2010/03/31/oced/

  3. Michael Wheeler | July 11, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Hi Misha,

    I love this piece. I am a faux-Harvard grad, by which I mean I did my MFA in theatre there – but Harvard doesn’t believe in MFAs so they cash your tuition cheque and then give you a certificate, leaving the degree-giving part to the Russian side of their theatre program. I also headed down via Montreal and ended up in Toronto.

    From dating a woman who was an undergraduate and lived in all those houses, I got a pretty detailed sense of the scene and I have to say my experience was much the same as yours. No one was stupid, but frankly, most of my friends were/are smarter. Mostly the people I met were connected up the wazoo though and that turned into opportunities for them.
    More than anything this reinforced for me how class is not fluid in these circumstances. It became pretty clear to me that this was a great example of how money-begets-money.
    It takes more money than most people have to get into this place and then you make more money than other people when you get out.
    Unless you’re in theatre. In which case stop thinking about money right now.

  4. Leslie | July 11, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    I don’t know about Harvard, but my husband went to a state school undergrad and then went to Columbia for grad school, and said that he thought he met equally smart people both places. He thought Columbia would blow away his state school, but said that wasn’t the case at all. As an American, I will say, while our university system has been stellar for decades, I think it’s in a rapid decline for many reasons, including skyrocketing tuition.

  5. Jay | July 11, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    “… which means living there and participating in what they call the “house system,” the different dorms students live in.”

    I’m not alleging anything unseemly, but I suspect this insulated culture is one reason why Harvard reaps the many and very generous gifts from its alumni. Harvard does very well in development, whereas for example NYU, which is practically a university ‘sans frontières,’ receives only a miniscule fraction of Harvard’s level of alumni donations.

    Jay

  6. Simon | July 12, 2011 at 1:00 am

    Of course, we were Hailsham. Looking back, yes it was peculiar. But at the time it seemed ordinary. Hailsham was all we knew.

  7. Christa LaMotte | July 12, 2011 at 1:21 am

    Two thoughts in response to this piece:

    First, you’re right to speak of the world working around social networks, and Harvard undoubtedly gives people access to the most influential networks with the most influential people IN AMERICA. But, of course, it is in the structural nature of social networks that they are context based. How can you move to a different context, like Canada, and then complain, or at least write regretfully, about throwing away something when it is so obvious to everyone in the world (or maybe just everyone in the world who didn’t go to Harvard) that the Harvard social network doesn’t extend to a country where there is no Harvard? Please, less whining, more common sense.

    Second, I know some Canadians will read this piece as an example of Harvard-brand elitism/snobbery, which they imagine prevails only in America, and congratulate themselves on Canada’s even distribution of class advantages. That’s not true. Canada has no Harvard, and therefore no Harvard network for you to tap into, but Canada is a class-ist society ruled by its own Harvard-like class of elites. Just look at schools and institutions like Massey College in the University of Toronto. They’re not connected to the editor of the NYT but they are well connected (through a society of “senior fellows,” Oxbridge-style) to the crème de la crème of society. Businessmen, politicians, and academics, like Michale Ignatieff and Bob Rae, John Ralston Saul, Linda Hutcheon, Margaret Atwood, the Governor General of Canada (one of whom, Vincent Massey, founded the college and another, Adrienne Clarkson, recently had her Toronto office there), even the Queen of Sweden (who made a visit in 2006). It also co-hosts, with the CBC, the annual Massey Lectures, whose speakers have included Northrop Frye, Martin Luther King, Jr., Noam Chomsky, and Stephen Lewis.

    So please, don’t bemoan the lack of a social network in Canada (it’s there, alive and well, for better or for worse) when it’s merely that you are not a part of it.

  8. Paul | July 12, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Geez: why does everyone feel so confused and angsty and adrift all the time? Isn’t the world fairly easy to comprehend when you assume that everyone is basically venal and we all crave money and/or approval, but usually only if it’s easy?

    What a shocker–people who go to Harvard expect to do well financially when they leave. Another revelation–people mostly like hanging out with reflections of themselves. To be “stunned” by this is to do the most annoying kind of coy backdoor bragging (“I’m: a) smart enough to be peers of the ruling class, and b) maverick enough to see through Harvard as some hollow illusion, maaaaaaannn.”)

    Harvard, both as an institution and as a brand, is only this: a visceral promotion of standard upper-mid to upper-class values in America. You don’t have to go there to know that. Anyone who goes there who’s shocked that there isn’t a ton of connection to Roxbury or Dorchester deserves what they get.

    But of course Paris Review loves this kind of self-indulgent hand-wringing, so who’s surprised?

  9. Bill | July 12, 2011 at 4:58 am

    Well Misha, your lovely article is emblematic of the type of mentality that I encountered upon visiting the campus before. Self promotion and blathering on about how hip and tuned in you are seems to have been the only thing you achieved in what could have been a genuinely interesting article about the relationship between class and America’s Ivy League Colleges. I think you’re more suited to fair Harvard than you realise.

  10. SocialNetworkSurprisinglyAccurate | July 12, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Only Harvard students at parties? What about the influx of girls from BU, Wellesley, Northeastern, etc?

  11. BHS with an American degree | July 12, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Dear Misha. U and KH were handed the keys to the kingdom back in Grade 8 when you made the RFTT team. U two were unequivocally the smartest guys in the room — and at one point — the whole fucken country. But, u said it yourself. “I don’t think I was super ambitious or professional minded or even a very good student.” Nope. You were so brilliant you never had to work! I think a lot of people thought Harvard would be the fire that ignited u’re trajectory. Even KH’s infamous stint at Columbia showed a certain type of ambition. Self destructive… but at least he was aspiring to something. Did you ever care enough to want to make a point or a mark?

    Everything you say is true about class and being a Canadian with an American Ivy League degree. (Christa LaMotte obviously hasn’t lived in the US. And I doubt she went to an American school. In the US, within 5 minutes of meeting someone they will ask you where you went to school. Here no one gives a shit. So comparing Massey College to the all-compassing tentacles of American alumni networks is just wanna-be comparisons.)

    But, what is it that you wanted? Why DID you come back to Canada? What were you looking for? Anyone who has lived abroad knows damn well — we are a country, filled with complacent people striving towards mediocrity. It makes for a wonderful peaceful existence. End of story.

    If u had wanted more from the beginning, you would have worked those tentacles and nurtured those networks.

    But I’m guessing… even if I haven’t seen you in 25 years, and probably wouldn’t recognize you if you were standing in front of me, that u couldn’t be bothered. U have always been your own person doing your own thing. And that is totally cool and made you someone everyone wanted to be around. But you could have been that same person and still strived for greatness. My guess? Now you are wondering that same thing too.

    I think a lot of us thought/hoped Misha Glouberman would one day use his genius and his Harvard degree to do something spectacular for the world. Find a cure for cancer. Write the greatest novel ever written. Create Facebook. Something.

    It’s not too late. Stop wondering and start doing!

  12. Harvey | July 12, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Maybe it’s just because you’re so much older than me, but the Harvard I attended (from 2001 to 2005) did not resemble yours in the slightest. I attended parties at several of the (dozens of) other universities in the area – Tufts, Wellesley, MIT, BU – and met plenty of people unaffiliated with the university. And I was admittedly far less hip and interesting than you appear to be. Nor am I someone who is particularly “interested in meeting new people”; I just did. And while I was there, yes, I met some zeroes, but I also met a lot of really interesting, wonderful, brilliant people, and have remained close with many of them. It breaks my heart to hear how you had to suffer, but I will take solace in the fact that, in the last 20 years, conditions at Harvard seem to have improved somewhat for the inmates there. Baby steps.

  13. Joshua | July 12, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    “George Plimpton would sometimes drop by unannounced. So really the most notable thing was the social access.”

    And here you are, blogging for the Paris Review. Perhaps you quite consciously made that connection. I must admit that I begrudge you a little for that social access, not merely because here you are writing for the Paris Review, but because you don’t even use the opportunity to say anything very interesting, let alone to say it well. Your prose is lazy — you seem to misapprehend the difference between a nonchalant style and just not trying. Your analysis is trite lacking in self-awareness. The fact that Harvard is a sheltering, privilege-conferring institution has been covered extensively in literature and film, and you don’t seem to have anything to add except that you feel “weird” about it.

  14. Jay | July 12, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    @Chris Roberts: Can you direct me to where I could read about this?

  15. Oy | July 12, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    At least it wasn’t Princeton.

  16. bork | July 12, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    Bwahahahaha.

    The greatest part of this comment thread is the Massey College student (oh, ahem, ‘fellow’, sorry) who seems to genuinely believe that Massey College is to the Canadian power structure as Harvard is to America’s.

  17. what | July 12, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    Also, something is fishy here.

    The author describes being at Harvard at a time where The Simpsons was on TV (the show debuted in December, 1989).

    Yet apparently, BF Skinner, who retired in the 70s and died of cancer in the summer of 1990, guest-lectured in the author’s summer psychology class.

    Really?

  18. Peter | July 13, 2011 at 10:33 am

    So Harvard forces people to live in dorms/eat in their cafeteria, essentially leveling the socio-economic playing field in a cosmetic sense, and this somehow leads people to discover all of the Mr. Howell’s walking around?

    Harvard’s attempt to create a “community” is no different from almost any other college in America.

    “So if you want to write a book about taking Prozac and being slutty, that’s not as marketable as a book about taking Prozac and being slutty at Harvard.” Just like writing a misguided article in the Paris Review massaging your own white guilt isn’t as marketable as writing a misguided article in the Paris Review massaging your own white guilt having gone to Harvard!

    Sorry the Harvard alumni network in Canada isn’t as streamlined, dude.

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