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.