Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Myths and Legends: Harvard

With the exile of Larry Summers, it seems that everyone in the country is required by federal law to have a strong opinion about the state of affairs at Harvard. Having carefully studied the various proclamations about Harvard made by faculty both there and elsewhere, I've come to an unavoidable conclusion: Harvard University does not exist.

Some of you out there will no doubt scoff at my claim. "Oh my," you protest, "of course Harvard exists. It's right next to Atlantis and El Dorado."

No, Harvard does not exist outside of legend. The evidence is clear. If Harvard really existed, there would be some consistency to the various descriptions of it. In fact, there is far more consistency to depictions of the Loch Ness Monster than Harvard. Everyone agrees that Nessie is a large, saurian aquatic animal with a long slender neck. No one can seem to agree on what Harvard is like: some say it is the flagship school of the country, others that it is the arbiter of high culture, others that it is a cesspool of self-important faculty floating in muck, others that it is a sanctuary for tenured plagiarists, and still others that it is the elephant graveyard for faculty -- the place old professors go to die. No, if Harvard were real, we would be able to find at least a few descriptions that were similar to one another.

"But," you protest, "I've been there." Oh, you have, have you? Well, I've "been" there too, and all I saw were a bunch of buildings stuck in the middle of Boston. I saw a pagoda at the Epcot Center, too -- does that mean I've been to Japan? I saw a pyramid in Las Vegas, but I wasn't dumb enough to think I was in Egypt. So, someone showed you a building and said, "This is Harvard." Do me a favor, and come to this swampland I own -- I'll tell you, "This is valuable beachfront property!"

Still, you persist. "But I went to school there!" Sure you did. I'll bet you were at Woodstock, too. And I'll bet when you were in high school you really did have a model/girlfriend who was in college two states away and couldn't seem to schedule your school dances into the time between her photo shoots. I'll bet you really are a blackbelt, you really have lived in Europe (not just taken a ten-day-long guided tour), and you really don't think that dress makes your girlfriend look fat. Pu-leeze. I wasn't born yesterday.

No, if Harvard were a real place, people wouldn't invoke its name mystically, and make silly claims that the rest of academe follows its lead. If I remember right, Harvard supposedly has about $20 billion (yes, with a "b") in its foundation, and let's just say that the letter "b" doesn't appear anywhere in most universities' spreadsheets. The idea that we are somehow following Harvard's lead is a bit like suggesting the weather on Venus is affected by events on Neptune. We're worlds away; they have nothing to do with us.

So, please, stop asking me what I think of Larry Summers. I have no opinion: I've never met him, see no reason that I would ever want to meet him, and doubt he much wishes he could meet me. Besides, since we all know Harvard doesn't exist, Larry Summers might not exist either.

6 comments:

  1. You *almost* had me snorting my morning coffee. I actually live in the Boston area. Not being a native, however, affords me a tiny bit of objectivity that natural born citizens of the great Commonwealth don't have. Your characterization is spot on and spills into the world of hospitals, now that nearly *every* teaching hospital in the area is somehow afiliated with the "Hahvahd" System.

    It seems as if close contact with Harvard can afflict the sufferers with extreme myopia and a kind of rigidity in thinking that belies their belief that they practice at the cutting edge of medical knowledge.

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  2. Coffee Snorting: Scourge of America's Youth. Is your teen a secret coffee-snorter?

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  3. Thomas Elrod4:21 PM

    The New Republic had a silly article that compared America's higher education system to the automobile industry, and that by forcing Larry Summers out Harvard was making the same mistake automakers like GM made in the 50s. Because college students are like cars, after all.

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  4. I'm sure Dr. Glover would disagree -- if he hasn't snorted his coffee either...

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  5. Well, I would point out that the "Yahd" is actually in Cambridge, not Boston (and if you don't think that matters, tell someone from Brooklyn that they live in the Bronx). That said, I actually used to toil in the Boston side of things (perversely, while living in Cambridge) and can attest to the "no there there." Harvard is full of anomalies of space. I recall sitting at a typical meeting of the Joint Committee on the Status of Women at Harvard Medical and Dental Schools, as usual, held in the swanky conference room in Countway Library. While listening to frustration about the lack of climate change at the university, I could let my gaze wander around the room to the endless gallery of paintings of gruff old men and soak up that atmosphere first hand. But then I'm the kind of person who demonstrated the possibilities of the new database to track faculty appointments by printing a bar chart detailing senior faculty by sex (3 women out of about 105 total). I left in 1993, trying to convince folks that this internet thing was going to be big. Of course when I was hired in 1990, they still had Wang word processors!

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  6. Anonymous12:42 PM

    I run ads from time to time for positions that require serious brain-work, but the only candidates that show up for the jobs are Chinese, Indians, and Russians. I do not believe Harvard exists either since I have never personally met one in my entire life. This is no joke. Who do I have to blow to meet a Harvard Graduate? Or is that activity only to meet Yale alumni?

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