Today’s Harvard: A Vulgar Elite Rules the Quad

The choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate has loosed a regurgitative torrent of chin-scratching as to what it signifies and may turn out to mean politically. The punditical weather alternates between periods of cheerful sunshine and ominous cloud buildup. This is one fight I am careful not to have a dog in, ever since my novel Hanover Place was treated in certain quarters as if I had written Mein Kampf II . I would say this, however: The political working-out of such matters can be unpredictable, and as evidence I will shortly cite what has to be the most inaccurate forecast on this subject ever made. It is taken from Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler 1918-1937 (recently republished by Grove Press with an enlightening introduction by Ian Buruma). Kessler was a German diplomat and art-book publisher, a bon vivant and man of parts-definitely a Berlin boldface name-whose principled opposition to Hitler and the Nazis caused him to quit Germany for good in the spring of 1933, although there was no tribal or religious need for him to do so.

On April 1, 1933, Kessler, realizing that he could never return to his native land as long as the Nazis remained in power, wrote in his diary: “The abominable Jewish boycott has begun. This criminal piece of lunacy has destroyed everything that during the past fourteen years had been achieved to restore faith in, and respect for, Germany.” Three months later, on June 6, 1933, Kessler accompanied his friend, the political economist Hermann Keyserling, to the Gare de l’Est to see off the latter’s wife, née Bismarck, on her return to the Vaterland . Afterward, the two men shared a bottle of champagne and talked. Kessler recorded the conversation as follows: “[Keyserling] does not believe that at present anything can be undertaken against the Nazis. But in about two years they will come to grief.… The Nazis’ unprecedented oppression is producing an unprecedented intellectual elite.… The Jews will again be powerful in Germany, more powerful than they have ever been. In ten years, they will dominate Germany because they alone will be allowed to carry on commerce.… Hitler is nothing, simply a medium for the Nazi movement. But, Keyserling added, Hitler is the sole restraining factor. If anything happens to him … we shall witness … the most frightful of pogroms in which tens of thousands will be killed.”

Let others debate the Lieberman question. There’s another aspect of the Gore candidacy that has gotten me thinking. If elected, the Vice President will be the first Harvard graduate since J.F.K. to be sworn in as Chief Magistrate, a circumstance that gives rise to reflections on Harvard then versus Harvard now.

(Any publisher reading this should regard what follows as a book proposal and contact me care of this paper.)

I suppose it’s only fair that I should declare my take at the outset, which is simply this: In my view, a (if not the ) great irony of our cultural life is that the “dumbing down” of America is being led by graduates of our most esteemed citadel of highest education. I find this almost as hard to believe as I do to put up with, and I am not speaking merely as a Yale man. I always understood that the point of an education was to learn to think in complicated ways, which, I agree with the poet Geoffrey Hill, is essential to the preservation of freedom, while dumbing down is the precondition of tyranny.

I was brought up to respect if not worship Harvard. My mother’s family has long Harvard roots. Two of my Bangs cousins, with their matriculant Harvard class not yet graduated, were killed on active duty in the closing months of World War II. That was of course back in the dear dead days when Harvard men (and let’s not let the rest of the Ivy League off the hook!) fought for their country, a much-atrophied tradition honorably sustained in the face of the temper of his time by candidate Gore. I remember once reading a statistic so gruesome that it practically has to be apocryphal: that fewer Harvard men served in Vietnam during the entire course of that war than were killed there out of a single West Point graduating class.

The prep school I attended, Exeter, was a Harvard hotbed. Over half the graduating class in those days (the mid-50′s) went off to the banks of the Charles. Nationally, Harvard was a big deal, then as now, but entirely thanks to its intellectual supremacy. You went to Harvard for four years and came out knowing stuff and ways to talk about it that would let you hold entire tables of the world’s great and good speechless in awe. Harvard was Justice Holmes, Emerson, Berenson and anyone named Eliot, Cabot or Lowell, who made money mainly to endow libraries, hospitals, schools-and Harvard. At their desks, they wrote poems and essays, did transcendental things, plotted and fought to abolish slavery, and were in general a credit to the notion-disavowed by their institutional descendants-that a main aspect of the great business of living is to perpetuate enlightenment in preference to stupidity.

Let other colleges inculcate lesser aspirations, send men on to Wall Street and the mere making of money: not Harvard, not then. I can still hear the incomparable Henry D’Arcy Curwen, Master of English, former stroke of the Harvard (1913) crew (and father of sons who would likewise man the stern sweep) and pillar of unbending, even oppressive old-school rectitude: With a scorn that withered the spring buds outside his classroom on the second floor of Phillips Hall, he would deride the notion of going to college to get ahead; he would mock those strivers whose notion of education included making “contacts that will do you good in later life.” This last phrase was always pronounced in an offensive, nasal tone that Curwen obviously considered appropriate to the Middle Western Babbittry with which places like Yale (in his view, at least) were suffused.

Of course, we know now that a lot of the 50′s Harvard mystique was crap. That J.F.K., even as he intoned “Ask not … etc.” from the Capitol rostrum, was probably thinking of the blowjob awaiting him later that day. Harvard men, like graduates of any other institution, took their pants off both legs at a time when opportunity, so to speak, beckoned.

But these were peccadilloes that we were prepared to go along with in return for certain illusions. Other institutions might give as good an education, but there was only one Harvard; it was our Oxford and Cambridge combined, our Sorbonne, our Heidelberg.

Harvard gave a special tone to American life; in return for that tone, we made allowances.

But where Harvard once stood for excellence, I think it now stands mainly for advancement. The point of a Harvard education, I am coming to see-and perhaps it has been ever thus-is not to acquire learning, or to imbibe moral instruction or an aesthetic view of life, or real taste in the great realms of art, philosophy, letters and science, but to join a club that stands for something more purely pragmatic and vulgar.

Harvard has given birth to what I call a “practical elitism,” with a much wider reach than the narrow vocational tracks (mainly on Wall Street) we used to think of. A real Mafia is in place now. In the media, it’s like being “made.” No wonder The Sopranos is the viewing of choice for these kids, since the values of Eliot House have become indistinguishable from those of the BaddaBing Club.

With a Harvard degree-just the piece of paper-you’ll get work. From others with the same piece of paper. Without it, you may not. I understand, for example, that it’s impossible to get a job writing for Saturday Night Live unless you went to Harvard, and the same holds true in Hollywood, at least in Sitcomland. It all feeds together. Harvard media types write adoring profiles of one another in The New Yorker . Even Time, that quintessential product of a certain kind of Yale thinking, has been taken over and reflects the values, if that’s the right word, of its new intellectual (sic) proprietorship. It wouldn’t make any difference, really, but for the consensus that Saturday Night Live and 99 percent of TV is unwatchable for anyone with an IQ in double digits, as are most feature films; the publishing industry is a mess, despite ample seedings from the Radcliffe Publishing Program; as for Time , well.…

Is this the point of an education? Perhaps. Once upon a time, long years ago, a graduate of my spook house at Yale boasted to me that he was the first man ever to be named senior vice president of his second-tier New York bank who hadn’t been tapped by Wolf’s Head. I thought he was joking. It was the kind of story that made one blanch inside and then wish one had gone to … well, you can guess. But should something like this be the point of a Harvard education? Is nothing, ultimately, to stand for anything? It’s odd for a Yale graduate to be saying this, I suppose, but there you are.

How did this happen? There could be a lot of reasons, a book’s worth, at least. Vietnam deferments put a value on matriculation that no amount of learning could ever confer. Let’s not overlook the influence of the Harvard Business School as symbol and matrix for everything else around Harvard Square: famous professors who consult more than they teach; generations of M.B.A.’s who hire succeeding generations of Harvard M.B.A.’s and so on and on unto the last ding-dong on the red-or should I say “crimson”?-rock, as William Faulkner (University of Mississippi) put it. Surveys show that, cash on cash, a Harvard degree yields a better return on investment than any other.

The spectacle of the national brow being lowered and lowered, to the point of near-Neanderthalism, thanks to the ministrations and calculations of three decades’ worth of graduates of its elitest educational institution is a sorry sight indeed. Not that I have the slightest idea what to do about it.

Except maybe write a book. But the problem with that is, if Harvard keeps up its good work, by the time the book’s researched and written, there’ll be precious few people left in this country who know how to read.