Friday, September 18th, 2009

Harvard Is Pop King of Sick Country

IVYPeople keep asking me this week about some fellow with a funny, stuffy name, and I am always like, "I'm sorry, who?" There is some story that is in all the papers-all of them-that I have been avoiding, because there is no reason at all for me to read it. It is about a tragedy, which, from what little I have heard, sounds terrible! And we are hearing about it because it took place at a famous university. Jack Shafer trots out a number of reasons for this coverage, among them: "Members of the elite press identify with Harvard and Yale-even if they didn't go there. They may work for someone who went, or wish they'd gone, or hope their children go." I would go a little further! Members of the elite press all work with or for someone who'd gone to Harvard or Yale-and also nearly all of them applied to those schools. The wild fervor for riches and exclusivity that those schools appeal to through their imaging and mythology, and the vast dark mammalian streak of competition, conspire to put Harvard and Yale in this special little filing cabinet in our minds, pretty near where many keep Sex and the City and Mercedes-Benz. And lottery-winning. These brands are essentially famous people, and a murder there is nation-wide damage to our aspirational psyches; and, in a way, since so many people wish they'd gone to those schools, it is as if they actually did. In the end this is all rather gross and sad and weird and classist and cheap, and I feel like it's a good mental health choice on my part-and I mean personally, not editorially!-to sit out this particular ravenous soap-opera zoo-feeding-time party. But you know: ask me in a week, I may have become obsessed with it.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

katiebakes (#32)

The hidden gems in all Jack Shafer columns are the little endnotes/calls to action::

I envied people who attended Harvard until I met Slate's Timothy Noah, who graduated cum laude in 1980. Whom do you regard as the least impressive Harvard or Yale graduate? Send nominations to

jolie (#16)

The fact that you're smart enough to know what's going to happen next sorta takes the fun out of it. But you've left us no choice.

"Dear Mister Shafer…"

Abe Sauer (#148)

I respectfully have to disagree. This is a big story because A)the girl is young and pretty and was going to be married the next day B) killed inexplicably C) not black or Hispanic.

America is obsessed with crimes against young women that have NO REASON. Girls who disappear in Carribean islands. Woman walking along paths who are never heard from again. Co-eds who are just going about their business being yung and pretty and BLAM! It feeds into our nation's fear that our womenfolk (ESPRCIALLY our daughters!) are constantly under threat of being raped and left in a ditch to die by face evil.. The Devil.

The attempt to explain the Harvard/Yale story by saying those schools are obsessions of the elite media is a way for those who don't understand this scary pillar of American psychology to find reason where there is little. The media really obsessed with this are hardly "elite". Nancy Grace went to Mercer.

Abe Sauer (#148)

ESPECIALLY and "faceless evil" It's early and menotypesogoodeveninthebestoftimes.

Oh that is FOR SURE a component. Rich lady down!

Abe Sauer (#148)

Also: I think you were o key with the first part about NY elite media types being obsessed with Harvard and Yale, but when you expanded it to the whole US..well. No. To the VAST majority of the US, Harvard (and especially) Yale aren't even really on the radar. Sure, they are expected behind politicians' qualifications and as sets for fish-out-of-water movies starring dumb Cali blondes or black ganster types who smoke weed that makes them geniuses, but I'd put $100 on no more than 5% of American even knowing what state either of those schools are in. In fact, I would argue that, with Amerca's current class prejudices, a murder there is LESS important than the muder of just some average southern co-ed.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Sir, there are no average southern co-eds.

spanish bombs (#562)

Or, you know, the rest of the country aren't as much whiny bitches as current New York media.

I concur. The media was all over the Craigslist Killer (and still is and that was all about hookers and stuff.

garge (#736)

The father of a twenty-something in the Boston area who had her baby cut out of her two months ago distributed a letter to the local media damning classism, citing this case of high speed police work. Two months after his daughter's murder, the girl in custody has only been charged with kidnapping. His granddaughters have been in foster care and he hasn't had visitation rights.

Hell, my friend just sat on jury duty for a case of child rape in Dorchester. They had the evidence but a DNA test was not performed due to cost.

I go back and forth: this is surprising! It's not surprising. This is surprising! It's not surprising.

Abe Sauer (#148)

The last thing.

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

Dartmouth, bitches! Dartmouth!

I've never met a Harvard or Yale graduate who bowled me over with their raw intellectual firepower. Not once. They have an impressive aggressive intensity, yes. And a high calibre brown nose. Their knowledge of middlebrow conventional wisdom is phenomenal. But I've never seen in a Harvard grad the sort of intellectual firepower of MIT (for sciences) or St. John's College (for the humanities). They do not worship at the temple of Knowledge, they worship at the temple of Achievement.

Harvard may well be the most COMPETITIVE college. Competitive does not equal intellectual (which, after all, is the end of an academic institution, no?)

missdelite (#625)

I gotta say it: Cop. out.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Choire, shhh! Abe, shhh! You are hurting so many important feelings.

Elite schools like Harvard and Yale know that what they produce is a brand. The brand provides opportunities unavailable to the non-elites.

This is what students (i.e., their parents) are paying for. It is a brand that opens the doors to the best jobs and the best graduate schools.

However, these schools do not provide the best education. And they do not have the best students. They provide a good education. But let's be honest: they have to be able to provide classes that for less than mediocre frat boy partier students like George Bush. I can think of a few small liberal arts schools that don't accommodate those kinds of students. You can find brilliant students at the best state universities as well. And often these students are a lot more interesting and diverse in their experiences, not the least reason being that they may have faced some adversity in their lives and they may have talents that aren't measured by standardized tests.

But those who are very ambitious and affluent know that the Harvard and Yale brand is what opens the door for them. That is true. However, the idea that the brand represents the best students with the best education is a myth.

Of course the people who attend these schools believe that the system is a meritocracy. That means they are the best and deserve what they get because they are better than everyone else. The fact that they believe this is in itself evidence to the contrary.

This observation is based on having been a student or teacher at state universities, liberal arts college and/or an elite "brand" private institution.

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