Friday, June 8, 2012

The H-Word

by Sheila Connolly
On Memorial Day the Boston Globe ran an interesting article by Billy Baker, titled "Not easy for Harvard grads to say they went there." Front page, no less.
It was a surprisingly lengthy article, about why Harvard grads are reluctant to tell people they actually went to Harvard.  They stutter and stumble when asked where they attended college, and end up saying strangled things like, "uh, Boston," or "in Cambridge."

The thing is, a Harvard affiliation comes with baggage.  People who are generally friendly and open-minded immediately jump to conclusions:  you're smart and you're a snob (i.e., not like them).  You are branded with the Harvard brand.  People expect you to say and do important things, and when you turn out to be a normal, average person, they're disappointed—or they think you're being condescending.

As a result, many graduates manage to avoid saying anything at all about it. They don't wear the sweatshirts in public, literally and figuratively.

I suppose it's Harvard's own fault, since Harvard graduates been running the country for decades, if not centuries.  It is the premier Old Boys Club.  Oh, sure they let the girls have a corner several blocks away (from the seat of power), and only reluctantly did they let them in as of 1999.  It must really gall some of those Old Boys that Harvard has a woman president now.

All right, I'll come right out and admit it:  I have a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Does that make you read my posts in a different way?  Do you know, when I wrote that sentence, I wanted to start adding qualifiers—oh, but I haven't used it in years (it's parked in the garage); they took a lot of people that year (which was true in my department, but it shouldn't imply that we were inferior stock).  I plead guilty to avoiding mentioning it.

But those Harvard folk (no! not me!) are not like other people.  I remember years ago receiving one of those begging letters asking for contributions (excuse me, but you have a bigger budget and endowment than many countries, and you're asking me for money?), and the information sheet I was supposed to include with my generous gift offered me titles such as "Your Lordship," Ambassador, or Archbishop to check off.

I receive the alumni magazine, and have for decades.  I have moved several times, across multiple states—and still they find me, in case I have a few million dollars to leave them (keep dreaming, boys).  I have never sent them either money or a change-of-address form.  Big Crimson Brother is watching me.

Maybe this reluctance is a recent phenomenon.  When my daughter was in elementary school (she's 27 now), I was on the PTA board of her school, and there was much concern voiced about fostering the children's self-esteem.  Something went wrong in there:  prizes were awarded for perfect attendance and nicest smile, while students who stood out academically were told it was rude to boast—it might make the less-talented feel bad.  Competition and excelling were discouraged.  How sad is that?

And that's the generation that is graduating from "that school near Boston" and can't talk about it.

My diploma hangs on my wall.  It's in Latin, and I can't read it. See?  I'm still apologizing.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, the parents of those embarrassed Harvard grads are probably turning over in their graves (or at least their Louis XV chaises longues), having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars so that their kids could say they'd attended Harvard. On the other hand, it's the same embarrassed reluctance to mislead that makes me say I have a little house on the East End of Long Island rather than using the other H-word, the Hamptons (see my PDD post for yesterday, below).

Sheila Connolly said...

I hear you. That's why they call the Newport RI summer houses (once belonging to the Vanderbilts and their ilk) "cottages."

Do we do the same thing when we say we're writers?

Julia Buckley said...

I am very impressed, both by the Ph.D and the Harvard. In what discipline is your degree? English?

Liz, I'm also impressed by your house in the Hamptons.

I guess I'm non-judgmental. :)

Or maybe it's a Midwestern thing? Because here I feel like if you said Harvard, people would say "Wow!" and admire you.