Monday, February 14, 2005

Harvard vs. Joel

I accompanied my son down to The Harvard Club Saturday morning for his college interview with the venerable and esteemed institution represented by that establishment.

We had not given much thought to Harvard when reviewing college possibilities. It seemed to be a larger place than Joel really wanted to attend and, furthermore, too steeped in tradition and too closely tied to "Establishment" values to be a good fit with Joel's personality.

We were, however, encouraged to reconsider our first instincts and to be more open-minded about Harvard by a recent graduate who called as part of a telephone sweep of high-SAT-scoring high school seniors. She told Bev, who took the call, that she had found Harvard to be a much different place than she had expected from what she'd heard about it. So Joel ended up applying to Harvard with, however, very little expectation that anything would come of it.

An interview appointment did come of it, though, and we found ourselves getting up earlier than usual Saturday morning to make it to the meeting at 10 AM. Joel has been getting less nervous, more assured, as he has weathered his college interviews. He approached this one with little of the trepidation attendant upon his first interview, with Brown, a couple of weeks ago. The fact that he doesn't have fervent hopes of getting into Harvard eased his mind.

Up until the time we walked up to the front door it hadn't occurred to me that we were going to be visiting the Harvard Club. All we had was an address and I hadn't thought about it much. Entering the place I had the impression of entering another era.

I am old enough (and bourgeois enough) to have been reared to have an immediate, almost Pavlovian, reaction of deference in the presence of old-style displays of wealth and power. I offer in evidence Exhibit A, an early photograph of me in "perfect little gentleman" mode. Joel, as far as I can tell, has no trace of such deference, much to his credit. The Harvard Club, built over a hundred years ago, seems very much an expression of wealth and power. I was cowed. Joel was not.

Although we only considered this later we were not dressed up to code. We were both wearing jeans. Joel was weaing Army-surplus boots. It was apparent to me that other kids who had shown up for interviews had given more consideration to their wardrobes. I saw ties, dresses, shined shoes. Joel was oblivious.

Everyone who spoke to us was unfailingly nice and pleasant. I detected no condescension or distance from anyone in the building. It wasn't the people, it was the architecture and the decor that made me feel as if I had to walk on eggshells.

I waited for Joel in a room that reminded me of the "Gentlemen's Clubs" I'd seen in period movies. After about forty minutes Joel emerged from his interview with two alumni and we headed out the building. I waited until we were half a block away before I asked him how it had gone.

He had done pretty well, he thought. He was relaxed, even cracked a few jokes. He was surprised, though, that they hadn't asked him why he wanted to go to Harvard; every other school interview had included that question. It was understandable that his interviewers had not heard of Bard High School Early College but they seemed not even to have heard of Bard! When they had asked him about BHSEC he told them about the college-level seminars he had taken, citing a class in Latin American History for which he had written a paper about Liberation Theology from the 1960's to the 1990's. This didn't seem to register with them, either. From Joel's description of their reaction I wonder if they knew what he was talking about. At another point in the interview they needed Joel to explain to them his references to John Cage's 4'33" (a subject, by the way, about which Joel can be very funny) and then to explain to them who John Cage was. Joel was surprised. I was surprised.

"Joel, did these people tell you what they do?" I asked.

"Yeah, they gave me their cards. They're investment bankers." Joel answered.

We can't judge Harvard simply by these two people, of course. In the event that Joel is accepted we will visit the campus, talk to any students and faculty we can find, do our research. It is clear to me, though, that whatever impression of Joel Harvard has garnered from this interview it did not enhance Joel's opinion of Harvard.

I'm sort of surprised.

1 comment:

Zen said...

I referred your blog to one of my Harvard-graduate friends (I seem to have quite a number of them), who graduated from Harvard College and The Harvard Graduate School of Education, and served a semester or two as the program director of the Silicon Valley Harvard Club, which like the San Francisco Harvard Club, has no dress code or building, meeting once a month in various hotel ballrooms. My friend went into advertising, marketing research and sales, (eventually raising venture capital for online start-ups, and in permanent search for the next big thing.) I think he is about ten years older than you are. He wrote:

"I am surprised (and not surprised) by what Joel encountered. In my own interview in 1966, I discussed American diplomacy in the third world, and the need to donate of one's time to humanitarian causes. I was called a week later and told that I was admitted to Harvard, as long as I submitted a completed application and graduated high school. But, I suspect my interviewer had attended a school like Bard.

The Harvard Graduates' Association regularly sends out to Harvard Club members a variety of appeals for helping the University in its many interviewing tasks. I, for instance, regularly interviewed newly minted graduates who were looking for first time jobs in marketing in San Francisco, and made a few good friends that way, actually. I suspect that Joel's interviewers were from the Business School, being investment bankers. Who knows where they went to college or what they majored in?

A 27-year-old founder and president of one of my Silicon Valley start-ups was in the Ph.D. program at Stanford in Mechanical Engineering. She asked me one day who "the middle-aged white dude" was, pointing to a picture of Winston Churchill. She and her fellow Stanford grad program colleague asked me one day about Gutenberg printing, thinking it a C-language protocol. I am still just shaking my head. (I am trying to say something about the state of higher education.)

I, by the way, am a big fan of John Cage, and spent some time with him on various of his trips to San Francisco and Stanford just before his death in 1992. He told me that once when he was dining with friends, he asked them what the unusual music was on the stereo. "Don't you know? Really? Well! Why, it's one of your concertos!" John thought this was very funny.

Good luck to Joel in his pursuit of higher education! Maybe he should just try to get his Bard essays published!"