A former student wrote me to ask me, as someone who went to Harvard, whether the final clubs were as important to most male undergraduates, or campus life generally, as portrayed in The Accidental Billionaires (or the movie The Social Network). Short answer: for those who had certain reasons for being at Harvard, hell yes. For those for those of us who despised those reasons, hell no—but it was hard to pretend they weren’t there.
There were plenty of male students at Harvard—plenty of female ones too, but when it came to final clubs, they were out of luck—whose goal in life was social status (or, even more poignantly, social climbing); achieving business success through knowing the right people; and/or meeting in congenial and inebriated circumstances pretty, wealth-obsessed women who weren’t picky about gender equality (women could enter the clubs during party evenings only, through side or back doors, and, I’m told, were screened ruthlessly for looks). Guys like that were very concerned about getting into the clubs. I knew some who were very bitter, like Zuckerberg as portrayed in The Social Network, when they didn’t. And while I never knew any undergraduate women who bragged about being fond of final club parties, I found out later that a great many whom I didn’t know were in that category. It seems there are lots of double-reverse-Groucho Marxists who very much want to attend clubs that won’t have them as members.
Many of the rest of us, especially those with liberal politics, had no use for the clubs at all. One of my colleagues, who transferred to Harvard his junior year, told me after seeing The Social Network that he was baffled by the films’ focus on final clubs, as he had hardly noticed them while he was there and didn’t know anyone who had. He was extremely fortunate. I, as a (fairly self-righteous) writer for Perspective, the liberal undergraduate monthly, was a good friend of Lisa Schkolnick, Perspective’s founder, who actually sued the Fly Club for sex discrimination. I wrote a piece saying that since the clubs were about business connections, they should count as public and therefore subject to civil rights laws. The Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination, to put it mildly, did not agree; they tossed the case out on its ear. On reflection, I think that decision was right. But even if they should be legal, it remains true that the clubs are an important conduit into the country’s elite—and that the country is not well served by having them be such a conduit.
One of the easiest decisions I ever made in my life occurred sophomore year, when I was “punched” (i.e. invited to the party that served as the first test for membership) for the Spee Club—I never found out why, but presumably old prep-school ties were to blame—and immediately tossed the invitation in the wastebasket. Why? Because we didn’t have recycling in the dorms back then.
When shortly after college I published a piece in the Boston Globe, adapted from one in Perspective, about anti-intellectualism at Harvard, an alumnus wrote me to say that he’d always thought there were two Harvards: one that was about intellectual inquiry and expanding one’s horizons, and one that was about exactly the opposite. I suppose that for members or would-be members of the second Harvard, final clubs were Nirvana (in the literal sense of being a state of nothingness: the rest of us described their purpose as “paying a great deal of money for the privilege of drinking with people who pay a great deal of money for the privilege of drinking with you”).
In short: depending on one’s goals in life, the clubs were either all-important or merely self-important. But their self-importance has consequences for the rest of us. Remember that the next time an investment banker blathers on about meritocracy.