Is that your final answer?

Why final clubs mattered at Harvard—and to whom.

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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

16 thoughts on “Is that your final answer?”

  1. Can you make any informed observations about how they compare with Yale’s secret societies (Dartmouth also has a couple) or Princeton’s eating clubs?

  2. marcel: I haven’t got any informed observations. By rumor, Yale’s secret societies are like the final clubs only worse (and fewer); the Princeton eating clubs are, I hear, co-ed–partly because they are, unlike the final clubs, on university property–and vary widely in both exclusivity and social standing. But I could be wrong about any or all of that.

  3. I knew two members of the Phoenix club. My impression is that either Zuckerberg is very unusual (big shock eh) or things have changed since 78-82 (must be) or the film exaggerated (or all of the above). I didn’t especially notice the clubs. I don’t, for example, know how many there are (at least three).

    I think that Yale secret societies are more important. Well at least Skull and Bones is. Recall in horror that in 2004 both major party Presidential candidates were bonesmen.

  4. My understanding (based on the New Yorker) is that the source material of the movie comes largely from Eduardo’s side of the story. Eduardo, who was accepted as a member of the club. And it’s only in Eduardo’s mind that Mark was jealous and wanted more than anything to be punched for a final’s club. In the real world, Mark barely knew or cared about them.

    Here’s a blurb about that from NY Mag.

  5. Alex, I haven’t read Ben Mezrich’s telling of Eduardo’s story, on which parts of the film are based, but I heard a 1/25 hour abridgment of the book when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (in mid-2009). If Zuckerberg’s desperate need to get into a Finals Club was much of a factor, either I don’t recall it or the people abridging the book took it out. It seems just as likely that Aaron Sorkin concocted that motivation as that Eduardo did – or, heck, it might even be true, I dunno.

  6. As a graduate student, I found them completely invisible except for occasional controversy in the paper. But I was the hired help; most of the things the undergrads got up to were on another planet to me.

  7. Warren: I should have written “based on reading a New Yorker article 6 months ago which I barely remembered, plus reading other random gossip on the internet throughout.” Looking back at the New Yorker article now, it doesn’t make the insinuation I claimed about Eduardo. Still, I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with that story *entirely* on my own.

  8. As the immediate past president of Perspective, this sounds about right for Harvard today.

  9. Dylan—glad to hear Perspective is still going! And glad to hear my recollections still strike you as relevant.

    BTW, everyone: as Zuckerberg says to his date in the movie (admittedly in an Asperger’s moment that contributes to her dumping him), it’s “final” clubs, not “finals.” The origin of this, believe it or not, was that there used to be “waiting” clubs for freshmen; once they were in one of those, they could take the next step and apply to a “final” club. That system had broken down years before I attended. For the record. And please don’t dump me. 😉

  10. Andy — thanks for some insight into this world. I am a lover of clubs, the Cosmos in Washington, Athenaeum in London, but there is a difference: People in those clubs are members because they have actually accomplished something in life. What, at the age of 18, is there to judge admittance to a club on that matters, or should matter?

  11. I was at Harvard in the late 80s. I knew some people in final clubs in my dorm who were extremely nice. I can’t remember now if I ever went to any parties or not, but I doubt it. (I dressed *very* badly, even for the 80s.) I recall a vague feeling of curiosity about that world, but the preppies as a group kept to themselves, it seemed.

    What I will say is that many, many people at Harvard were very insecure, preppy or not, including myself. Lots of petty disagreements and rivalries, which I hope mostly had to do with being young. There can be too much emphasis on achievement too, believe it or not. And it would be worthwhile to discuss what that is, too. One of the funny and sort of touching things about Harvard is that to me it seems hungry for distinction itself, and almost not too worried about the basis. This had to do with integration and affirmative action too, I think, though for myself I don’t really consider a “Harvard plan” to be a.a. What I liked about it is that if you had good grades and grew the biggest tomato in your 4-H group in the middle of nowhere, they wanted you too. Not just the usual suspects. To me it’s the way admissions should work.

  12. Oh yeah, and you wouldn’t believe the financial aid they gave me. It didn’t cost me any more than a UC would have. All of us financial aid students would have a reunion at the beginning of every semester, in the “red dot” line for people who hadn’t paid their bills yet. Good times.

  13. As I said once in a book review (re. one of Diana Peterfreund’s entertaining satires on Yale’s clubs), the Ivy League is a remote planet about which most Americans know little and care less. But The Social Network is a very fine movie, so the use of the final clubs as a plot hook works pretty well. From what I’ve read it may not have been much (if any) of a factor in Mark Z’s rise to fame and fortune, but Sorkin sure made it work onscreen.

  14. At Brown in the early ’00s there was only one secret society, and it kept itself so secret that many are not sure whether it actually existed. It may just have been a collective practical joke, like the prolific Prof. Carberry.

  15. My early-90s Harvard experience agrees with Sabl’s (not that I was active in any anti-club movement, but they didn’t seem to be very important on campus).

    I have heard, from later graduates, that the clubs have gained in social importance as crackdowns on underage drinking have made it harder for undergrads to party in other places. But I still found the portrayal in the movie wildly implausible.

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