Ph.D. Octopus

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A Montreal Jew at Harvard: The Insularity Contest

with 4 comments

by Weiner

When I first read this piece by Misha Glouberman in The Paris Review about being a Montreal Jew at Harvard, I felt an instant rush of familiarity. Was Glouberman not telling my own story about 20 years earlier? I felt as if I could have written the first paragraph:

I grew up in Montreal and went to an upper-middle-class Jewish day school where kids had parents who maybe owned a carpet store or maybe were dentists. And then I went to Harvard for college. And it was pretty weird.

It certainly seemed weird at the time. And sometimes it still does. But upon further reflection, I realize that it wasn’t that weird. Sure, Harvard was and is a unique institution. I suspect going there for college is a very different experience than going to Penn State or UCLA or any university in Canada, England or elsewhere in the world. But it’s probably not all that different from going to another Ivy League school, or Stanford or MIT.

More important, in one crucial way, Harvard is like everywhere else: there are good people and bad people, interesting people and boring people, and yes, even smart people and dumb people. In fact, I’d argue that the Montreal Jewish community is a far weirder environment than Harvard was. I’ll try to explain what I mean by examining Glouberman’s essay in more depth, and sharing some of my Montreal, and especially my Harvard experiences.

The problem with writing about having gone to Harvard is that the author of an essay never comes across well. Sing the school’s praises and you are arrogant; complain bitterly and you are whiny; attempt to find a middle ground and you emerge a pretentious twit. I think I managed to accomplish all three in that last sentence.

The other problem (as if this were a problem) is that everyone’s experience is unique, which is an incredibly trite thing to say, but must be said lest I generalize myself into an ass.

Now let me turn to Glouberman’s essay. What rang true and what didn’t? As I said earlier, I probably could have written the first paragraph. I might also have written the second:

When I applied, I thought it would be great because I would get to meet lots of smart people. Those were the kinds of people I liked to be friends with, and I thought there would be more of them there. That was the main reason I thought it would be a fun place to be. 

I’m more ambivalent about the next sentence: “I don’t think I was super ambitious or professional minded or even a very good student.” I wasn’t super ambitious or professional minded, and I wasn’t a very good student, but I was certainly more ambitious and professional minded than your typical student at Bialik High School (where both Glouberman and I matriculated, pictured below), and my grades were not excellent, but considerably above average. They improved even more at Dawson College (I’ll say a bit more about that later) and I think I was probably more ambitious (I’m actually not sure what professional minded means anymore) than most of my very talented peers in the Liberal Arts Program there.

Both Glouberman and I were struck by the tremendous wealth and privilege we observed at Harvard. The “rich” kids we knew were really just “upper-middle-class”; at Harvard, I encountered heirs and heiresses to multi-million (sometimes billion) dollar fortunes, foreign royalty, and the children of prominent US politicians with access to power and prestige that I could not have previously fathomed. As a thoroughly middle class Montreal Jew, I had always felt a little poorer than most of my upper-middle-class friends, but at Harvard, that socio-economic distance between me and my peers was multiplied a hundredfold.

Except I wasn’t that poor. Because, as Glouberman notes, Harvard also admitted students who were far poorer than any of my classmates at Bialik. There was the African American son of a janitor who had won a scholarship to a fancy NYC prep school, the adult anchor baby of Mexican immigrant from Juarez to El Paso, the son of a Mexican truck driver who made it to the Harvard football squad, the child of an Italian single mother from outside Boston, who carried his family’s hopes and dreams on his back.

Certainly, the range of people I encountered was far larger than anything that I was exposed to in the Bialik bubble. And though Dawson College was extremely diverse, the elite Liberal Arts Program I attended was populated mostly by white kids, many of whom were Jews.

Still, Glouberman seems to have found the Harvard experience rather stifling. He comments on how few students lived off campus, which led to this:

the end result is that it makes the university into an ivory tower—I mean, incredibly so. It would be one thing if you were out in the woods, but this is Boston. In four years of living in that city I pretty much didn’t come to know anybody who wasn’t affiliated with Harvard. And I’m someone who’s interested in cities and who’s interested in meeting different kinds of people. The university is a completely isolated environment, and the fact that you’re inside a city somehow makes that more insidious and terrible.

All the parties were on campus. So when you went to a party—and that’s what you would do Friday and Saturday night, you would go to a party—the party would be on campus, which means, sort of implicitly, that if you’re a student at the university, you’re welcome, and if you’re not, you’re trespassing. So even at parties—and I went to parties for four years—the average number of people at a given party who weren’t Harvard students was zero. All of this serves to create a very weird, very contained environment.

Here again I agree with Glouberman. I know other students (like my future wife, who was in my year at Harvard but somehow only met me in NYC two years after we graduated) did socialize with people from other Boston schools. But I didn’t, and I think I’m in the majority here. Having come from Montreal, I didn’t really know anyone at Harvard. I knew a handful of people from back home in Boston, but I can count the number of times I saw them in four years on one hand.

Branching out was ever harder. Glouberman notes the absurdly stupid American drinking age of 21. I didn’t have a fake ID, neither did most of my friends. I turned 21 in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, but waited months for my roommates to follow me past that boundary. I occasionally left Cambridge to go to bars my senior year, but the T closed early, which meant taking a cab home, which got expensive. Sometimes Harvard organizations rented out clubs in Boston, but those events, of course, were populated only by Harvard students, the Matzo Ball being one glorious exception.

I tried to use the H-Bomb to further my romantic life outside the Crimson walls, with minimal success. I met a Tufts student on a bus to a pro-Israel rally and went out a couple of times with her; I had a brief relationship with my friend’s sister who went to Wellesley; and, in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2004, I met an MIT woman who also survived a few dates with me. And that was all. Though “smaht kids” danced in Harvard Square when the Red Sox won the World Series my senior fall, Boston typically seemed a world away.

So Glouberman and I mainly socialized with other Harvard students. In our general impression of these people, however, our paths diverge. Glouberman wrote:

It’s funny, because what a lot of people talk about when they talk about going to Harvard is being really intimidated by the place when they arrive. I wasn’t at all intimidated by the place when I arrived—but I was really intimidated after graduating.

That could not have been further from my experience. I came to Harvard incredibly intimidated: like so many others, I thought I was the admissions mistake, accepted by some good luck and the fact that I was from Canada. Though it’s true that not every Harvard student blew me away academically, on average, they seemed very smart and impressive, and some were genuine geniuses.

Glouberman, though, was unimpressed.

I arrived at Harvard from Montreal, which is a pretty fucking hip place to be an eighteen-year-old. I’d been going to bars for a while, and I was in a political theater company that did shows in lofts with homeless people and South American activists. And we went to pubs and got old gay men to buy us drinks. It was a pretty cool, fun, and exciting life for a kid in Montreal. It was a very vibrant place, and young people were really part of the life of the city. 

Then when I went to Harvard, the place was full of these nominally smart, interesting people, all of whom at the age of eighteen seemed perfectly happy to live in dormitories and be on a meal plan and live a fully institutional life. And that was completely maddening! This was the opposite of everything I’d hoped for from the environment I’d be in.

He’s right that Montreal is pretty hip, and that we could drink in bars at 18 (17 really, 15 for girls). It’s an awesome place to call home. But I didn’t know anyone at Bialik in political theatre companies that did shows in lofts with homeless people and South American activists. No old gay men bought me drinks. Maybe I should have gotten out more, but it seems like we went to the same high school but in radically different cities. This sentence was especially jarring:  “In Montreal I knew a lot of really interesting people doing interesting things, and there was a lot less of that at Harvard than I would have expected.”

In my high school graduating class, the overwhelming majority of students stayed in Montreal for university. They didn’t even venture elsewhere in Canada. They then went to graduate or professional schools in Montreal, or got jobs in Montreal. At Dawson or Marionopolis, and later McGill or Concordia, they began the process of befriending Jews who had gone to other schools: Herzliah or Hebrew Academy or St. Georges and the like, some of whom they already knew from Jewish summer camps like YCC or Pripstein’s or B’nai B’rith. Some of them eventually left Montreal, but many of those still returned.

A New York story, unrelated to Harvard, is telling in this regard. Years ago, I attended a party hosted by a girl I knew from high school who had also moved to New York. She was a couple years younger than me. Nice girl. I went to the party at her friend’s apartment (another Bialiker) in downtown Manhattan. And I was shocked. Everyone there was a Montreal Jew. It was incredible. People she probably would not have given the time of day in high school were there. People from other high schools. But Montreal Jews all (I’m exaggerating, but really only a little bit). I remember thinking to myself: why move to New York when you’re just going to befriend people you could have met back home?

So, my high school classmates were not typically doing “interesting things.” Some of my Dawson Liberal Arts classmates were. But what of my fellow Harvard undergraduates? What were they doing?

Well, one of them was inventing Facebook. Another would go on to be, at 26, the youngest-ever managing editor of The New Yorker (Glouberman thought I’d have to wait until age 40 for that). Still others were writing books, winning Emmys and Oscars, quarterbacking in the NFL, dancing for the New Jersey Nets (before going to law school), founding businesses, attending top graduate and professional schools, entering politics, writing for sitcoms, working at the highest levels of journalism and the media. True, a painfully large number entered the mind-numbing corporate sector as investment bankers, consultants, and the like. I complained about this then, and I’ll complain about it now. But it was not that hard to find interesting people doing interesting things, and probably much easier than it was back in Montreal, especially the Montreal Jewish community.

Of course, the contrast between Harvard and Montreal, and the Montreal Jewish community, is a stupid one. Harvard is an elite university with students from all over the United States and the world. Yet Glouberman’s Harvard sounds downright awful.

There was a lot I didn’t like about Harvard, particularly its social scene. I didn’t like Final Clubs, didn’t like anti-intellectual athlete worship and corporate recruiting culture. But I found a good group of people to live with. I made some nice friends in classes and in my dorm and at Hillel and through other people. I became part of an exciting extracurricular environment in the offices of The Crimson (the daily paper). And I had fascinating discussions in the Arab-Jewish dialogue I moderated (even if it sometimes consisted of a bunch of left wing Jews and very wealthy Arabs uniting to trash Israel).

Academically, Harvard had its problems too, particularly the deeply flawed (and now discarded) Core Curriculum. But overall I think I learned a lot, even if my grades didn’t always show it.

Glouberman’s essay, though, was mostly about the people. And I think the people at Harvard were good. And bad. Kind of like everywhere else.

I guess my point is that Glouberman’s lukewarm depiction of his Harvard experience renders it as exceptional as those who hold the famous university as the greatest institution known to human history. And I don’t think it is that exceptional. Harvard is an elite university, with a huge endowment, and impressive students and faculty. It also has many problems, but it’s certainly not that different than other top schools. In some ways, the student body is unique; in others, it’s like any group of people: there are some great ones and some assholes. In his 1907 address, “The Social Value of the College Bred,” Pragmatist philosopher William James asserted that the purpose of higher education was to instruct students how to “know a good man when you see him.” That ability to discern among humans is as useful at Harvard as it is anywhere else.

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Written by David Weinfeld

July 14, 2011 at 16:00

4 Responses

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  1. This is a much better essay than the original – much more nuanced, much less whiny, much less elitist. Thanks for adding your experience to the mix!!

    apini

    July 15, 2011 at 05:25

  2. I can tell you why you found a party full of Montreal Jews in New York. New York is about being Jewish as much as it is about being diverse. Like Jewishness itself.

    Philsax

    August 4, 2011 at 03:46

  3. […] have written about this issue before. But thinking about all this stuff more made me realize how naive I was when I entered […]

  4. This was a very good essay, and the fact that you did it in your spare time was outrageously thoughtfull. I stumbled over this essay as I was looking up what Bialik looked like. The reason being; I live in Ottawa and if I ever move to Montréal that would be the highschool I would attend. As I was googling Bialik, I stumbled apon this essay and read it. Being a person who is very selective about what he reads this is a good thing. I am currently living in Ottawa and I am going to grade nine, I have good and bad grades depending on the subject. This essay was informative and I will see if i can make it to Harvord. If I move to Montréal, I would go to Dawson amd then Waterloo in Ontario or Mcgill.

    Nathaniel

    August 31, 2012 at 11:23


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