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Monday, October 24, 2005

exposing the Isis: yes, but

On Wednesday night, a Crimson editor forwarded a link that his roommates had discovered to his friends at the paper. The link was to email archives of the Isis, a female final club, that were left as public information on the clubs HCS email account. Included in those archives were half of their punch book that contained comments on each of the prospective members, an email outlining the punch process, and another outlining possible trip plans. Immediately, members of the Crimson staff began to debate how to approach the exposure. Some argued that the emails should be ignored, others believed they should be published in full. In the end, they decided that they had a responsibility to cover and reveal a secretive process that affects many members of the community. But, they also believed that they needed to do so in a contextualized, comprehensive manner, and that an immediate and short piece was not sufficient and would amount to gossip, not understanding. Today, five days later, the Crimson published a long news piece (along with a side piece and two graphics), a staff editorial and a column on the topic.

I had discussed how to approach the issue with people at the Crimson and a friend at the Isis because I had received the email and was asking myself the same questions. I chose not to publish anything about the issue because I believed that it required research and context that would focus on the club system as a whole, not simply the Isis. Because the Crimson people I spoke to seemed to agree, and had a reporter working on it, I felt comfortable deferring. Today’s efforts by the paper, however, left me with mixed feelings. The news piece was certainly long, but I was disappointed that it made little effort to broaden the issue to the rest of the club system, especially because the Isis is among the most benign members of the club community. I felt as if, in fighting back against a group of school yard bullies, they had taken on the annoying, heckling sidekick bully and kicked his ass because they had the chance. Sure, he kind of deserves it, but it's not really that satisfying. (more in expanded post)

This is not to say that the piece wasn’t valuable. It still points to what is fundamentally an unmeritocratic system of privilege, reveals aspects of superficiality in our entire community that are uncomfortable but important for us to see, and enlightens us as to what goes on behind doors that seem important partially because they are closed. But the piece should have gone to the general, recognizing that the Isis is fundamentally a socialite drinking club for women without serious class or race privileges (so far as I know) and without a building. Its impact on our community is somewhat limited, but it exemplifies tendencies and systems that are not.

The staff ed, representing the official position of the Crimson, understood this and articulated it very well:
In short, the Isis punch book has simply confirmed what we already knew about the unfortunate nature of Harvard’s elite social scene. It is certainly regrettable that the current Isis punch members are serving as the casualties of that which is endemic to the final club scene at large. But this tangible piece of snootiness serves as a reminder that these clubs institutionalize a brand of distinction that is altogether unimpressive.
The opinion piece gets what the news piece didn’t: the Isis is the sidekick, the culture and more powerful institutions are the real bullies. In the end, the Crimson was right to move on the story and expose a secretive process that affects people's every day lives. That is, whether we like it or not, what it is a newspaper's job to do. If the truth of the situation hurts members of the Isis, that says more to me about a problem with the truth than the people who expose it. It’s unfortunate, though, that the news piece had to focus on that smaller insight when I could have done something infinitely more valuable by making the conceptual step exemplified so easily in the staff ed. Hopefully, however, by reading the staff ed first, people will make that jump on their own while reading the news piece.


At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but andrew: how could a news story take "the conceptual step exemplified so easily in the staff ed" and still be objective?

At 8:45 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

it is "objectively" true that other clubs have the same or very similar punch systems. Any good investigative reporting requires choosing to analyze comprehensive systems and verifying your information with factual sources. Do you think it would have been "subjective" for the Crimson to choose to write a piece about the club system in general?

At 9:20 PM, Anonymous PTats said...

Really, Golis, I've been thinking/talking/writing about this a lot, and at the end of the day I just think that you and all the people who are debating about these things are pretty much all wrong. I think Tina's post today absolutely hit the nail on the head, and that everyone else who thinks they are having a conversation about this is really just pissed and jealous that the 'cool kids' (which kids are called 'cool' all and only by the people who resent them) are having parties that they're not invited to. All this other talk about 'solidifying privelege' this and 'unmeritocratic' that is just BS -- and again, Tina was absolutely right: if you can't find connections for a job here at Harvard, then you obviously aren't trying. At all. And if you can't have a fun party, then maybe it's the university's fault -- probably is, again, for the space issues Tina discussed -- but even in that case, it is NOT FINAL CLUBS' FAULT. Nor is it their responsibility to make up for the botched job the university is doing in addressing that.

Moreover, the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that being social, outgoing and fun *is* a merit, and no -- it's not going to save malnourished children, and no, it isn't going to educate prisoners, but you know what? Not everything we do at Harvard has to be about saving the world and putting it on your resume. Moreover, guess what: being social, outgoing and fun also has nothing to do with race, or gender, or socioeconomic class, and rewarding it by inviting someone to be part of a group the celebrates it IS NOT HURTING YOU. OR ANYONE. And if it is, it's only because so many people are lining up outside final clubs instead of drinking beer with their friends, because the only thing that's more unfair than cool kids having parties, is cool kids having parties and not letting other people come to them.

So fine -- have your little discussions, and tell yourselves that you're solving important problems here on campus. Anyone who thought that what the Crimson published today was anything close to 'news' or 'journalism' was obviously already of the mindset that final clubs are evil anyway. So yeah, I'm sure you thought it was helpful -- it told you exactly what you wanted to hear, despite the fact that the full-length e-mails published by the club's officers flew pretty much directly in the face of the Crimson's assessment of the situation. But you all don't want to see that, you just want to feel righteously wronged when the guy at the Fly opens the door and asks you which member invited you.

And you know what? I'll end with this: I'm in a final club, and my boyfriend was the President of one, and you know what my best social memories from last year are? Playing Kings in peoples' common rooms from 9-11 on weekend nights with 8 of my closest buddies and 6 6-packs of tallboys. Honestly people. If you can't come up with something as simple as that -- and you think that going to a final club is going to improve your social life -- then no wonder they won't let you in.

At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen ptats. And I've never even been inside a finals club.

At 10:04 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

no offense guys, but you're not really engaging with the meat of the arguments that I have made here.

Do you believe that being wealthy makes you more likely to have access to a Final Club?

Do you believe that being a man makes you more likely to have access to a Final Club?

Do you believe that the members of the clubs truly are the most social/outgoing/fun people on campus?

Do you believe that being a member of a Final Club does not give you access to connections that you would not have otherwise had?

Do you believe that Final Clubs do not exaggerate the already existing problematic dynamics between men and women?

Because I know you Ptats, it makes me sad that you think that arguing that I (along with others) am simply making this argument out of some sort of sad, bitter jealousy actually refutes the complicated argument that I have presented here. While I understand that the typical way that the argument goes is:
p1: Final Clubs are evil
p2: You're just jealous and angry,

I have made a strong effort not to fall into this trap by making very specific and non-dogmatic arguments about what I believe Final Clubs are/are not. If you would like to refute those arguments in substance, the questions above apply. I am not arguing that it is impossible to have fun outside Final Clubs (I do it all the time!) and I'm certainly not arguing that our space problem on campus doesn't contribute to the problem and put pressure on clubs. I also did not argue that your club falls into the same category as many others (see original post). However, considering the fact that four days ago you said you agreed with me about the problem of the system in general and had long discussions with your Final Club president boyfriend about it, I'm confused about your sudden change of heart.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger andrew stillman said...

i was shocked (although maybe i shouldn't be) that the crimson would publish such blatantly tabloid-y pieces. i half expected to see gossip-guy-style "changed" names after each quote in the place of the redacted names.

for the crimson to qualify the articles with some vague since of social duty was ridiculous-- they were simply sensationalistic articles that appealed to our most gossipy desires. the decision to reprint the two emails in full seemed especially inappropriate... they added little to the discussion, and served merely to give the readers an additional voyerusitic rush.

i don't know.... does anyone feel like they learned anything from the crimson pieces? i feel like for the most part it just told us what we already know: yes, the punch process can be arbitrary, can be mean, and is based on choosing the most socially desirable punches. is this a surprise? i just don't see what positive the harvard community gained from this that was possibly worth the invasion of privacy that the crimson has committed.

At 11:15 PM, Blogger Jamal Sprucewood said...

Just some quick thoughts (from someone who never has set foot in a final club) and responses to your questions, Golis.

"Do you believe that being wealthy makes you more likely to have access to a Final Club?"
Probably, but then again, it makes it more likely for you to have access to Harvard, one of the least economically diverse colleges in the country, to begin with.

"Do you believe that being a man makes you more likely to have access to a Final Club?"
That depends on how you look at it. Does "have access" mean have membership in? If not, I would say that lots of women have access.

"Do you believe that the members of the clubs truly are the most social/outgoing/fun people on campus?"
Um, no. And why does this matter? It's just a perception, at worst, in any case.

"Do you believe that being a member of a Final Club does not give you access to connections that you would not have otherwise had?"
I'm going to assume that you meant "does give you access." It may, if the members are people who you would normally not interact with. Otherwise, probably not. I would say that, on balance, they probably don't give you better connections that deep involvement in any other activity on campus that pools together relatively homogenous, ambitious, successful, network-seeking, probably-already-well-off/connected individuals (like say, the UC, the IOP, HSA, Harvard in general).

"Do you believe that Final Clubs do not exaggerate the already existing problematic dynamics between men and women?"
I don't know about exaggerating them, but they probably don't do anything to help things. That being said, there's a lot of things besides final clubs that manifest the same dynamics.

Look, from the moment I got into Harvard I heard about the same problems that are being debated now. I never had a desire to be in a final club and I certainly never saw them as bullies. Having come from an "unprivileged" background myself, I readily admit to feeling ill-at-ease with more privileged classmates during my time at Harvard. Sometimes it was downright depressing to hear friends make plans to hopscotch around the globe during the summer while I was lucky to leave my home state. I spent four years trying to feel like I fit at Harvard, and I don't think I ever succeeded, but I did at least become more comfortable with myself around those with advantages I didn't grow up with.

Having the perspective I do, though, I always found it amusing (and still do) to see highly privileged people engage in this kind of deconstruction. Privilege manifests itself in many ways, of which final clubs are but one. If your going to try and ID a bully, I think that privilege itself is the greatest one. The different guises it takes on are just window-dressing. Outside of the context of Harvard, final clubs really just are symptomatic of the privilege that Harvard is steeped in. Harvard alums are famous for networking with other Harvard alums, whose combined power, connections, and wealth likely far exceed that of several generations of graduates from the local college near where I'm currently teaching. The poli-sci majors at the same local college likely have next to zero chance of snagging those coveted DC internships that Harvard (and other Ivies) have a virtual lock on (let alone the privilege of having an institution like the IOP to fund those unpaid positions). The prestige of a Harvard degree (lets be honest) will likely open doors that are closed to most other people.

That some doors at Harvard itself may remain closed to some members of the Harvard community just fails to get me riled up because many (I do not say all) of those condemning the exclusivity and privilege of final clubs will willingly (although maybe not eagerly or proudly) partake in the exclusivity and privilege of their Harvard experience in other areas of their life. Final clubs are just one way the privileged at Harvard discriminate amongst themselves and as such, in my opinion, not especially a cause for concern unless you are willing to condemn all such activities (and here I'm not including the "shady" things that have happened at final clubs, which are different from the existence of such social institutions in general), including the concentration of privilege at Harvard as a starting point. The "shocking" revelations of the Isis emails are really not that shocking when you consider that similar things probably happen, albeit maybe in a different form, when Harvard alums come recruiting for current Harvard students to fill jobs that are pretty difficult to break into for non-Harvard (or non-top tier school) affiliates and numerous other examples.

So, all that, plus I don't really care how individuals certainly able to make up their own minds spend their free time so long as it doesn't negatively and maliciously impact others. In my experience final clubs never did that to me. You could argue that they contributed to a negative culture of privilege in general (which may not necessarily be negative, given, in realist terms, the benefits to Harvard alums in general), but given what I've written above, it is beyond me to assign any special fault to final clubs specifically when the root problem lies far deeper - and may not be a problem that can be fixed to begin with (unless you are of a similar mind as Jersey Slugger).

At 11:45 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

i didn't mean to argue that Final Clubs were bullies. The analogy was bad, and implies that clubs proactively do wrong, rather than are a part of an unintentional and unjust status quo. I just meant to say that in the realm of "things that may be bad" Isis was the least bad, and so it taking the brunt of this discussion seems unfair to me.

Two other questions though:

A common refrain (seem above both in Ptats and Jamal's comments) is that "if it's not hurting me they can do what they want." Should Harvard therefore not have allowed women in? Should it not have allowed Jews in? Black people? Fundamentally, the first question is: if an institution rewards some people and not others (based on something like gender or class), but does not hurt other people, is there something wrong with that?

Another common refrain is that "that's how life is" (also seen above in some of the posts): "Harvard is unmeritocratic, too", or "problematic sexual dynamics also occur in clubs etc.", etc. So then the question is: why does that take anything away from what I'm arguing? Am I arguing that the world is, other than Final Clubs, perfect, fair and just?

At 12:31 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

I am of the mind that any problem can be fixed, Jamal, thank you. Sometimes it takes rhetoric and lobbying and sometimes it takes guns and cartridges. Look at anybody from George Washington to Huey Newton. They utilized both.

A few other things: I'm no staunch supporter of the privileged but I am glad that some of them are able to actively address their privelege and deconstruct its derivatives and present-day manifestations to arrive at an understanding (and/or new perspective) of it.

The Harvard degree is a badge of privilege that we Harvard students will indelibly retain for the rest of our lives, yes. However, this is very different from final clubs privelege in a significant way that Andrew points to often: merit. *Most* of us got to Harvard through something meritocratic (and NO shaking hands and making club members laugh does not suffice as merit) such as high academic achievement and leadership positions in student groups while in high school above those directly around us (whether at Andover or Trenton High).

Lastly, we do not give ourselves privilege (as Harvard grads) once we graduate; society does. Employers do. I often say that the only place in the world that Harvard students are normal is Harvard Square. That's it. Go even one T-stop away and you're a bit of an anomoly. The farther you get from this school the more people who find out you attended Harvard laud you as a deity. That's social perception and not self-generated.

At 1:33 AM, Anonymous Yi-Ping said...

I am now in the uncomfortable position of defending Harvard, which I hope will distract me from the even more uncomfortable nature of jumping into what is getting to be a rather heated argument between people who I like and respect a lot, regardless of what side they are on. You know who you are. :) Just wanted to say that I think a lot of what's been said about how Harvard is kind of a big finals club too is really interesting. On the one hand, it's undeniable that those curly iron gates on Mass. Ave. are a kind of closed door behind which a huge amount of institutional and social power resides. On the other hand, however, it is crucial to distinguish between institutions which empower individuals to make choices for themselves through education and institutions which either promote values or are structured in ways that might conflict with that democratization of power. To the extent that Harvard and other elite institutions of learning meet the former criteria, there is a recognizable ideal there that differentiates it from just another old boy's club. To the extent that it doesn't, of course, it is open to criticism. But the bottom line is, what kind of society do we want to live in? And to what extent are the private institutions, many of which do influence the distribution of important resources -- income, wealth, the social bases of self-respect -- supporting or undermining those overall goals?

An important point has been raised by ptats about the fact that not every institution has to actively support broader goals of social justice in order to be valuable. Obviously, we don't demand this kind of social conscience from People Who Love Gardening or Tuba Players United. There does have to be space in the private sphere for the pursuit of leisure and recreational activities, many of which give our lives a richer day-to-day meaning and help us to build relationships of friendship and intimacy with others. And yes -- everyone does like to shop for shoes once in awhile or have a beer, myself included. I have even been known to (!) gossip cattily from time to time. I don't think that anyone is, or could rightly be, claiming that this is a major problem; gratuitous, superficial pleasure is one of those unjustifiable but undeniable facts of life and any human being who denies desiring or enjoying them is either a hypocrite or a saint. But, that said, institutions that are set up for this purpose alone can still have social repercussions, can still influence social dynamics, and can exert considerable control over social resources depending on a number of factors -- who can join, how much it costs, the benefits of membership, the costs of exclusion, etc. etc. etc. Insofar as they do that, I think it's undeniable that they can become problematic under certain circumstances. Whether this club or that club is actually problematic is not something that I think we can judge without a lot of information. But it's not something we can easily dismiss.

Finally, let's imagine a possible world in which finals clubs did not really exert these kinds of influences. Perhaps we'd be at a university which had an amazing student center, flowing wells of grant money for summer internships, networks of alums that were as accessible and eager to help everyone equally as the networks which are supposedly available to club members, and also there'd be maids to clean up after us. (Just kidding on that last point.) There would still be just the purely social point of whether it's desirable to give some people power over others to that degree. This is an unpleasant point to contemplate, because as we well know everyone exercises power over everyone else and it seems difficult and complicated to distinguish healthy exercise of power from unhealthy. More than anything, it's a point for individual reflection...what is it like for me to stand at a door to a mansion and close it in someone else's face because I don't think they are cool or I don't know them or I don't like them? That power and privilege feels good. At the end of the day, though, is that the kind of place I want to live in? If I don't think that society as a whole should be like that but belong to such a club anyway, what are the particular conditions that affected my decision to join? I'm particularly interested in the experiences of women and minorities who belong to clubs, because it seems on the surface at least that these are people who have had doors shut in their face and know what it's like to be on the side of the powerless. Do you feel as if you have a different view or vision about what these clubs are about?

A personal anecdote. When I was growing up in just about one of the Reddest states the Midwest has to offer, my family suffered from various forms of discrimination and exclusion. My brother's classmates at nursery school would tell him to use a yellow crayon during self-portrait time (he came home protesting that he didn't understand these comments, since he was "peachy-pink"). People have told me that I'm a Gook and I should go back to Vietnam or whatever Asian country their generation happened to fight a war in. On a more banal level, my classmates would make fun of the clothes I wore because my immigrant parents never knew to buy me jeans. To this day, I'm really uncomfortable with groups that are based on exclusivity and coolness because I feel like I've had the experience of being judged and tormented based on other people's superficial and ignorant perceptions of my identity. I remember feeling pretty lonely a lot of the time and terrified of being singled out as someone who wasn't worth getting to know or spend time with. (Isn't that the way a lot of people feel when they come to college...?) Anyway, that's maybe why I have a strong impression that individual choices resonate with and reflect the identity and self-definition of larger social communities and even nations.

Just some thoughts.

At 2:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(The following is totally unrelated to previous arguments)

Two things that are incorrect in your critiques of Crimson coverage. First, you say that you wanted the Crimson to write a news piece that broadened things beyond the Isis Club to Final Clubs as a whole. That sounds difficult. People who are part of Final Clubs don't talk. I imagine it took a lot on the part of the Crimson to even get those P.C. and Spee people to comment. To broaden something in the context of a news story, you need facts, not speculation. Since you can't get facts because final club members are so reticent, you can't "broaden" your news story. That previous poster was correct in identifying this fact.

Second, you use the argument I just addressed to explain why you didn't publish anything on your website even though you surely had access to the web archives as well. There are a ton of interesting, and heretofore unknown or speculated on facts in the email archives (all of them that the crimson scooped you on *five* days after the archives were released) that could have lent credence/refuted to some of your arguments. Consider the fact that Isis Club members outwardly admit that they can get their fellow "chicas" interviews at major NY firms. Or the fact that the club's leadership is very concerned about some of the trips they were taking undermining the values of the club. These are all interesting tidbits that any journalist would pounce on.

Yet you chose to let the Crimson break the story because you didn't want to offend anyone by being the first. Step off your high horse and admit it. The Crimson did what you weren't willing to do. However "gossipy" the story sounded to you and others, it put all the facts out there in an unbiased manner for everyone to see.

Welcome to the media monopoly?

At 2:46 AM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Another tangentially-related note:

Fortunately for me (although it may distract us temporarily from the particular points that Golis is trying to make), it seems that the final club discussion is inadvertently addressing my earlier question regarding the privilege associated with a Harvard education. It’s heartening to see that people have given this issue some serious thought; I know I’ve been struggling more than usual lately with my role at this university, which in many ways does embody the same problems final clubs exhibit.

It’s a little worrisome to me that people so readily juxtapose the superficiality of final club punch criteria and the supposedly merit-based standards of Harvard admissions. While I wouldn’t go so far as to equate the two in their arbitrariness, I think it’s important for people to recognize—and continually grapple with—the fact that with *very few* exceptions, none of us singularly pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps to get here. To a greater or lesser extent, the path to prestige was already paved for us, as we were inculcated from an early age with the specific skill-set that Harvard—and the American/international intellectual elite—deems desirable. I’m not saying most of us didn’t work hard; I’m just saying it was a certain kind of hard work, predicated on, facilitated by, and rewarded with social and economic privilege.

To Slugger’s contention that after we graduate, other people are the ones who privilege us, I would just point out that every day we choose to remain at this university, we are actively choosing current and future privilege, and we need to either accept responsibility for this decision or rethink it altogether. Different kinds of privilege are fixed or unfixed to varying degrees: we can’t choose our race, sex (perhaps), or the financial situation into which we were born; on the other hand, we can choose which university to attend and whether or not to join, visit, or otherwise support final clubs. Again, I’m not saying we all need to renounce all privilege over which we have control, but we need to be honest with ourselves, and each other, about the consequences of voluntarily participating in various institutions.

Yi-ping makes an excellent point in asking whether or not Harvard uses its institutional might to empower us. I don’t think the answer is readily apparent or easily arrived at (I certainly don’t claim to have it figured out), but its difficulty makes this complicated and nuanced issue all the more deserving of our consideration. Again, although I think the specific final club discussion is a productive one since it lays in plain view often-invisible problems of privilege and resource control, I’m glad that people are extrapolating.

At 5:48 AM, Anonymous Guess Who said...

Katie makes a great point about Harvard and privilege, and it's a similar point that I have been making during this entire debate. The problem with the so-called social justice community at Harvard is, and has probably always been, that it cannot reconcile it's egalitarian intentions with its explicit and recurrent acceptance of the privilege of Harvard. You all can make all the merit arguments you want, but like I argued many posts ago, merit is not only subjective in and of itself, but the opportunities to display what people could subjectively interpret as merit are constrained by socioeconomic, cultural, religious, or other factors. While you think that final clubss selection of cool people or wealthy people is arbitrary and meaningless-- you are assuming that Harvard's selection of people is significantly more meaningful, and to me it's not really. Look at the examples that Jersey Slugger gave-- the student body president? That is a high school popularity contest if I've ever seen one. Private schools actually have things like student councils, school papers, random sports like crew and hockey, debate club, etc. Only if your school actually HAS these things, could you even participate and show your "merit." If your school can barely pay the math teacher and your neighborhood is bombed out East St. Louis, how are you going to show any merit other than decent SAT scores and good grades which Harvard doesn't respect because of the low quality of your school? Perhaps you could demonstrate it at an interview, but those seem to me to be pretty arbitrary too. Some people's interviews are about Latin American politics...others are about themseleves...and others still are about old people recanting their drunken Harvard memories. Very arbitrary.

Moreover, even if I were to grant your argument that Harvard chooses the most or close to the most meritous individuals (intelligence, ambition, etc), then final clubs, by virtue of choosing from that pool already "pre-screened" by Harvard, can take things like intelligence and ambition for granted. What sense does it make to obsess over intelligence when you've already been assured-- even by people who should be Harvard's harshest critics-- that most people here are intelligent and meritous? You start to look for what might be more interesting things about people than their SAT scores...musical ability, sense of humor, ability to throw a party, etc. Things that take on the air of merit in a new subjective perspective. To make it clearer, I will use your framework:

Do you believe that being wealthy makes you more likely to have access of [Harvard]?
Yes it does. On many levels. Wealthier people are also more likely to be legacy admissions. Wealthy people can usually afford to live in places or go to private schools that facilitate the demonstration of Harvard standards of "merit." Moreover, wealth can be connected to increased self-esteem, defined as one's faith in their own ability to fulfill a life plan. So, wealthier children might be more confident in their ability to go to Harvard and succeed. If you find that Harvard's new financial aid initiative, poor/minority recruiting efforts, or interview procedure are sufficient to account for this bias, then it follows that final clubs' financial aid initiatives, efforts to recruit Asian, Black, and Hispanic members, and multiple round "interview" processes are as well. If neither is sufficient, but simply needs to be expanded, then that is another argument than final clubs are inherently wrong for this reason.

Do you believe that the members of the clubs truly are the most social/outgoing/fun people on campus? [Perhaps a Harvard corollary would be with intelligence or creativity]

I don't think that this is a question where any objective truth could ever be arrived at. The idea of what is valuable in a social situation (or an educational situation) is inherently subjective and people are going to gravitate towards their preferences. On final clubs, you may disagree with their preferences, but unless you are confident that their preferences are anathema to society, then you should probably support their freedom to pursue them. On Harvard, I don't think you can prove Harvard students are objectively the most intelligent or creative students in the world. They conform to an accepted standard of intelligence we are culturally and economically encouraged to find valuable. Why don't we accept people who showcase great intelligence at dog breeding? Or juggling? Or rapping? And are we accepting natural intelligence or demonstrated intelligence? Doesn't that constrain our selection to the point where in many ways, the selection is a lot more arbitary than has been admitted?

Do you believe that being a member of a Final Club does not give you access to connections that you would not have otherwise had?

This is true for anything. If I go to jail, I would have connections that I would not otherwise have had. I think what you mean to imply is some sort of privileged connection or unfair boost in a meritocracy. If this is so, then that is precisely the major function of the IOP, Investment Society, Harvard Alumni Society, and Harvard itself. Going to Harvard expands your social network dramatically and also cements a social perception of you-- fairly or unfairly-- as intelligent and ambitious. A Harvard degree cements a lot more privilege around the world than membership in the Fox. My point is not to say that either privilege is good or bad, it's just that the must go together in my mind. If the type of privilege that final clubs bestow is unfair, then so is the privilege that Harvard bestows...and then how do you defend your matriculation? "Working from the inside"? Taking the privilege and sharing it with underprivileged people? Couldn't a final club person do the same thing? I'm sure there are tons of progressive events on campus that are organized by final club members (perhaps not as such, but as individuals who also happen to be members) that do great things for others. If Harvard can be levied to the benefit of less fortunate people, could final clubs possibly be bended to those same goals in some respects?

Do you believe that being a man makes you more likely to have access to a [Harvard]?Do you believe that [Harvard] exaggerates the already existing problematic dynamics between men and women?

I think that this is the most compelling argument and where the Harvard comparison could fall apart (sans President Summers), but my objection comes on another ground. If one believes that there are relevant differences between men and women that reflect themselves in significant differences in modes of socialization between men and women (setting aside the rare example of transgendered people), then it might be defensible to pursue single gendered social organizations to facilitate the healthy growth of those differences and identities. Now you may not agree that final clubs are currently meeting the goal of healthy gender identities and socialization, but that is a consequentialist argument. If a gendered organization may be morally defensible on the above grounds-- that the exclusivity is derived from relevant substantive difference-- then it's not inherently wrong. The question then becomes how can we give women equal opportunities to develop such structures and how can we make the male ones more likely to develop healthy identities than not. I also am going to pre-empt the comparison to race or ethnicity because those have no biological grounding whatsoever and do not result in any significant hormonal or biological difference that could result in social difference-- I think the male/female example is at least up for debate and scrutiny.

At 8:16 AM, Blogger Jamal Sprucewood said...


To answer your two questions quickly before I leave for work:

1) That's sort of a straw man argument. Clearly Harvard's discriminatory admissions policies were different that what we are arguing here. To echo Guess Who's refrain, the corollary to the argument you've made is that friendships/networking/etc/etc should be based on merit, which is ridiculous and clearly not the case. I would also add that although Harvard is a private university it serves a decidedly public purpose, whereas the argument can be made that final clubs are ends, private ends, unto themselves. I think that your argument would hold more water if Harvard, the institution, had an active role in supporting final clubs rather than Harvard students, who are private individuals acting in that capacity. Does gender and class play a role in final clubs? Surely, but a lot of other things count to. Where does it not play a role? If I may ask a question in response - if other institutions on campus have the same problems you've identified, then why the focus on final clubs?

2) No, you're not arguing that the world is perfect and it doesn't take away from your arguments. I believe that anyone who wants to try and bring final clubs to heel are more than welcome to make their arguments and make the attempt. I don't agree with you and I would not support such efforts because the solution could only come, I believe, if we eroded the liberty of individuals to form their own private associations. Final clubs are no different than any other clubby haven of elitism that you can find across the country (millions of examples, I would bet). Sure, I don't agree with some things, but if people want to do it and it's in their power to form such organizations, then let them. And if groups want to come along and point out the ridiculousness which some of those organizations engage in, then fine. We'll all enjoy reading some, as Andrew noted, tabloid-like pieces. But, beyond this, what is the point of focusing on final clubs? It does seem to me arbitrary to, in a place (and culture) so resplendent with elitism, to focus on one particular manifestation of that elitism.

Jersey: Man, I hope you didn't take offense to what I wrote. That was a small jab at a follow CC writer. I do the same thing with Golis (with his liberalism and what not) and Clay Capp (like his weekend revelry). I was referencing your "marxist" post a few weeks back.

Well, my carpool ride is here, so I've gotta run. But I'll stay posted.

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Yi-Ping said...

I take your point that it seems arbitrary to focus on the finals clubs in a society where elitism is everywhere. On the other hand, I think the reason why they've drawn particular attention is a historical one. It simply seems anachronistic to have a club that only privileged men can punch, sometimes only because their fathers and their fathers' fathers were in them. I think Harvard students are interested in it because of the parallels that do exist between Harvard as an institution and the finals clubs (many of which have been explored here), and also because any university community has as its motivation a questioning of society and an idealistic vision of how society can grow and change. It would be hypocritical if all of this idealism and critique were to be directed only outside the university community and didn't ever become self-reflective. That's why, for example, students rioted at Columbia University in 1968 when the university built a gym in Morningside Heights that denied access to Harlem residents. Was this gym, in the broad scheme of the civil rights movement, that significant or strikingly offensive? Maybe in comparison to other things, not really. But it became interpreted as an emblem of the kind of ignorance towards the plight of the less worse off that power and privilege breeds, and for that reason the students didn't want to tolerate it. Whether that kind of interpretation is right or wrong is debatable in all cases, but it's an important debate to have.

It's true that we should be mindful of a broader perspective. Finals clubs probably don't cause third world poverty, and even if they were eliminated or radically restructed it might not have much of an impact on the problems that affect most people's lives. On the other hand, there's some value in looking at something that is limited in scale, close to home, and possibly a reflection of other larger issues in society. I think there's a reason that they have spawned such a debate on this site and elsewhere.


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