In spite of everything that has happened there in the past 40-odd years — financial aid, the admission of women, walling up all the in-room fireplaces for "safety reasons" — it still conjures up the same image: elite young men from privileged families sitting in wood-paneled rooms before crackling fires, being served lobster on silver platters as they discuss Plato. Occasionally they knock out their pipes against an ivy-clad bust of John Adams and murmur, “A moment, Gerald, I believe the people are revolting.”
“Yes, aren’t they!” Gerald exclaims, getting up and closing the window. Someone comes by with another tray of hors d’oeuvres. “The caviar is not what it once was,” Gerald says wistfully, wandering over to the wall to examine a plaque that lists in gold leaf all the names of his ancestors who attended Harvard, with annotations, back to the Pleistocene Epoch. The theme from “Love Story” plays in the background. “Want to go fling gold ingots into the Charles River, Reginald?” Gerald asks. “Only if we do so in the most elite manner possible.”
Of course Harvard is no longer like this. But just try convincing anyone of that.
Cue a nationwide rolling of eyes.
The tents aren’t there because of any definite grievance. Sure, the movement lists several. It is always possible to generate a definite grievance no matter where you turn up. Harvard, for instance, does not pay its janitors enough, or at least this is what I hear from the protests. But pay the janitors $300,000 a year, and I guarantee you that within minutes another protest will spring up insinuating that Harvard pays its janitors more than what some Americans make their whole lives, or that it is not doing enough to make certain that the world's janitors make $300,000 annually — or perhaps, that the janitors still only make one-twelfth of what the fund managers make. At any rate, there will be something.
Say what you will about the actual aims of the movement (Dylan Matthews makes a good case for them); what is drawing the protesters (and drawing attention to the protesters) is this vague whiff of Untouchable Elitism. Nothing will dispel it. It’s what makes Harvard Harvard.
Harvard may not be the 1 percent that everyone is complaining about. But it is a tiny group of people who have been given an opportunity denied to others. That smacks uncannily of pipe smoke and caviar. Never mind that Harvard offers massive amounts of financial aid — there are some people there who are not receiving financial aid. It is an elite institution. And elite, these days, is an ugly word.
Soon I expect to hear someone complaining that Harvard does not admit everybody.
But the problem with this movement is how shortsighted it looks. At present, it has done little other than keep freshmen awake at night, increase the presence of university police in the Yard, and lure people away from introductory economics lectures.
The protesters complain that “a university for the 99% would offer academic opportunities to assess responses to socioeconomic inequality outside the scope of mainstream economics.”
Look, before we start seeking outside the scope of mainstream economics, let’s make certain we have a grip on mainstream economics.
“We are sure that mainstream economics doesn’t have the answer!” the protesters proclaimed, marching dramatically out of their introductory economics lecture two weeks ago. The introductory irony lecture was, I assume, down the hall.
Jeremy Patashnik noted in the Harvard Political Review that “one major criticism of the Occupy movement is that protesters do not generally seem to be well-informed on the economic issues they care so strongly about. Walking out of an economics lecture will do little to quell this stereotype.”
Meanwhile, the nation rolls its eyes. “Harvard students chanting that they are the 99 percent?” people ask. “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Go to class.”
It’s not a bad idea.
Perhaps this is an oversimplification. But surely the events since 2008 have been a vivid and painful reminder of how dangerous it is to entrust the world economy to people without a firm grasp on economics.
Don’t occupy the Yard. Occupy the libraries. Occupy the classrooms. You have just four years to devote to actually getting a grip on some small portion of the vast array of human knowledge. Do not spend any of them in a tent, surrounded by other people who have no better ideas than you, “engaging in dialogue.” It smells peculiar there, and you could be in a red-brick building next to a bust of John Adams, learning something. If you actually want to come up with a way to remedy the injustice, it is the only thing to do.
Go to class.