Monday, November 18, 2013

Harvard - Life Inside the Cocoon

In the past, I have often made snarky comments about the political hegemony of our nation's faculty lounges. Recently, I spent a couple of days at Harvard with a friend of mine who's a fellow there, and yes, we even spent time in the faculty lounge (in Harvard's case, a faculty "club"). I went into the heart of darkness.

And what a pleasant existence it is. We audited a class (immensely entertaining, if odd, and featured on 60 minutes). A Kennedy sat behind me. We wandered over and checked out Widener Library and lunched at the business school across the Charles (excellent food). We then popped over to the Law School where there was a 40th Anniversary retrospective of the Paper Chase (great movie, if you've never seen it). And yes, we fit in coffee at the Faculty Club.

The evening was spent having fun debates over beer with a variety of students about the sort of stuff you only talk about in college. An astronomy PhD candidate and an aspiring documentary film maker hotly debated the probability of life elsewhere in our galaxy. I really got into it over tort reform and "stop and frisk" with an American Studies kid.

The coccon is more pleasant than anyone can imagine from the outside. My friend says this is not an atypical day for him. Of course, many of us get to experience it firsthand during our college years. University life is a reassuring womb, where your every need is taken care of. There's a reason we all called life after the "real world."

The days and nights are perhaps most pleasant for the professors because here's a dirty little secret: teaching is not that tough. It doesn't take much time, and once you've taught a course once or twice, you can do it in your sleep. I know this from personal experience, since I taught as an adjunct at Yale. The first time I gave the course, it took some real thought and preparation. By the next year was a piece of cake. Oh sure, you tweak here and there, but nothing that's terribly time consuming. Mostly, you get to spend your days like my friend, gliding between the faculty club, lunch with interesting people, and cultural events.

There's a vast ecosystem of professors, fellows, visiting scholars, perpetual grad students, and administrators that never venture out of the cocoon. Why would they want to? And this is a problem, I think, because they all think alike. 96% of Ivy League professors donating money in the last election gave to Obama. That kind of uniform thinking is horrible if you believe in free discourse and independent thinking.

Sadly, in places isolated from the burdens and responsibilities of the real world, one can take on irresponsible positions without consequence, and everyone around you will have your back.

The cocoon will provide.


  1. Having just spent three days at Harvard myself, I can testify that the place is even more beguiling than it was forty years ago, when I was a student. It is also toxic, which is why I politely deflect the Harvard fund-raising machine when it comes after me. ("We don't need your money, but we want it.") Think of the Harvard faculty in recent years who have influence on politics and culture: Larry Summers, Elizabeth Warren, Cornell West, Stephen Pincker ... plus the fact that the Kennedy School of Government is basically a think tank for the left wing of the Democratic Party.

  2. Too bad Larry Summers drove Cornel West away to Princeton for spending too much time on his rap album, because it might have been fun to also check out a class on rap while you were up here last week. Go Bulldogs, Beat Harvard!