The Harvard Conspiracy

In which the Elegant Bastard argues that myths, gods and conspiracies, by and large, are not at their best when seen in their underwear.

The great conspiracies are those that operate openly, accompanied by neither shame nor apology.  They are born in the minds of master manipulators, accomplished story tellers who turn away from secret handshakes, sniff at the very idea of initiation rites and loudly ridicule funny hats that come adorned with strange insignia. No modern Machiavellian worthy of the name would waste time discussing grassy knolls, Elvis sightings and alien landings in Roswell. These are petty intrigues, mere games for children. Genius seeks greater challenges and truer tests. It sets itself nearly impossible goals, such as that achieved by whatever assembly of fine minds fashioned the greatest intrigue of them all: the Harvard Conspiracy.

For generations, a mysterious international network has worked to establish this institution’s unparalleled reputation for excellence. So successful have its previous agents been that subtlety was abandoned generations ago and even the name of the university has been made to serve the myth. Rumour has it that this strategy was devised in some dim and murky past when it first became clear that there remained a few mortals who had not accepted the equivalency of Harvard and Heaven. Despite the fact that each destination had a two-syllable name (nudge, nudge) and the syllables even began with the same letters (wink, wink), quibblers insisted on making much of a minor difference. They pointed out that Hea – Ven named itself in two perfectly equal halves, each composed only of elegantly mellifluous letters; Har – vard’s unequal split had to limp its way around a pair of mundane and unmelodious “r”s. Clearly this would not do!

It is possible that formally changing the spelling of Harvard was considered and rejected as too expensive. Great sums of money had already been spent engraving the name in inconveniently obvious places, and brass and stone do not accept erasures well. And so it was that a few great minds – this was Harvard after all – discovered the far simpler strategy of changing the way the world pronounced the word.  Har – Vard became Hah – Va(h)d, equivalent (given that the second “h” is silent) to “Heaven” in every way but one

It’s harder to get into Harvard

That fact is made clear every year about this time. Forget Christmas Day. A short week later comes the Common Application’s Regular Decision deadline. This is the last opportunity for tens of thousands of adolescents all around the world to let the cool schools know they’re out there, and they throw every last ounce of their beings (and substantial amounts of their parents’ money) into a grand final assault on the gates of the Ivy League.  And no one’s gates are hammered at harder than Harvard’s!

My experiences working with young Canadians applying to this pantheon of great schools has taught me that here in Toronto at least, one of these vine crusted places is not like the others. I have consoled those who whimpered because they “only” got into Princeton. I have assured others that Cornell really is a university and look, it even has a Starbucks. I suggested Dartmouth to one young woman, only to be told that she didn’t want to live in Nova Scotia. And I’ve watched Wharton and Yale rise and fall as trendiness waved its fickle wand first at one and then at the other. But in all my years of working with its potential acolytes, I have never seen Harvard’s status waver. It simply is. It stands unmoving and unmoved.

What legions of silent and invisible hands are needed to maintain this miracle? No other modern deity seems able to maintain so permanent a hold on students’ souls – not boy bands, not athletes, not billionaires, not twerkers. Not even the great religions can count on no-questions-asked devotion any more. In fact, most modern young people seem to approach God as they might some shady street vendor peddling bling. They bargain before they buy. Imagine the bartering session:

“So, God, if you could, you know, like lose the omniscience bit. Guy, it’s getting kinda lame and no one likes a know-it-all, ya know? So lighten up a bit and maybe we’ll go along with the fire and brimstone stuff, ok? But only if we really piss you off! Incest at least. Oh, and while we’re talking sex, can we, like, revisit that whole Gay thing? Whadd’ya say? Coffee? Hey,  Dude! , Ya got skype?

They would never talk to Harvard that way.

This persistent reverence intrigued me and I decided to see if I could finally identify its source.. I had various “ins” available to me. Many of my former students had studied there – without apparent ill-effect. They could be canvassed. Cambridge has some acceptable restaurants. I could check out the menus for hidden symbols. “The Crimson” newspaper has its very good days so I would enjoy reading between its lines for clues. (There is reportedly a football team but I quickly dismissed this as a deliberate distraction.)

I knew the job of dragging the conspiracy out into the light of Truth would not be easy. After all, this was a university that had the balls to hire a president named Faust. I would need to employ stealth. Still, it quickly became evident that Harvard itself seemed to have very little to do with its own “mythification”.  The admissions department did not demand that candidates send photos of themselves genuflecting. No one was required to recite incomprehensible chants in ancient languages. And if an applicant really did need to sign over its future first born, the required paperwork was not available to prying eyes. In fact, the more I searched, the more it became clear that while Harvard was aware of the greatness it had achieved, it seemed to take itself pretty casually. Whoever or whatever lay behind the Harvard Conspiracy, it didn’t appear to be Harvard. Who then were its masterminds? Its architects?

This prompted me to take a closer look at those who wished to go there. My chance came one afternoon when I sat down with a group preparing Harvard applications. As we talked about supplementary questions and reference letters, I noticed that the banter and humour of the previous week’s prep session for other Ivy League schools had disappeared. Once witty and probing essays had been replaced by dry little pieces in which puns had been replaced by pleas. And a little reverential glow now seemed to emanate from each hunched body and every weary face. All that was needed was someone singing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

It was then that I dismissed the idea of some vast cabalistic network serving the telepathic commands of a  Crimson King concealed in the basement of Widener Library. That a conspiracy did exist was absolutely true. That it worked to ignore any failure, flaw or fart that dared deface the Harvard aura was also true. And yes, its members were legion. The only thing false was the idea that this was all organized by Harvard – or even that it was organized at all.

For every single student in that room was a self-contained conspiracy of one.

I think even Harvard itself would argue that a little therapeutic blasphemy was both necessary and long overdue, but how to provide it without being extraordinarily cruel? So I asked them if they would like to hear some lesser known facts about Harvard. They hugged themselves and shivered and then whispered that they would. That’s when I told them that the Unabomber had gone to Harvard.

They knew that and were ready. All this fact did was prompt a long and reverent discussion about the glories of Harvard Engineering, followed by speculation that Harvard Law graduates likely helped track him down. I tried again.

I asked them if they were ready for “Primal Scream”. Asked what this was, I explained that prior to final exams, hundreds of Harvard students would strip naked and run around Harvard Yard. This occasioned a moment’s silence. They all glanced surreptitiously at each other – and then immediately pretended that they had not been imagining precisely what they had all been imagining. The outcome was unanimous (if hesitant) support for the notion that a liberal education demanded the casting off of old ideas. Underwear was an old idea. Next?

I tossed out other feeble bits and pieces but all were similarly ineffective. Did they know the unwritten rule about Harvard’s entry gates? Yes. Did they know about “The Statue of the Three Lies”. Yes, yes, yes and yawn. Had they been told to be careful when rubbing the statue’s foot for luck since Harvard undergraduates were notorious for peeing on it after late-night drinking parties? That prompted a whisper session with much snickering and giggling. Apparently one of the boys had visited his cousin at Harvard the year before and they had all gone drinking and … well … you know.

I tried one last time. Did they know that George Bush had also gone to Harvard? Yes, but they blamed him on Yale since he’d gone there first. I gave up.

What came next happened entirely by chance – or perhaps a disgruntled Heaven finally decided to hit back at Harvard over the whole syllable scandal. One of the students mentioned that the latest Bieber song was the “dumbest song ever.”  Another responded that that honour had to go to “Call Me Maybe”. A third nominated “Gangnam Style”. They all then looked at me, apparently assuming that if a “world’s worst song” existed, I knew it, could sing it and probably had written it.

As it happened, one popped immediately into mind. From childhood I have hated the American folk song, “Polly Wolly Doodle”. It’s a repetitive bit of nonsense involving a chicken that sneezes his head off and a narrator who spends far too much time “behind the barn upon [his] knees”. Add to the mix a grasshopper with both teeth and a poor approach to dental hygiene, and you begin to understand why some religious groups want to ban music.

I sang a line of the chorus. The Harvard posse decided I was making it all up. I assured them I was not and the matter was immediately referred to Google. And lo, the answer became immediately clear. Silence reigned. Jaws dropped. Not only was “Polly Wolly Doodle” very real and very, very bad, it was first published at Harvard! More, it was part of the official Harvard Student Songbook in 1880!

It no longer mattered that Harvard was the alma mater of eight presidents, sixty living billionaires, and dozens of Nobel laureates. It had also given the world “Polly Wolly Doodle” and the mental image of hundreds of streaking Harvard students bellowing “Oh I went down South for to see my Sal, Singin’ Polly Wolly Doodle all the day” was enough to demythify Harvard instantly and irrevocably.

This knowledge did not in any way dampen student ardour. They all went right back to the Harvard admission essays with the same determination as before. But in some subtle way, the discovery that there was just a little silliness in Harvard’s closet lightened the tone. Jokes were now acceptable. Someone spoke highly of Yale. McGill was mentioned! And the essays came back to life and breathed a little (polite) fire.

My father once told me as I nervously prepared for a public speaking contest to imagine the judging panel sitting in its underwear. I did. I grinned, I relaxed and I won. I think that’s what happened that afternoon. Prior to that moment, every student in the room had created an image of  Harvard as some larger-than-life “Being” with flowing grey locks, a stern expression, and shoulders stooped beneath the weight of its accumulated wisdom. Its crimson robes were likely lined with ermine and stitched with gold. And then – in a split second – Polly Wolly Doodle leapt out of Harvard’s closet.  Suddenly and briefly, they all saw Harvard in its underwear.

And that is more honesty than any conspiracy – even those we fondly create ourselves – can withstand.

This post is dedicated to those young people who will devote much of their Christmas Break to the task of completing their Common Applications. In all sincerity, I have enormous respect for each and every one of you. Good luck!