President Summers, beware the Yalies within

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I think I see President Summers’ problem.  He has been speaking to his Harvard faculty when he should have been addressing the Yalies of the Yard. 

I don’t have a lot of ethnographic data on Yalies but I do recall one astonishing weekend I spend with 8 of them in Washington.  We were there for a Yale-Smithsonian conference and, as part of the proceedings, we, the participants, were driven around the nation’s capital in a small van.

What caught my attention (and there is nothing like forcible confinement to sharpen the senses) is that the Yalies kept up a line of self congratulatory humor and comment that said, roughly, ‘this may be Washington, but we are Yalies!’   It was as if they were trying to show they were not threatened by the nation’s capital.  In that great tradition of protesting too much, they managed to demonstrate just the opposite:  "This is Washington, we are terrified."

As I say, it is not a lot of data, but it makes a nice little puzzle.  Why would people from one of the nation’s great universities become defensive when obliged to tour the nation’s capital? 

One way to solve this puzzle is to embark in a long, reckless, thoroughly speculative, and utterly groundless discourse on Yale’s strategy of self presentation, and this is precisely what I intend now to do.  For roughly 304 years, Yale has fought a status game with Harvard and lost it almost every year.  (They’ve done somewhat better in the classic football contest, where the two schools are virtually tied.)  For all its greatness, Yale is poorer than Harvard in virtually every category.  For all its antiquity, it is a newcomer.  Yale sometimes wins "the game" (as they call the Harvard-Yale gridiron contest).  It almost never wins the comparison. 

This is tough on a college, even one as mighty as Yale, and a response is called for.  The classic cultural response is to doubt the grounds of the comparison, and here, I think, Yale may have been tempted by two options.  The first is to insist that Yale is other-worldly and to that extent a finer, more cerebral enterprise than Harvard.  This is one of the ways Oxford declares its difference from Cambridge and all those earnest, artless scientists on the fens.  The second, and this might be offered as a demonstration of the first, is to position Yale as a place that refuses power as enthusiastically as Harvard pursues it.  (Do universities "position" themselves in this manner?  Nations do.  At the end of the 19th century, France recognized that it would lose all future military contests to Germany and all economic ones to England.  Culture seemed the wisest course, the prudent thing to do.)

Did Yale "manage" the Harvard comparison this way, by escaping it on the grounds of a higher calling?  I can’t say.  This is, I hasten to remind you, discourse both speculative and groundless.  But we judge ideas by the work they perform in the world, and this one helps explain a couple of things.  It would explain why those Yalies were so threatened by Washington.  It would also explain why Yales are so often liberal and/or lefty.  (If there is a single reason that keeps the Democrats out of the mainstream, it is their presumption of moral superiority.  Thus have they removed themselves from the mainstream.)  Finally, it would explain why we’ve heard of almost no one at Yale.  I bet with a little effort you could name ten to twenty people teaching at Harvard.  Take a moment.  Think of Yale.  Three?  Five?  Any?  No, Yale is too good for this world, too good in any case to be compared with the likes of worldly Harvard.  ("Whew!  You can not judge us, we are too fine.")

That’s the trouble with this status strategy.  Renounce the world often enough and, after awhile, otherworldliness becomes obscurity.  Those who are too good for the world are charged with ever fewer responsibilities and finally, the world begins to lose interest altogether. 

Back to President Summers (just ignore the sound of gears grinding heroically as I redirect the argument).  President Summers comes from the outer ring of his university, the economics department, a place so worldly and influential it supplies many people for Washington posts, including, of course, Summers himself, who was secretary of the treasury there.  Harvard has not been shy about power.  The business school, the law school, the medical school, these are the brilliant rings of the planet and carry the university’s influence out into the world and back again.  Ironically, only the Kennedy school manages to keep itself disengaged (managing to look a little Yale-like in the process). 

All of the professional schools know a thing or two about chain of command, the realities of power, the privileges of standing, and what it takes to make the world bend to Harvard’s, or anyone’s, influence.  The rule here, and it’s got to be in Machiavelli somewhere, you can’t be too particular or fastidious.  You must get on with it.  The chief executive officers of these schools are not quite CEOS in the corporate sense, but certainly they bear very little resemblance to the godly churchmen who were their predecessors.  They know the lessons, the realities, of power in a way that most academics do not. 

Here’s the rub.  President Summers comes from these outer rings.  He embraced its culture.  He constituted himself a creature of power, a man of standing.  He wore, we might say, his rings on his sleeve.  And then he made an anthropological error.  He assumed that his Harvard was everybody’s Harvard.  He failed to see the Yalies within. 

Mr. President!  The first rule of rhetoric is "know your audience."  Harvard has a little Yale, the scholars who occupy the liberal arts, the social sciences and the Yard.  These people are largely shut out of, or kept from, Harvard’s engagement with the world.  Not for them the government posts, the consulting gigs, the television interviews, the world’s eager consultation.  For most of them the "ambit of influence" is the table they commandeer each day at the Faculty Club, and, outside of academic circles, not much more.  (I am using here a rhetorical trope here called "exaggeration".)

I’m sure this rankles but it should not surprise.  After all, most scholars in the humanities and social sciences have made Yale’s bargain with the universe.  They have insisted that they are much too good, too noble, too moral to engage with the world.  They are now a little like ceremonial creatures of court removed from the world that they might commune with the gods.  Not for them the rough and ready pragmatism of the outer rings.  As keepers of the nobler view, they are, some of them, just a dubious hat and push cart away from wandering out of the Yard to shout imprecations at startled fellow Cantabrigians.  (That pesky trope again.)

This strategy of absenting yourself from the real world has many implications.  Some of them are tragic.  (The social sciences and humanities are now frightfully out of touch with some of the real compelling intellectual issues of our day.  Too bad.  They might have been useful.)  But here is the important implication for our purposes.  If you are surrounded by power but kept from it, if you are made a ceremonial creature, but only that, if you absent yourself from the world, and rewarded with obscurity, if all these things are true, you are in a very bad temper a good deal of the time.  The world has done you wrong.

Now, we know what happens to ceremonial creatures when they are wronged.  They become obsessed with form.  The world may not respond to their will, but they will have their due.  They will insist upon a precise acknowledgment of every detail of the ritual regime.  In President Summers’ case, this means no gratuitous references to the ROTC program, that sterling demonstration of the military-industrial-educational complex.  It means no reckless comments about women and science.  This too is, forgive me, a "motherhood" issue in the Yard.  And it means that the President may not evidence the arrogance of the CEO from the outer ring, nor the swash buckling style we might expect from a man who owes his Harvard position, in part at least, to the fact that he once had a corner office in the corridors of power. 

Finally, the Yalies of the Yard have one metapragmatic directive: you may have power, you may have the task of bending the world to Harvard’s will, but.don’t.rub.our.noses.in.it!  Give us this illusion: what we think matters, what we do counts.  And by all means, observe the ceremony and ritual that is our balm, our succor, our consolation.  Mr. President, we have only one power, that of form, and unless you honor us by acknowledging it, we, sir, will make you pay. 

(Sorry that got a little CSI: Miami at the end there, didn’t it?)

4 thoughts on “President Summers, beware the Yalies within

  1. steve

    That’s a fascinating analysis, and it rings true. I think you can even add a bit of shading to the picture if you think about some of the other subculture conflicts:

    Summers was hugely successful at the academic game–he got tenure at Harvard at age 28 or something, which is practically unheard of. His work was always policy-relevant, but more than anything he respects intellectual firepower, the ability to cut through what everyone’s been maundering about with an original, hard-to-refute argument.

    It’s not that he wants the experts on Assyrian pottery or Edgar Allan Poe to be movers and shakers, but he wants them to kick ass the way he did. He wants them to tenure younger folks who are hotshots, meaning junior faculty who are going to make lasting, high-impact scholarly contributions that shake things up. He wants them to dominate their fields intellectually. (Notice that his critique of Cornel West, in effect, was that West was too much involved with the world and not enough in scholarly endeavor.)

    The problem is that economics may be a field where this kind of acheivement is more sought-after, culturally normative, and intellectually possible than other disciplines. So he’s stepping on plenty of toes and intimidating people by implying that they ought to model their careers and behavior on people like him. Summers is the kind of guy who will ask tough questions about somebody’s research and expect them to stand up for themselves. He’s challenging them on their own turf, while at the same time his wordliness makes them uncomfortable, as you so beautifully describe.They don’t like it.

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