Monday, May 19, 2014
May 19, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: With Honors
[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On stereotypes, realities, and elitism.
In the most famous scene in the largely forgettable Harvard dramedy With Honors (1994), Joe Pesci’s homeless philosopher schools Gore Vidal’s snobby political science professor in the histories and ideals that comprise “the genius of the Constitution.” The scene nicely contrasts the Vidal character’s cynical pragmatism with Pesci’s eloquent idealism, a debate that the film frames overall through the way in which the two men serve as potential mentors and even father figures for Brendan Fraser’s about-to-graduate student. And the scene includes, on both sides of the debate, more complex truths about our founding era and document than you’re likely to find in most Hollywood productions. But it also relies, as does the film overall, on a reductive vision of Ivy League elitism.
The film positions the Fraser character’s choice, metaphorically for much of its story and then very literally in its culminating events, as between Harvard itself (as embodied in his thesis work with Vidal’s professor) and the more messy but far more authentic world and life represented by Pesci’s character. What Harvard becomes in this narrative, then, is not simply an elitist set of attitudes about the world, but an overt, unflattering contrast to that world, one that must be rejected in order for real life to begin. To be clear, I certainly did encounter such sides to Harvard in my own time there—from the exclusive and exclusionary communities of the Final Clubs to an Economics professor who argued, as part of a lecture, that homelessness is a necessary process through which society weeds out those who cannot succeed in it (similarly, a roommate of mine was in a History class where the professor noted in passing that Africa’s nations were far better off under colonialism and would have been fortunate to remain in that state permanently). So the film’s stereotypes are not without validity.
But on the other hand, my own experience of Harvard—which began one year after the film was released—was of a community that was incredibly diverse, not only in ethnic or cultural terms but also in regard to many other elements of identity (including class, political perspectives, religion, and numerous other life experiences). Such diversity, to be sure, is a relatively new phenomenon and emphasis, throughout higher education and at Harvard in particular. But it is and should be very much a central goal, and one that can only benefit from visions of higher education in which the university community is defined precisely by its reflection of the real world all around it, rather than by stereotypes of its contrasts with that world. Which is to say, as extreme or exaggerated as both characters are, Harvard and all universities are defined by both the Pescis and the Vidals, and are all the better for it.
Next Harvard movie tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight?