Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What Is It About Harvard?

Harvard came up in conversation several times today.. and this reminded me of something that happened a number of years ago.

I once told a group of students about a scientific debate involving my research group and a group at Harvard. I explained the issue we were debating, then described how the Harvard group’s hypothesis differed from mine, and why I thought I was right. One of the students was incensed that I was besmirching Harvard, and said that I had no right to do this. This student, whose only connection to Harvard was via an alumni father, said that I probably had an inferiority complex because I was at a large state university. Interesting hypothesis, but just as flawed as that of the Harvard scientists who were soon thereafter proved wrong and who graciously and publically conceded that they were wrong and I was right. It was a minor thing -- the kind of debate that happens all the time in science, and sometimes gets resolved and sometimes doesn't. It does make one wonder, though: Do students really think that we have spent our entire lives in the place where we teach? Or perhaps that we spontaneously generated, full-formed as professors, right here in our offices?
[and, even if I had, why can't I disagree with scientists at Harvard?..]


Anonymous said...

This puts me in mind of Malcolm Gladwell's article on admissions and Harvard in the New Yorker.

Gladwell is Canadian and wrote:

You can imagine my confusion, then, when I first met someone who had gone to Harvard.

There was, first of all, that strange initial reluctance to talk about the matter of college at all—a glance downward, a shuffling of the feet, a mumbled mention of Cambridge. “Did you go to Harvard?” I would ask. I had just moved to the United States. I didn’t know the rules. An uncomfortable nod would follow. Don’t define me by my school, they seemed to be saying, which implied that their school actually could define them. And, of course, it did. Wherever there was one Harvard graduate, another lurked not far behind, ready to swap tales of late nights at the Hasty Pudding, or recount the intricacies of the college-application essay, or wonder out loud about the whereabouts of Prince So-and-So, who lived down the hall and whose family had a place in the South of France that you would not believe. In the novels they were writing, the precocious and sensitive protagonist always went to Harvard; if he was troubled, he dropped out of Harvard; in the end, he returned to Harvard to complete his senior thesis. Once, I attended a wedding of a Harvard alum in his fifties, at which the best man spoke of his college days with the groom as if neither could have accomplished anything of greater importance in the intervening thirty years. By the end, I half expected him to take off his shirt and proudly display the large crimson “H” tattooed on his chest. What is this “Harvard” of which you Americans speak so reverently?

I recommend the rest of the article (and indeed, all of Gladwell's writing) - interesting and thought provoking. See his website

Jenny F. Scientist said...

What a peculiar reaction by your student- as if Harvard ideas must always be agreed with, or as if Ivy ideas were inherently better. I see this a lot where I am; we call it snobbishness.

Mike said...

IvyLeaguer's ideas are sometimes complete rubbish, as this example of a brain-fart nicely presents. In spite of the far spread overly respectful awe, they also only cook with water. Though some of their meals may be utterly delicious.

Nicole said...

As a person who has been educated first at a large public research institution and then later at a snooty Ivy League, I would have to go with the public institution when it comes to a higher level of success in my field. But there is certainly a intense, but healthy competition going on between the two institutions.

I always loved it when the students asked me where I work during the summer, you know, when they're out on break. I always enjoy the laugh on that one.

Anonymous said...

FSP, you cannot disagree with Harvard because you are not Charles Lieber, and never will be!I do not know of anyone who will be able to speak against him in public!! You are a coward who is afraid of releasing even her name.

Disclose your identity before you start talking against Harvard. You then will see what will happen to the fate of your next grant proposal if you are FSP as you claim to be. Stop the bullshit please!

Anonymous said...

sylow, you had actually promised not to come back. Please do kepp your word, will you?

Anonymous said...

And I thought that
b sylow
fellow was being sarcastic.

Anonymous said...

It is easy to throw mud at institutions and people if you are writing under an alias like FSP. It shows a sense of insecurity in general.
In real life, however, it is a completely different story. Like I said, people like Charles Lieber control the flow of research grants to professors in state universities and your funding may be cut off easily if you start talking against them. I suggest that FSP needs to explain her students these facts.
I also enjoy putting down female scientists. It is my favorite pastime so I could not resist writing the previous comment. It is a lot of fun, you know...

Anonymous said...

Sylow said "I enjoy putting female scientists down"

My mother said, when "when you put someone else down, you put yourself down"

Basically, if you hate yourself enough that you only feel good by criticising someone else to give you a temporary sense of superiority, then you're not in a very healthy place.

So who's insecure here?

FSP thanks for the blog, it's one of my favourites.

Anonymous said...


I really like this blog too! I think that in the future, maybe you should say: "A group from 'another' university thinks it works this way", in order to avoid crazies.

But now, a message for sylow:

Yeah, I know what you mean sylow. I'm a troll on some other blogs too. At first I was upset by it and wanted to deny it, but now I am content with my lot in the internet and I can honestly say that I am a 'troll'. I'm proud to be a 'troll'.

I remember the very first blog where I made fun of people under an alias and then they all ganged up on me. I continued making them madder and madder as they insulted me. But I also felt hurt at the time, especially when they called me a 'troll'.

Then I went to see a psychologist, and we set down and talked... Eventually I found out that there is nothing wrong with being a troll and that I have to embrace it and not feel any sense of shame or guilt for my actions. I am now a happy troll and I'm happy to admit it.

I thought I would just share my story with you, if you are at the same point as I was two years ago. I know a lot of 'trolls' aren't really there yet in terms of completeness and personal satisfaction. But the blogs that I troll, nobody ever gets to me now and I am a troll terror to be reckoned with.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

FSP, this is a great blog that I have only just discovered. Thanks!

In response to sylow, I would add that actually FSP's original comments about what happened ('I explained my ideas, then their's, and then why I thought I was right,' to paraphrase) seem remarkably _unlike_ throwing mud. Instead, they seem like someone trying to have a thoughtful scientific discussion, which happens all too infrequently these days. (And I do know what I'm talking about; as a journal editor myself, I've seen a lot of mud-slinging!) And in contrast to anonymous person #1, I would say do come back and tell us your crazy thoughts more often, because they will remind us how far we still have to go to obtain some rationale thinking in the world.

Ms.PhD said...

I think this student reflects the common public perception: Harvard and Ivy schools are Good, everything else is Lesser.

There are many people who never travel enough to realize that there are smart people everywhere, some of whom don't like the atmosphere and snootiness of the persistently privileged at private schools. Ironically, the reason these people don't travel enough is because they can't afford it. I think the assumption is that Smart People Like to Be With Other Smart People- which is true. We just don't all like Smart Snobby People.

Really sorry about your troll problem. I had to turn on comment moderation at my blog to deal with these types. It makes comments appear more slowly (I have to manually approve them) but I can delete repeat offenders and deprive them of their jollies.

Anonymous said...

I don't get it- this student was presumably also at a large state institution, and his father couldn't get him into Harvard as a legacy?

I know alot of Harvard alumni have an unhealthy fixation on the status of their alma mater, but I didn't know it was hereditary.

FYI, the troll known as "sylow" is almost certainly Lubos Motl.