Hopping and hoping into privilege; Thoughts on “Levinson of Harvard” by L.M. Vincent

Levinson of Harvard by L.M. Vincent

What a coincidence: the day after I finished reading a book that portrayed the difficulties of becoming a “college man” at Harvard in the early 20th century if one does not come from a certain social circle, today, a news item caught my eye: “Education Department opens investigation into Harvard’s legacy admissions“. The article linked above states that “students with legacy ties are up to seven times more likely to be admitted to Harvard, can make up nearly a third of a class, and that about 70% are white. For the Class of 2019, about 28% of the class were legacies with a parent or other relative who went to Harvard.” It sounds like, despite lots of advancement, young people from not privileged backgrounds are facing the same issues that the book describes a century later. If you have a passion for social justice and an interest in history, you will equally enjoy the book and be exasperated by the lack of significant progress.

The book, Levinson of Harvard, by L.M. Vincent  is set on two and a half timelines. It is framed from a 2008 point of view, but the majority is set in 1969, when one Levinson enters as a freshman and is researching the veracity and details of another Levinson’s, his grandfather’s time at the same institution. The latter happened around 1906. The whether, how and why of the grandfather’s attendance at Harvard is a bona fide mystery and you can read the whole book as a riddle to be solved and you won’t be disappointed. Reading the slow uncovering of the multi-layered secret is a delightful process, because Vincent’s storytelling ability is top-notch, and he manages to keep the reader engaged throughout the entire book. The fact that some of the turns of the story were predictable didn’t take away from the fun at all, as other twists I could not guess.

The most amazing and revelative aspect of the book for me was the description and manifestations of social stratification in action. I was aware on an abstract level that institutions with long traditions tend to protect them. Traditions often reflect not just the culture they were born in but also the prevalent biases. As times and cultural norms change those very biases and prejudices that were considered positive at the time can become obsolete and backward. Due to the nature of traditions these get amplified and safeguarded too over time. And that’s exactly where conflict can develop between conservative forces (who would like to conserve the status quo) and the unprivileged ones who are left out.

What am I–meaning the book is–talking about? Money and religion. In the 19th century it “the university came to define membership in one of the most elite groups in the country: the Boston upper class.” (Source) The first institution of higher learning established in what is today the United States rightfully prided itself on admitting exceptional students even if they did not have the means to study. However just because the doors were open it didn’t mean that they were fully accepted by all social circles. As it was painfully and vividly described in the book. Similarly, the institution was also remarkably open to Jews and other non-Christians. 83 years after its founding it had a Jewish faculty member, Judah Monis, but he had to convert to Christianity to get the post. In 1939, exactly 300 years after its foundation Harry Levin became the first full professor, who was Jewish. However the social status of Jews at Harvard was not equal to others, they could not break the unbroken rules easily, as this quote from the book attests: “I can’t imagine ANY Jew at Harvard in those days being a varsity sportsman.”

A Theft of Privilege: Harvard and the Buried History of a Notorious Secret Society

You may think that the description of events and secret clubs and closed social circles is all fiction, coming from the imagination of a novelist. As I was reading the book I kept wondering to what extent the glass ceilings and impenetrable nature of ingroups was true. Eventually I learned that this book was inspired by the non-fiction book of the same author, titled “A Theft of Privilege: Harvard and the Buried History of a Notorious Secret Society”. In it he meticulously researched and documented not just the titular secret society, but also the social atmosphere of Harvard. From then on I accepted that the novel’s background setup is as accurate as it can be. 

So what should an exceptionally smart, poor Jewish boy do when he gets humiliated by a few wealthy, spoiled students? He sets out a goal to become accepted as an equal at the most prestigious university’s most prestigious circles. He wanted to be a “college man” and not just an educated one. He doesn’t have any criminal intention or want to cause any harm. This is his story and his grandson’s who uncovers the buried story and shares it with his own children. As stories go, this is complex, character driven, fascinating and eye opening. As a social science case study goes it is also captivating.

I have two personal reactions to the book as well. Librarians are depicted with great care, admiration as true and compassionate heroes. Being a librarian I am quite partial to them, so I tremendously appreciate the positive characterization. This summer, while I was reading the book, my stepdaughter had a dilemma which college to attend in the fall. She got accepted to a private Ivy League college and to an outstanding public university. The latter was her dream school. Almost every second page I felt like sharing a quote from the book to her, so she would not be surprised by the kind of interactions and clubs and events she might encounter at the Ivy League school as an outsider. We are not from old money and not from local established families, so I felt like preparing her for possible negative experiences. At the same time I wanted her to go to this school and not the public one, because I hoped she would have a chance to build social connections there that could help her in life and the kind she may not be able to get at the other school. I ended up not sharing any of the quotes that might have deterred her even more from the Ivy school. And she ended up at her dream school.

Disclaimer: I have received a digital copy of this book and a small amount from the author which did not affect my review in any way.

Year first published: 2023

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