Liability & Membership, Ltd.

April 24, 2012

Lifted from Harvard’s The Crimson, and thereafter chopped up and re-arranged:

According to the scholar Nathan C. Shiverick, Harvard ’52, the leisure bred by wealth creates a demand for an outlet to pass the time and expend energy and aggression. The conclusion of the Civil War ushered in great fortunes for some Bostonians. But Shiverick argues that more lies behind the phenomenon. In the 1880s, when the Irish gained municipal control of the city, the Brahmins were politically disenfranchised. The former ruling class of Boston reasserted itself by creating private charitable corporations and a network of hospitals, schools, almshouses. It was more than nobless oblige; it was a desire to recover some control over the city. Boston’s clubs were [and still are to some extent] the “caucus rooms of the city’s financial and charitable leaders.” The Brahmin establishment felt impelled to play some part in local government. As they had lost control of municipal institutions, they also lost their trust in them. It was this distrust that led to the incorporation of museums, orchestras and other charitable ventures. It was this power grab that lay behind the founding of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library.

Several of Boston's clubs.

The creation of the private corporation is essential to the structure of the clubs, says Shiverick. It allowed for the formation of partnerships with limited liability: each partner would not have to risk his whole fortune if disaster struck in the case of, say bankruptcy or lawsuits. In short, the corporation could be used not only to finance a railroad, but also, an orchestra, an orphanage, a polo club equipped with an imported, famous French chef or, as Shiverick notes, a “caucus room.” Thus, business, charitable and social interests all merged into a giant Brahmin front at the turn of the century. That front, moving with the intention of regaining some control of the city, mobilized itself in the clubrooms of Beacon Street mansions. And the old boys’ network, still unassailable, was born.

So exclusive is the Somerset Club, that one night in January 1945 when the club caught fire, the firemen ran through the front entrance before Joseph, the club’s legendary majordomo, ordered them to go around back though the servant’s entrance while he continued serving members their dinner.

The Algonquin is the most grandiose of the city’s clubs, the only one with a house designed especially for its own use, rather than a converted residence. Its massive granite exterior displays two stories of porticoed balconies. The inside boasts an enormous second floor reading room and a massive formal dining room on the fourth floor with 50-foot vaulted ceilings. The fifth floor offers sleeping accomodations. Unlike clubs like the Somerset, the Algonquin Club, since its founding in 1886, is all about business. The Club was founded by General Charles H. Taylor, the same man who resurrected the Boston Globe.

The Tavern (1884) is said to be so exclusive that the man who proposed forming the club, a teacher of Italian descent, was denied admission. Sort of. Another story tells how a man who ate with his toes created the club. Not quite. In fact, a group of young artists and like-minded Gilded Age Bostonian gentlemen would often meet together to dine at some of the restaurants in the Park Street area. One day a troup of vaudville freaks shoved their way through the entrance of the restaurant and demanded service. The “armless wonder” ate from his plate with his toes. The founding Taverners were appalled. One man, an Italian teacher, proposed that they find their own room. The group liked the idea, not him.


The College Years

April 2, 2012

Your editorial staff was (Were? What if the staff numbers exactly one member? Anyway:) recently enmeshed in a discussion regarding the practical job skills with which students graduate colleges and universities. The distinction is made between the two types of institutions because they are worlds apart and unto themselves, a point which became quickly apparent during the above-mentioned enmeshing: colleges are smaller (sometimes miniscule) and keen on well-rounded intellectuals, akin to cultural finishing schools, whereas universities tend toward the large (sometimes gargantuan), and are more interested in productive graduates: those who can do a job.

There are benefits and dangers to each school of thought (specifically, that liberal arts colleges turn out yuppie free-thinkers who can’t actually accomplish much but think, while universities manufacture bland worker bees who don’t know art from an aardvark). Whichever type of education is better depends entirely on the student seeking it, what he wants to do and how he best learns.

The educational component aside, there remains a different, equally important part of a college (or university) education. Academics can be come by at most decent schools. One need not attend M.I.T. to get a good handle on math. What cannot be come by is the cultural finishing referenced previously. The college years are the most formative of any graduate’s life, and the people, places and things with which they are surrounded outside the classroom will have a much greater impact on their mature identities than will whatever coursework in Renaissance masters was available.

And so the two types of education must again be compared: regardless of the type or style of education a student might be best off pursuing, in which type of place will he best grow up? Surrounded by which type of people?

As before, the answer varies by case. What’s good for the goose can poison the gander. Still, it behoves every student, when making applications, to do his best to settle on a place filled with the type of person he wants to be, who is going the places he wants to go. As John Locke wrote: “Education begins the gentleman, but reading and good company and reflection must finish him.” Matt Damon puts it more cynically, but no less accurately, in School Ties:

“The right schools, the right grades, the right friends… these are the keys to the kingdom.”