September 1969: I got on a plane in Boise and 12 hours later stepped off the MTA at Harvard Square. I'd transferred to Harvard from the College of Idaho--one of 25 transfer students Harvard admitted that year, out of 1,200 applicants.
I had beaten the odds with my application essay, which revealed I'd been the only one in the first grade in the Stanley elementary school. It gave grim details about helping my father trap and skin beaver and coyotes, and about catching salmon in the river behind our house, and killing a deer every fall since I was 10. It described building log fences, picking rock and chainsawing trees. It explained I'd harnessed horses to a plow and dynamited boulders during high-school summers when my father built trails in the Sawtooths.
I was admitted as an anthropological specimen. My skills, such as they were, hadn't been seen at Harvard for a hundred years, if ever.
Three years later, Harvard mailed my diploma to me. I'd missed graduation. I was working in Idaho, trying to pay off the $1,200 remaining on my college loans, which hung over me like a sword. One of the family legacies I brought to Harvard was a horror of debt, which has served me as well as anything I learned in its classes.
I made it through those classes without learning as much as I should have. I had attended Louie Attebery's writing and literature classes at the College of Idaho, and as a result, found myself a better writer than most of my Harvard classmates. Reading through the American literature canon was pure recreation for me, even if writing a 20-page paper the night before it was due was not. But my papers read well, even when mediocre in conception and low in content. Good writing covered a multitude of sins, as far as my professors were concerned. I got A-minuses.
Grading was not the only arena where Harvard lacked moral authority. It was being rocked by demonstrations of students and faculty against the Vietnam War, by an armed takeover of its administrative buildings by militant black students, and by its own eager complicity in the excesses of the Cold War. For decades, Harvard had sent its people into government and intelligence agencies, and they had screwed up big-time. Henry Kissinger was only the latest in a line of evil military-industrial geniuses with Harvard diplomas.
The Vietnam War—and the tenured monsters it spawned—wrecked Harvard's image of itself. It no longer saw itself as the foundry of American character. It no longer thought its education guaranteed wisdom, meaning or salvation.
Its students—sons and daughters of wealthy professionals—had begun to dress like Russian factory workers, circa 1917. They occupied buildings and defecated in the corner offices of eminent Harvard administrators. When Harvard's President Pusey called in the Cambridge cops during a student takeover of University Hall, the resulting broken skulls and bashed ribs revealed a town-gown resentment few administrators had ever noticed. Centuries' worth of elite sensibility went out the window, along with academic records, donor files and delicate unfinished novels.
I avoided demonstrations and never occupied a building. It wasn't because I didn't see the war was a cock-up, but because I didn't think an Idaho boy's protests would make any difference.
When the National Guard shot and killed students at Kent State in May 1970, Harvard declared an early summer. During what would have been finals week, I was on the shore of Lake Lowell, drinking beer, listening to a garage band play Sympathy for the Devil and telling my freshman roommate that Harvard was more exciting than the C of I. Also, you didn't have to take finals.
Even after I received my Harvard diploma, I had no illusions that I was educated. I had taken classes from brilliant professors, but had wandered all over the catalog, following whim and impulse or simply looking for a few good books to read. My education didn't land me a high-paying East Coast job, not that I had looked for one. I had decided to stay in Idaho and spend my 20s and 30s filling in the gaps in my knowledge.
It took longer than that. I'm still filling gaps, and I'm still in Idaho. Both good things, I've realized. I was lucky to attend Harvard when it lacked the self-confidence to know what was best for me or to think it could deliver it. When institutions think they have a lock on the truth, the human part of human beings gets destroyed, no matter how benign those institutions pretend to be.
I've been back once. Decades after my missed graduation, I again got off the subway at Harvard Square. Harvard looked the same, but its moment of doubt and pain was over. In its place was a cheerful institutional complacency, augmented by a burgeoning endowment, amnesia concerning the Vietnam War and the confident anticipation of hundreds of thousands of focused, obedient and high-achieving applicants—few of them of any interest to the Anthropology Department.
Harvard Square itself was different. There were people standing around, looking a little insecure, a little homesick and like they had a lot to learn. I realized they were Harvard students seen from the outside. The people hadn't changed—my perspective on them had. I hoped those kids wouldn't believe everything they were told.