The Ultimate Final Club
Last Saturday, on the occasion of the FDR Memorial Lecture & Dinner, I spent the evening in the FDR Suite. You might think, as the head of the Suite Foundation, that I would avail myself of this incredible privilege fairly often. But if I spend one or two nights a year there, that’s a lot. The reality is that I have a very comfortable bed of my own just twenty minutes to the west, and obligations of hearth and home usually mandate my return each evening. This time however, the lateness of the hour, combined with a general state of extreme fatigue after a very successful event, meant that I spent the night at Adams.
For those of you who haven’t had the experience of staying in the dorms over a reunion, I can tell you that overnighting at the House as an adult is a slightly strange affair. Now granted, with its gaslight interiors, working fireplace, deep clawfoot tub, and custom bedding, staying in the Suite is nothing akin to roughing it in a bare room on a college mattress. Still, some things come back from your College past: the familiar smells of dust and floor wax, the insane clanking of the old heating system in the middle of the night, the muffled voices of the students next door up to Heaven-knows-what. (Just don’t let me hear you too clearly, please.) It’s at once both oddly familiar and oddly disconcerting. It makes you realize how much you, and the world, have changed since you were eighteen.
And one thing that has really, really, changed, at least since my days in the 1980s, is the amount of activity around the Final Clubs. These entities, made almost irrelevant in the 60s and 70s, have suddenly rebounded in popularity, fueled mostly by their ability as private clubs to flaunt University rules and serve alcohol (illegally) to their underage members. The ugly secret is that while the Houses are now dry, the Clubs are afloat, and raising the legal drinking age to 21 has done nothing but drive college-age drinkers underground to off-campus venues. It’s the new Prohibition of our times, with predictable results. Binge drinking has soared to record heights on campuses across the country, including Harvard, as students seek locations to party freely and drink as much as they can while they can. The FDR Suite is particularly well placed to observe the spectacle: the large French doors front onto Mt. Auburn Street, the historical center of these clubs, and even a few minutes at our second floor perch on a warm weekend night will reveal wandering clusters of oddly jacketed & be-tied young men accompanied by young ladies in tiny, tight “cocktail” dresses – of a length and style my generation would have considered the exclusive domain of street walkers, but which now unfortunately seem quite common – heading off for a night of merriment, liquid or otherwise. (In a perverse twist, the clubs have clung to their outdated dress requirements while entirely tossing out the gentlemanly behavior that once mandated them, thus easily marking their denizens.) What happens behind those club doors? Well, if you’ve seen that famous party scene in the movie Social Network, you’ll have a pretty accurate idea. Trust me. It isn’t pretty.
(And how do I know all this, you may be wondering? Well here’s a cautionary tale that should freeze every undergraduate in their tracks, but often fails to impress until it’s far too late: when friends tag you by name in compromising photos on Facebook and other social media, they are essentially publishing your antics to the web where a whole host of people – like, say, future employers, or say, editors of alumni magazines – can suddenly see you in all your unholy glory, pretty much forever… Caveat studiosus! And yes, of course, these partiers still comprise a minority of our students, but if you spend a Saturday night in the Suite, you’ll realize they are a growing and extremely vocal minority, especially towards 3AM.)
So what, as alumni, can or should we do about all this? Well, aside from seriously reassessing the drinking-age issue at the Statehouse level, we might well consider being more supportive of, and more involved with, our current House members. The twin pillar of the Final Clubs’ appeal – and this goes equally for the new fraternities and sororities that are springing up at Harvard with similar party records – is the social connections they pledge to provide. The “Old boy” alumni of the Clubs provide counsel, advice, even employment opportunities to student members as side-benefits of society, and there is absolutely no reason why we Adams alumni couldn’t do the same for our own “members.” We could easily establish an Adams alumni/student nexus that would allow current students to publish needs and alumni to publish opportunities exclusively for our House members. Such a network would go a long way to stealing the wind from the still-all-male preserve of the Final Clubs – while solidifying the relevancy of the House structure in the post-randomization age. (Not to mention giving my student colleague Antone Martinho ’13 less reason to bemoan the homogenization of Harvard.) The primary purpose of the House system, after all, was to create manageable sub-units of the larger student body, where members could interact and learn from each other in an intimate setting. The Final Clubs are merely smaller units still, with the same purpose, their only distinction being that their alumni are encouraged to remain active and supportive of their mini-alma maters for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps it’s time that we take a page from the same playbook. We Adamsians are six thousand strong, and we could make quite a formidable club, if we tried.
Pledges, care to step forward?