New movie Social Network proves the old WASP Harvard is dead
In 1952, two-thirds of Harvard applicants were admitted. The average verbal SAT score for incoming freshmen was 583. If your father went to Harvard, you had a 90 percent chance of getting in.
Harvard's president at the time, James Bryant Conant, decided to change that. Harvard could no longer be about birth and WASP breeding, he realized. It had to promote intelligence and merit. Within eight years, the average freshman had a verbal score of 678 and a math score of 695. New sorts of people were going to Harvard — more intellectual and less blueblood. But Conant didn't want his school to be home to uni-dimensional brainiacs. He hoped to retain the emphasis on character.
In "The Social Network," director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin imagine that these two Harvards still exist side by side. On top, there is the old WASP Harvard of Mayflower families, regatta blazers and Anglo-Saxon cheekbones. Underneath, there is the largely Jewish and Asian Harvard of brilliant but geeky young strivers.
This social structure will be familiar to moviegoers. From "Animal House" through "Revenge of the Nerds," it has provided the basic plot line for most collegiate movies. But as sociology, of course, it's completely fanciful.
The old WASP Harvard is dead. As Nathan Heller writes in an intelligent blog post called "You Can't Handle the Veritas," (Sorkin also wrote "A Few Good Men") most kids at Harvard today come from pressure-cooker suburban schools. The old clubs are "vestigial curios." Computer geeks do not spend their days desperately trying to join the Protestant Establishment because people born in 1984 don't know what it is.
Still, if the "The Social Network" is bad sociology, it is very good psychology. The movie does a brilliant job dissecting the sorts of people who become stars in an information economy and a hypercompetitive, purified meritocracy. It deftly captures what many of them have and what they lack, what they long for and what they end up with.
The character loosely based on Mark Zuckerberg, a co-founder of Facebook, is incredibly smart. Over the years, movies like "Good Will Hunting" have delighted in showing acts of mental superheroism. Educated audiences seem to experience wish-fulfillment ecstasy while watching their heroes effortlessly leap hard math problems in a single bound. Zuckerberg does that a few times in "The Social Network."
But he is also intense. Success these days isn't just a product of intelligence. It's the brain and the thyroid together: IQ married to energy and a relentless desire to be the best. In this way, the Zuckerberg character is as elitist as the old Harvardians, just on different grounds.
What he is lacking is even more striking. The Zuckerberg character is without social and moral skills. It's not that he's a bad person. He's just never been house-trained. He's been raised in a culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct. The character becomes a global business star without getting a first-grade education in interaction.
There is a propelling mismatch between Zuckerberg's intellectual skills and his social and moral ones. Desperately, he longs to fill the hole. In the film's first scene, he tries with a one-way verbal barrage that is designed to impress but ends up repelling the girl he loves. Then he does it by creating the social network itself — trying to use the medium he understands to conquer the medium he doesn't.
In Fincher and Sorkin's handling, Zuckerberg is a sympathetic character because despite all his bullying, he deeply feels what he lacks, and works tirelessly to fill the hole. In a world of mentor magnets and eager-to-please climbers, he is relentlessly inner-directed. But this is a movie propelled by deficiency, not genius.
The central tension of the picture is between Zuckerberg's outward success and his inner failure. It seems to be a tragic and recurring feature of life that the people who work to design great products for the golden circle find after they are finished that they are still unable to join it.
In the 20th century, immigrant Hollywood directors made hyperpatriotic movies that defined American life but found after fame and fortune they were still outsiders. In this movie, Zuckerberg designs a fabulous social network, but still has his reciprocity problem. He is still afflicted by his anhedonic self-consciousness, his failure to communicate, his inability to lose himself in the throngs at a party or the capacity to deserve the love he craves.
Many critics have compared "The Social Network" to "Citizen Kane." But I was reminded of the famous last scene in "The Searchers," in which the John Wayne character is unable to join the social bliss he has created. The character gaps that propel some people to do something remarkable can't be overcome simply because they have managed to change the world.