To go or not to go: The freakonomics of the school reunion

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine: Journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors across the UK or by subscription.

“My generation thought we’d fix the world for free. We were LBJ (Lyndon B J cohnson) technocrats.” Waiting for other guests to arrive for a radio programme, I’ve got chatting to the unassuming social scientist who is smiling at the memory of youthful ambition. Professor Steven Levitt is the economist half of the hugely successful Freakonomics partnership, with journalist Stephen Dubner, that’s spawned a range of global best selling books which have made economics cool and fun. I don’t think he’d mind being described as the geekier of the two. He’s also professor of economics at the University of Chicago and runs a consultancy that offers the Freakonomics style of advice to governments as well as corporations.

But we are discussing a dilemma. Levitt and I graduated the same year 1989 and he is wondering about going back to his undergraduate university reunion. It’s not any reunion either. It’s the 25th. And it’s not any University. It’s Harvard.

Harvard likes high achievers. Every year it produces a special bound leather volume – the Red Book – for which alumni are invited to submit their life updates. Then, those who care to, can buy a copy and play the Gloat and Envy game.

Levitt has always steered clear. He shakes his head and admits “I’ve never gone back.” But this year all his friends, his “geekiest” friends, say he should, he must. Because they love that he’s one of them and he made it. So what did the generation of ‘89 go on to do?

As at Britain’s elite universities, many of Levitt’s Harvard contemporaries went into high finance as Masters of the Universe on Wall Street or in the City of London. Levitt says highly lucrative corporate law was the biggest draw. But age and inner yearning do strange things. Levitt says, over the years, he picked up on the grapevine the sense that “corporate lawyers also seem to be the unhappiest.”

“You know what was most surprising?” says Levitt, recalling the expectation that they’d go off and change the world: “How many of my year went back to Cleveland Ohio. Or wherever and became lawyers and doctors and professionals in their home towns.”

Levitt was pinpointing, in an entirely positive way, the gap between the Harvard bombast students heard all the time from the institution, and the reality. To take a great education and use it in one’s community wherever that might be was something to be admired.

Those of us who distrust reunions, I suspect, were desperate to get away and uncover our possibilities in a larger world; and have a genuine dislike of being put back in a labelled box.

But others, perhaps those who’d been beauty queens and the coolest dudes, secretly mourn the loss of their student days. John Waters famously tracked down the  buddy Deane Baltimore TV show high school dancers, still sharing that bond in their late 30s for a brilliant and  sweet article for Baltimore magazine that inspired his film Hairspray.  Less positively and yet to be analysed by the Freakonomists, has been the measurable Friends Reunited/Facebook effect since the late 1990s on divorce rates for those seeking an escape from middle age.

By chance I found myself at a reunion of sorts a few days after my conversation with Levitt. It was an award ceremony for alumni from my old girls’ schools association. Yet the highlight was finding myself not with the high-achieving grownups, but in a side-room gossiping with all the sixth formers; even though I am so old that, as one 17 year old told me: “I grew up from a baby watching you on the news!” Before I knew it, and without the excuse of being drunk, I found myself pouring out unrequested life advice for them, Kirsty Allsopp-style. They were polite and let me and I left with a smile for the life of possibilities ahead of them.

So did Levitt go to his Harvard reunion? It seems he did, where according to the website programme they got talks on parenting in a complicated world and from the eminent doctors of their generation on “How to stop things falling off” in your 40s. I hope he writes about it.

I prefer to watch reunions on the screen. The year I left school (1986) was luckily memorialized forever in two great films Romy and Michelle’s High school Reunion and Grosse Pointe Blank. And as Minnie Driver said in the latter: “Everybody’s coming back to take stock of their lives. You know what I say? Leave your livestock alone.”

Further reading/listening

The Forum: BBC Word Service (Jun 2014): Challenging assumptions  The programme recording that spawned this post.

The Harvard Red Book: New York Times feature (2012)

Harvard 1989 25th reunion website

Jailed: the executive who asked a hitman to kill her ex (Daily Mail 2007) – A Friends Reunited linked crime I covered as a reporter for Channel 4 News

Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (Chapter 9 is the article on the Buddy Deane dancers)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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