Exclusion, Merit & A Brief History of Boston’s Elite Institutions: A Teaching Tool

Balraj Gill Dec 05, 2013
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The starting point of this project was my consideration of President Obama’s February 12, 2013 State of the Union address in which he said: “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country—the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead…” The remainder of the quote borrows from Martin Luther King, Jr.—that you can get ahead “no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, or who you love.” This is a wonderful aspiration. What concerns me most, however, is the general idea that the basic bargain of the United States is getting ahead through hard work and meeting responsibilities. The problem is that the rhetoric of this basic bargain elides history; it forgets that in the nineteenth century there were, for example, enslaved people working hard at, among other things, picking cotton, a commodity that was the driving force of the nineteenth century global economy. Where does that hard work fit into this basic bargain?


With this question in mind, I have created a teaching tool that invites the user to critically engage with ideas around exclusivity, meritocracy, and privilege, using Boston’s elite institutions as an entry point. The site goes into a brief history of Boston’s elite cultural institutions, focusing on Harvard, the Somerset and Union clubs, and the Boston Athenaeum. I parallel it with the changing demographics of the city and the desire among elite Bostonians to establish publicly visible zones of exclusivity. At the end of the history lesson, I come back to Obama’s State of the Union and ask pointed questions related to exclusivity and meritocracy and invite the user to grapple with some or all of the questions I ask by drawing on the lesson and the assigned readings.


I chose this medium so that the user has to think about his or her views at the outset. I would use this kind of platform as part of a lecture course to get students thinking about and engaging with these ideas before they come to class. It is not meant to be a comprehensive lesson, but a supplement to other theoretical and historical readings that would be assigned.

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About the Authors

Balraj Gill

Balraj Gill‘s ever-evolving interests include 19th-century U.S. history, slavery and capitalism, class formation, women’s history, and the history of universities. She is part of the Harvard and Slavery Research Project, which seeks to uncover and raise awareness about the historical relationship between Harvard and slavery. Balraj holds an A.B. from Mount Holyoke College.