“The 25 Most Famous Living Harvard Alumni” and the State of Fame in America

In honor of Harvard’s 377th anniversary, Pamela Engel has compiled the following list of Harvard’s “25 Most Famous Living Harvard College Alumni” for Business Insider:

Jeremy Lin
Rivers Cuomo
Natalie Portman
Mark Zuckerberg
Christopher Nowinski
Rashida Jones
Matt Damon
Mira Sorvino
Conan O’Brien
Nicholas D. Kristof
Andy Borowitz
Jim Cramer
Steve Ballmer
John Roberts
Yo-Yo Ma
Ben Bernanke
Lloyd Blankfein
Bill Gates
Al Gore
Tommy Lee Jones
John Lithgow
Terrence Mallick
Ted Kaczinski
Henry Kissinger
Sumner Redstone

Like most lists of this type, this one is fascinating because it seems so eclectic, if not very arbitrary.

First, I wonder if the word “famous” can be said to have any meaning if it can be applied to Rivers Cuomo, Christopher Nowinski, Rashida Jones, or Andy Borowitz. Moreover, given the transience of celebrity in the entertainment industry, I wonder how many readers can name a film in which Mira Sorvino or even John Lithgow have appeared (I’d even allow television series in his case). And although Nicholas D. Kristoff is certainly a very respected journalist for one of the most prominent newspapers in the world, “famous” still seems at least a bit of a stretch.

Second, there is no apparent order to the list. I initially suspected that it was organized from least to most famous, or from least to most lasting significance, but then how to explain that Andy Borowitz comes seven places after Mark Zuckerberg, or that Tommy Lee Jones and John Lithgow are listed after John Roberts, Yo-Yo Ma, Ben Bernanke, Bill Gates, and Al Gore.

Third, the list includes a very curious mixture of areas of endeavor: two athletes (Lin, Nowinski—who is described as the first professional wrestler attended Harvard), eleven entertainers (two musicians—Rivers Cuomo of the alternative rock group Weezer and Yo-Yo Ma; six actors— Matt Damon, Rashida Jones, Tommie Lee Jones, John Lithgow, Natalie Portman, and Mira Sorvino; one film director—Terrence Mallick; and two television “personalities”—Jim Cramer and Conan O’Brien), two journalists (Andy Borowitz and Nicholas D. Kristoff), five business leaders (Steve Ballmer, Lloyd Blankfein, Bill Gates, Sumner Redstone, and Mark Zuckerberg), and four political figures (Ben Bernanke, Al Gore, Henry Kissinger, and John Roberts), and one serial killer (Ted Kaczynski). Given Harvard’s stature, it is surprising that no scientists, doctors, educators, social theorists, literary figures (beyond the journalists) or artists are on the list. But, given the current state of celebrity culture, it is, perhaps, more surprising that no political commentators, fashion models, or reality television stars are on the list.

Fourth, the list suggests the leveling effect of our celebrity culture on individual distinction and historical significance. I would defy anyone to find another list that includes Jeremy Lin, Rivers Cuomo, Christopher Nowinski, Rashida Jones, and Andy Borowitz and John Roberts, Al Gore, Henry Kissinger, and Ben Bernanke. Or, simply a list that includes both Rivers Cuomo and Yo-Yo Ma.

Lastly, eight U.S. presidents have graduated from Harvard: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Barack O’Bama. Bush and O’Bama are obviously very much still alive. Although I recognize that the current ferocity of political partisanship may lead some to object to the inclusion of both men on the list, surely a list that includes the Unabomber can include both of these presidents.

2 thoughts on ““The 25 Most Famous Living Harvard Alumni” and the State of Fame in America

  1. Presidents Bush and Obama cannot be on the list because they attended graduate schools at Harvard, while the list is clearly entitled the most famous Harvard College Alumni. Thus, the exclusion of the living Presidents is not a political statement, or a statement on the current status of politics, but rather it is simply because they are ineligible.

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