In the past, Harvard opposed a manful conservative front to the spirit of innovation. There are, however, indications at present that despite the free dispensation of a priori philosophy and the absolute exclusion of any teachings infected by the influence of Spenser and Mill, the subtle essence of Iconoclasm pervades her walls.
First, the domain of the newsboy is restricted to an anteroom at Memorial. Next the Senior Class abolish the holy office of chaplain. Now there are whispers that the exercises at the tree on Class Day are a boyish high-school sort of performance, not untainted with rowdyism, and there are students ready to assert that an exercise which shows us up more in the light of clowns than gentlemen might better be dispensed with.
I think otherwise. Are the traditions of Class Day to go for nothing? Will not tradition, whose influence is often stronger than a state of disgraceful facts, serve us here?
Our defence of the institution will rest naturally on the spirit it assumes to embody. To the grovelling cavil that facts are the best test of theories, and that the practical effects of an institution are the best indication of its character, it is possible to oppose that most fruitful principle of the philosophy dominant here, that when the reality fails to correspond to the ideal, so much the worse for the reality.
What is precisely the ideal significance of these exercises, the practical outcome of which is more like a fracas at an Irish fair than a ceremony in which gentlemen are participating?
An analogy may perhaps be fairly established between the exercises at the tree and the Mayday festivities and the Christmas games of Merry Old England. Now, with these latter observances is associated a certain simplicity and heartiness symbolical of national traits. Their decadence, therefore, has not failed to call forth the lamentation of all good men to deplore the death of the healthy vitality and social sympathy which these institutions at once expressed and encouraged. The case is very much the same with the exercises in question. Can any ceremony be more beautiful than a merry physical rivalry, such as that about the tree, in which success is the cause of merriment, and failure of still greater merriment? Is it not a most appropriate means of taking men out of themselves, and enlivening and strengthening the sympathy between those, now about to part, who have striven together for four years in friendly but earnest emulation?
A fine conception the detractors of the institution admit; so was that, originally, of the gladiatorial games at Rome, they say, and point with derision to the actual exhibition at the tree. So much the worse for the facts, we repeat.
When the same vandal influence which assailed religion in the case or the chaplainship is seen to be at work to undermine social feeling by attacking its expression, one may well wish that his lot had been cast in that golden age (problematical, to be sure, even in Homer's time) when a warrior raised with ease a stone that in after times was to require the strength of four of the fast degenerating species.
The apostles of modern progress assert, indeed, that all individual force and manliness have not died out with the decline of some of the old observances which tended to foster these qualities. Civilization, it is said, has changed the form but not the essence of heroism. The moral of the omission of the exercises at the tree, it is claimed, would not be that the free, rollicking, glorious creature we know as the Harvard student has become a cynic, mounted on the hobby horse of "indifference," or a prig prating of "the true, the beautiful, and the good," both too superior to the common joys and sorrows of humanity to indulge in a hearty social frolic. On the contrary, the discontinuance of this ceremony would indicate the rise of an increased self-respect among the students which had made the role of rowdy unwelcome.
A plea is made in favor of the ladies and gentlemen we invite to our Class-Day celebration. The voice of purism objects that the brutal spectacle of the rush around the tree, and the slobbering, and too often maudlin embraces of the Seniors are less likely to please our friends than to cause them to blush for us.
At first sight, we must confess, a row, in which the marshals are sometimes obliged to use their batons like policemen's billies, and a series of clownish actions that would disgrace school-boys of ten years old, may not seem the fittest exhibition of ourselves we can make to our friends. We have dwelt sufficiently, however, on the fallacy of confusing facts with ideas. It needs no argument to withstand the enthusiasm of innovation. The nature of its error is apparent to all of us who have howled in the Yard in our Freshman year, who were properly drunk at the class supper in our Sophomore year, and who, finally, are determined to give a last exhibition of our culture around the tree.
M. P. P.