The Sum and The Parts
(Archie Epps is Assistant Dean of Harvard College. This essay was delivered to the first meeting of the University Health Services Luncheon on September 22,1969. These luncheons, held once a month, bring together the Deans, members of the Bureau of Study Council, the Office of Graduate and Career Plans, Senior Tutors, the staff of the Health Services and clergy in the United Ministry.)
I wish to ask several questions at the beginning of the year that require our attention.
What is the place of the individual in a university community?
How may a university and its physicians and administrators help the individual in times of severe change?
What is our view of the Harvard undergraduate? Does the humanity of our view get translated into policies and practices that honor high principle and solve the contradictions which those principles incur?
Has our public stance on moral questions now in debate, such as drugs, prejudiced our capacity to help individuals in need of excellent medical care and simple friendship?
I begin with the assumption that we have not pondered these questions thoroughly. And I must begin with this assumption if only, because, as one lives a little longer, one sees how elusive good intentions are within the web of institutions. The single most difficult factor in our relations with the students at Harvard, as they come forward to private places for help, is the appearance of a new sensibility among those students which defies our traditional ideas, manner of approach and old solutions.
Despite the predominance of group action at Havard nowadays, this sensibility has the individual as its major point of reference and departure. I think enchantment with the individual found its flowering as a force in modern history with the existentialist movement, with the popularity of Kierkegaard, Dostoevesky, Sartre, Camus; and in this country (in some way) with Salinger; for blacks with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the poetry of Le Roi Jones and the social criticism of Eldridge Cleaver; and in Southern literature with the heroes and anti-heros of William Faulkner.
In poctry, this new sensibility and enchantment with the individual is found in the poems of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and others. The Lowell poetry is confessional poetry, I have thought, and recently I bought a record of his autobiographical poems. I think these poems told me how he came to wrest a new view of the world from his old background. And, as I remember his poetry, with the fragmentary recall we use to remember such literature, these themes come to mind: love, anger at unintended cruelty, cynicism, a restlessness in the presence of old portraits, and a cry that someone discover a new order and resting place for the soul.
When I think of the work we should be doing under this roof it is with Lowell's ideas as signposts. The points of reference suggested by Lowell are, I have always thought, the pivotal ideas of the work of the Health Services, and a large part of the work that goes on in the several Dean's offices at Harvard College. This work has to do with the personal and private aspects of education. I do not mean to say that Lowell has it all right in detail, but I do think that by understanding the mood of his poetry we may discover the incredible fragility of the individual-alone, or as a member of a group, a generation, of an Establishment or the anti-Establishment. For a time we lived apart from the ebb and flow of the larger society and those things that put men on the rack. The student generation now with us insists, quite correctly, that the academic institution has enormous power and that we should be careful about what we think and about what we believe and do. And the realization of the scope of this power creates a responsibility to the edge of the stone's ripple.
Let me illustrate some aspect of what I am trying to say by discussing our attitude toward drugs. It seems to me that in vigorously condemning in public statements those who use drugs civil authorities and university officials have poisoned the air too much. I do not question at all the wisdom of condemning the use of drugs in private session with a student, or in group discussion, but it is essential that the cluster of ideas at Harvard about drugs contain the idea that when any student needs care and help he may receive it here without fearing that a Dean will be called first and the doctor will care for him last. The services under this roof exist for the use of the student and not as a convenience to disciplinarians.
Is the humanity of our views in this community translated into policies and practices? The humanity I refer to here is yet an unexamined idea in this little essay. The word humane is to be found in a great deal of liberal talk. It seems in a bland definition that one is kind and considerate, and, of course, that is not enough. And this definition certainly does not reflect the new sensibility to which I referred. The way one must "come on" nowadays to be "with it" is a style that is more crazy than the liberal way would have it.
Let me read you a passage from Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice which says something about what is to be communicated so that people really know that you think it matter's what happens to them. Cleaver writes: "You have tossed me a lifeline. If you only knew how I'd been drowning, how I'd considered that I'd gone down for the third time long ago, how I've kept thrashing around in the water simply because I still felt the impulse to fight back and the tug of a distant shore, how I sat in a rage that night with the ... burden of your name pounding in my brain ... and out of what instinct did I decide to write to you? It was a gamble on an equation constructed in delirium, and it was right."
The Cleaver quotation contains a humanity that is different from the formal definition I gave a few seconds ago, but he might say, if asked to define humanity, that his version of it meant in some sense care, concern, and kindness. But we do not live by definitions, rather by the individual will and style that is a part of us, and by which we cope with the world and meet the people who come our way. I think the new sensibility asks that we talk to people in our offices or the Harvard dining halls sitting on the edge of our chairs.
Let me come finally to the moral questions now in debate. At the moment, everyone at Harvard is concerned and worried in some way about the political course that Harvard. All take; whether we go to the right or to the left or hold to a course that will insure the preservation of a liberal definition of academic freedom; and a definition that says we should live by tolerance, and every man should have his say and should enjoy free access to all ideas and enjoy free movement. The debate over political questions is of very secondary interest to me as I meet with those of you who are in the professions represented here today. The questions in debate for us should have the individual at the center, not whether he belongs to a Woodstock group, or what have you. To my mind, the debate has before it the following questions:
Does the very act of publicly judging the social life of men and women younger than ourselves, separate us from them to such an extent that we ought to stop our pronouncements?
What would be the consequence of a policy that claimed no expertise in the prevention of drug traffic and and emphasized education and care?
What is to be said to the black whose personal sense of order has come loose because everyone wishes him to embrace "blackness" and he is afraid and wishes to be left alone?
What does one say to the individual black who must wrest his own sense of power from the white man?
What is to be said to a white student who is on the rack because we adults have left him a guilt derived from living in an incredioly violent, racist, and cruel world?
I remember a phrase from a Lowell poem that had him complaining that when he found himself troubled and looking around for some way out, all he saw were "useless things." The task for the Harvard administration has to do with throwing out those useless things by responding to that sensibility sometimes illuminated for us by a single line.
The trouble now is that no one is sure what people are supposed to be learning and how the emotional and poltical dimensions fit in with teaching and receptivity to it. I have a hunch Harvard is at one of those his torical turning points and something new will emerge from the mix of classical and modern Harvard that will include the quest for new formulations of knowledge and the yearning to act out of conscience.
The individual in an institution is already within a setting that is contra dictory to his total self, and will not satisly his every characteristic wish and want. What must happen then, I imagine, is that we will all weave a crazy-quilt pattern of influence on the social, cultural, and political life of the university, which will take shape through the policies we support or oppose. The pattern is probably woven along certain lines. The recurring questions for the man who sits behind the desk are: What are those lines? What is their substance and form and how shall I discover this? Who will help me understand the kind of university we need in contemporary America?
At Harvard we find a concord of sensibilities that call for some degree of excellence, seriousness about one's part in the enterprise and uncertainty about Harvard when it is a system. We all have heard of the Harvard arrogance, but I think much more characteristic is the antithesis, the questioning of this place by people who have been here a long while, and by those who have just come. I think this questioning is the way to insure that the individual and political questions at Harvard will be met with passion and reason. Perhaps the suspense created by the question will produce an answer.