Three Ways to Go Wrong
Harvard, My Feet, and the Fear
September: I met my roommate twice the day I came to Harvard. He came in, shook my hand, and rushed out about half an hour after I arrived. He worked on the dorm crew, and he had been here a week-he'd also grabbed the single bedroom, the best desk, etc.
Two hours later, he came back in and introduced himself again. "You must be one of my roommates. My name's Pitman. I met the other guy a couple of hours ago. He looks a lot like you, actually."
"I'm the same guy."
"Oh. Sorry." He retired to his room.
Down the hall, a group of guys were talking to some girls from Lesley who climbed up the fire escape and asked if they could come in. One of them asked me if I wanted to join the discussion, I sat for a while and listened. I found I didn't have much to say, so I went back to my room and lay on my bed and read Lolita. My mother made the bed before she left, telling me to keep it neat. I knew when she said that that I would not make it again until parents' weekend.
That night, some of the guys on the floor came into our room. One of them was from South Carolina, and I was delighted to meet someone from close to home. He and his roommate, who went to school in England, drank a case of beer that night.
"What are you going to major in?" I asked him.
"Oh, probably something in humanities," he said. "Or social science. Or something."
I had spent part of the day walking around the Yard, looking at the storied buildings. Every landmark seemed to leap at me out of history and distinction. Widener Library!!! The largest college library-bar none, folks-in the world. Emerson-great balls of fire, that's Ralph Waldo himself-Hall. Harvard Square-why that's one of the greatest crossroads of the world. I was overwhelmed, exalted by just being in this fabled spot.
Talking to the others, though, I saw at once that it would be very bad form to express this delight. In conversation one simply assumes one's worthiness of the place, and considers Harvard fortunate to have him for four years before he becomes famous. The storied towers one views with an appreciative but cool regard, perhaps a little disappointed that Harvard is not just a few hundred years older, its tradition of success a few centuries stronger.
The others convinced me completely. In my mind, there was just no question that any of them belongs at Harvard, that the Admission Department would have regretted everlastingly turning them down. Dan, the guy from South Carolina, was the only one who seemed as confused at being here as I did. He applied to Duke, University of South Carolina, and-at the insistence of an ambitious brother-Harvard. The subsequent course of events seemed a little absurd to him. He had no idea what he wanted to do. He went out to buy some more beer.
I, however, knew exactly what I wanted to do. I came to Harvard to become a famous poet-a decision based on a poll of great American poets which showed that they overwhelmingly favored Harvard. The week classes began, I set out to accomplish this aim with a minimum of delay.
Freshman year, I calculated, was just a little too early to demand admission to Robert Lowell's seminar. There was no sense being greedy. I tracked down a teacher who taught another verse writing class, showed him some poems, and was admitted to the limited enrollment seminar. None of this business of submitting a sample and waiting with the other plebs for a list to be posted. I was convinced that I had Harvard in the palm of my hand: here was my token, my badge, to be displayed when the talk turned-as it did, always-to success.
Hugging this to me, I went to a Wellesley mixer. I had shunned the Freshman mixer, staying in my room and making an $8.50 call to my girlfriend at home. She went to a community college and was wondrously impressed with me and my intellectuality at Harvard. I accepted her deference, casually, as a matter of course-which seemed a little strange even at the time, because I knew that she was much smarter than I.
I went to Wellesley expecting this kind of deference again, and, in a way, found it. I talked to a girl, told her that I hated the mixer, and was delighted to find that she also hated mixers. Having found something in common, we sat on the ground for two hours and talked. She was from Cairo.
"Illinois?" I asked innocently.
That brought the conversation to a halt for a few minutes, but we got along very well. I asked her to the Holy Cross game and she accepted with alacrity.
Another triumph. The other guys I knew at the mixer ended up getting drunk in the bushes. I, on the other hand, had met a girl, and made a date. A great poet and a lover as well.
A week later, we went to the game, which was an unmitigated disaster. She hated football, she hated me, I hated her. Words fail to express exactly how badly it all worked out. The whole episode, when I think of it, leaves many unanswered questions in my mind: What did she look like? Why did she come? Why did I keep calling her for three months when she left to go to Wellesley as soon as the football game ended? What was going on there, anyway?
October: Somehow, in the face of caring three meals at the Freshman Union, my tokens of success seemed to be willing. I didn't quite understand what about the scene there affected me so badly, but my worst moments came at the moment after I had finished shoveling down the food and sat back to ash my cigarette on my greasy plate. Around me was a continued clank, clank, clank of silverware and plates, a babble of voices. People leapt about, did tricks with their silverware, tablehopped, shouted, passed joints under the table; I began to panic. I asked myself: Who are all these people? What are they doing?
Perhaps this hatred, this tightening of my stomach whenever mealtime at the old Union rolled around began when I heard the other members of my class hitting their water glasses with knives in appreciation of the entrance of a group of girls. I-certainly no less horny than a lot of the clinkers-was very confused at this. It seemed vindictive-as if those who were clinking resented bitterly the fact that some others were eating with girls-and wanted to get at both of them, make them suffer. This is a little frightening, because it underscores the cutthroat competitiveness ofthis place-and also because I found myself responding to it.
After all, I had my magic token: was a budding poet of recognized-by Harvard of course-merit. Why was I not one of those being clinked at, why did I not walk in with a girl to serve as another token of the fact that I had Harvard under control?
After all, I did, didn't I? Didn't I?
I asked myself: Who are all those people?
Three days a week, I leapt out of bed at 8:30 to drag myself (oh mortal folly) to Russian class. Saturday was one of the days. Three weeks before when I signed my study card, such considerations seemed ridiculous. Friends would caution me against such stupidity; they cautioned that a Saturday class would drive me up the wall. I smiled at such faintheartedness with lofty compassion. After all, one can't let paltry matters of scheduling stand in the way of becoming a truly educated man, can one? If Harvard felt it necessary to schedule Slavic A at 9 a.m. Tues., Thurs., Sat., then one would simply have to adapt to it.
Three weeks later, I cursed my stupidity. I might have had a chance in Russian if I had not fallen one lesson (Saturday's of course) behind every week. By late October I was a week and a half behind. Faithfully I went to every meeting, but I could never do the homework on Friday night. The students in class talked about grammatical points which were completely beyond my comprehension. And at 9 in the morning, I had no trouble nodding off to sleep rather quickly.
On Saturdays, I rushed back to Straus after the class, fell on the bed, and went to sleep at once. Fifteen minutes later, I was usually awakened by the Harvard band on its way to the Stadium, Jolted almost physically out of bed by "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard." The annoyance was over come by the fitness of it, Gaudeamus Igitur, and all that.
On Mon., Wed., at 11 I went to Soc Sci 11 ("Introduction to East Asian Civilization"). I had picked out this course at home, gloated over it at night like a glutton over chocolate. Here, I thought, was the firing line of knowledge. Reischauer and Fairbank, names which my high school history had spoken with awe. At first, I spent hours doing the reading, making notes on the reading, copying notes on lecture. But gradually it dawned on me that it made no difference at all to anyone whether I had done the reading or not: no one would get angry, or mark me down, or ask me questions. Gadzooks! What freedom! Why bother to read it?
So I stopped. And quite soon the lectures stopped having any connection. And quite soon I stopped taking notes and began writing "boring boring boring boring" in my notebook. The only reason I kept going to the class is that I liked to stare at a girl who sat in front of me.
About this time, my parents rear-rived in town for Freshman Parents' Weekend, a new innovation to raise money. Drinks were served in a crimson and white striped tent by the Palmer Dixon Tennis courts. White coated flunkeys distributed crimson buttons lettered in white: HARVARD 1972. I took a handful to preserve, sure that I would pass them on to my children when they, favored children of a famous man, entered Harvard. But even as I did so I felt ridiculous. Really absurd. To hide the absurdity, I made a compulsive game out of it, testing how many I could steal and cram into my sport coat, much the way I would later steal 65 books of matches when the cigarette clerk in the Coop turned her back to pick out my pack of Larks. These weren't really hokie tokens of success, badges of rank, that I was collecting. It was all a game.
During the buffet lunch, I led my parents to a table next to the one where President Pusey and his wife were eating alone.
"Come on," said my father, "Let's sit with Mr. Pusey."
"No," I mumbled. We sat at the next table. But during the meal, I kept my ears open. Pusey ate two helpings and didn't say anything.
After lunch, we sat on exquisitely uncomfortable wooden chairs and listened to Pusey. "Many students become enraged when they think the University is trying to act 'in loco parentis'," he said. "This is a fallacious assumption that dates back to the period when parents had some authority." The fathers chuckled.
Dean Glimp ("What a handsome man," my mother said) remarked that many parents were worried because the University doesn't seem to be willing to punish students for anything. "Well, I don't think that's true." he said. "There are many things we are willing to go to the mat about. We'll go to the mat about defacing a library book. Students have been expelled for that."
In loco parentis? Library books? I asked myself: Who are these gleaming, silver-haired, immaculate mannequins?
Who are these people?
Later at the football game, we beat Bucknell 59-0. Being a freshman, I could only get tickets on the Bucknell side. When the score reached 45-0, some of the Bucknell players were in tears. The Harvard band sent emissaries over to the three Bucknell cheerleaders. Each crossed to the Harvard side on the arm of a Crimson-jacketed saxophonist. From where we sat, it did not seem quite so hilarious a joke.
But after all, what difference? This was Harvard football, honing up for its most glorious season in 50 years.
And who ever heard of Bucknell?
November: Richard Nixon won the elections. I watched the returns at Radcliffe with a girl at whom I had so fervently stared in Soc Sci 11. What success! What a hitch to my self-esteem! A friend of my roommate's, perhaps remarking how often I would stare at her picture in the Radcliffe freshman register, invited me to come watch the returns with a girl he knew. She had a friend, he said, whom I should meet. Lo and behold....
She told me she had lived in Japan for two years. She spoke Japanese fluently. She made an A on the Soc Sci 11 hour exam. She planned to major in Far Eastern Languages.
She was undoubtedly smarter than I am. Perhaps everyone in that room was smarter than I. Maybe every person, I began to feel, in every room of every House and Radcliffe dorm and Freshman dorm and off-campus apartment and faculty suite and common room was smarter, more interesting, more confident, more successful than I. My badge, my token, was in tatters.
After Nixon won, I stood up to leave. Peering into the top bunk I suddenly saw a mysterious, black-haired girl who had apparently been there through all the hilarity without saying a word. Her eyes were pools of sorrow. I loved her at once.
"Who was that girl in the top bunk?" I asked in the hall.
"Oh, that's Nancy. She's just crying. She does it all the time."
I asked myself: What is all this?
My girlfriend from home, she of the brilliant mind and the mysterious paintings, came up for the Harvard-Yale game. She arrived on Friday, and I suddenly realized that I knew nothing to do. My life here, I suddenly saw, consisted of talking to my friends, going to class, and reading books. All idle hours I had beguiled with the anodyne of print. What to do?
We went to the Prudential observation room and looked down at the bright lights of Boston-a city I still knew nothing about. She, of course, had a new boyfriend. We were, of course, miserable together.
Saturday we went to the Harvard-Yale game. This was, as every one knows, the football game of the century-the magic moment when Harvard's miracle man Frank Champi snatched a glorious tie from the jaws of ignominious defeat and saved the Crimson's only undefeated season in ?? these many years. I wish I could describe to you the tension in the stands as he stood poised to throw the history-making pass, the thrill of victory as he completed it, the frenzy-thot gripped 10,000 men of Harvard after the game.
But I cannot. We left at the half and went to the Fogg.
I told myself: You blew it again.
Later that night, the girl intimated to me that she found this all a little dull. I was shocked, hurt, outraged, threatened. Dull? Why this was Harvard: the throbbing seat of intellectual, literary, artistic stimulation.
If this was... dull, then my last banner, my last token was ruined. After all, Harvard was the good place. Merely breathing the air here made me better, wiser, stronger, more attractive.
Didn't it? Didn't it?
December: Dan, my friend from South Carolina, vanished. Utterly, we whispered to each other. Without trace. He left his room one Sunday night to see his Nat Sci 9 tutor and did not return.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Perhaps when he stopped going to tennis practice. Or perhaps when he stopped going to classes. Or perhaps when he stopped going to meals. Or perhaps when he stopped coming out of his bedroom. Or perhaps when he began sleeping 17 hours a day.
After he had been gone a week, we became a little confused. He was not at home. He was not in Cambridge. The crisis, fraught with dark drama, was played out with all the dramatic trappings it deserved. One morning his boss from the student dorm crew called his room; I answered.
"Is Dan there?" he asked.
"I'm sorry," I replied. "Dan has disappeared without a trace." I hung up, relishing what I imagined must be the other's consternation, shock, chagrin.
Dan, who later turned out to have been vacationing with a friend in Raleigh, N.C., could not possibly have enjoyed his disappearance more than we did.
For a period of about two weeks, I got stoned every night. It quieted and calmed me in approximately the same way as being kicked in the head by a mule.
January: There was nothing to do. Sleeping late in the morning held little satisfaction when I had not missed any classes. I had read in the Freshman Register that if I did not arrive at Lamont at opening time I could not possibly get a seat to study in. Since I never woke up until two, there was obviously no use going to the Library. I would only be assembling my notebooks, pencils, pens, mimeographed sheets and other study aids for nothing. Anyway, I had plenty of time. Imagine giving people two weeks to study for exams with nothing else to do.
During this period I started throwing up a lot.
I started my studying the night before each exam, arbitrarily deciding which book for each course was most important, taking it with me to the Straus Common room. There I would flip the book open and read for 25 pages. I did this four times, then went back to my room and read science fiction.
My Soc Sci 11 exam. I was told, would include a map question in which we would be asked to locate cities on a blank map. This, of course, was out of the question. What absurdity-I had not been asked to memorize a map since fifth grade.
The exam did not include a map question on the map. The professor shamefacedly apologized for forgetting it. I gloated to myself. I was really switched in to the rhythm, the ?? of Harvard. The required question asked me to explain the Meiji restoration. I had never heard of the Meiji restoration.
I asked myself: What do I think I am doing?
The night before my Russian exam, I went over to see a well-known freshman proctor and asked him to help me. Why, I wanted to ask him, can I not study? Why can I not concentrate on anything for more than fifteen minutes at a throw? What is all this?
That night, however, the man was throwing a party for all the other proctors. They were all very, very drunk.
"Come see me tomorrow," he said. "How about two o'clock?"
"Sure," I said.
Of course, I did not go. The exam was over by then.
February: The Union had really reached me. I never, never, never ate dinner with anyone I knew. Going through the serving line, finding a table, I kept my head down, ignoring the occasional acquaintance who waved me over to his table. I bolted my food, choked on a cigarette, and ran out. Eating this way, I shared many tables with similar solitary figures, each of us staring at the plate, ignoring the other, eating quickly. Occasionally the other spoke. Once the guy across from me cleaned his plate and then looked up, straight up, at the ceiling.
"Veritas," he said. "Ain't it the truth!"
Two weeks later, walking through the Yard with a friend who was tripping, we saw the same guy carrying a sign which read, "WILL RATIONALITY WORK?"
My friend ran away, holding his head.
March: My feet.
During the month of March, I studied my feet closely, intensely. They were the only thing I could see from where I lay on Dan's couch. Where I lay ten hours a day, listening to Dan's soft breathing in the next room. He slept all day, and I read science fiction books. I read the complete works on Robert Heinlein (with the exception of Between Planets, which I could not find in paperback). Three times. Some of my favorites I read seven or eight times.
I also spent hours reading the previous Sunday's comics and sitting on the toilet. Every day, I found that Sunday's comics were different each day. Depending on whether it was Monday or Wednesday, there were subtle differences of meaning, connotation, and emphasis that I could discern after reading them for an hour. This became very important to me.
But the best moments were those on the couch, spent doing absolutely nothing. As long as I was doing absolutely nothing, nothing nothing, nothing, nothing at all, there was a good chance that at any moment I might begin doing anything in the wide world.
Once or twice I tried to write, or read something for school, but I found that when I began doing something real I experienced a confinement, a shrinkage of identity. An action, a real action, defined me, limited me. In a sense, I became that action, and thus lost all the great, wonderful things I might have been about to do if I had continued to do nothing. It was safer, more pleasant, less worrisome to do nothing to stare at my feet and wait to do something great.
I had been throwing up all the time, and now I began to avoid the Union altogether. At first I ate at Elsie's, but I found I could not digest the food, that the crowd even there was too noisy, that I continued to throw up. So I began subsisting on vanilla ice cream sodas at Brigham's. Getting my soda took a lot of strategy, however, I would wait for times when I thought not many people would be at the take-out counter, then dash out of the Yard at a full run. If more than five people were lined up, I would go back to my room. I began to go at odd hours, in pouring rains, five minutes before closing. It became a battle between me and the crowd.
And I remember looking at my feet for hours, looking across my motion-less body (strewn with Sunday comics and ice-cream soda cups and science fiction books) and listening to Dan sleeping furiously in the next room.
And at a loss for words, I asked myself: How did I get here? How did I do this to myself?
And I told myself: You blew it, boy. This time you really blew it.
Later, of course, came brief Salvation. In April there was a strike, and there was working for the CRIMSON, and there was a black leather jacket with a huge red strike fist on the back to give me an identity and a vague purpose.
But I still would occasionally find myself reading the Sunday funnies uncontrollably, or throwing up at unexpected moments.
And I found (and still find, to this day, to right now) that I could not look down at my slightly hairy, innocently ugly feet without feeling a great and nameless fear.
A Science Wonk Bites the Dust
"WHO WOULD have thunk it?" chants a character in The Group over and over again. "Who would have thunk it?"
It's a popular Harvard game, too. You sidle up to a friend, smile coyly, and murmur into a waiting ear, "Would you have believed me if I walked over to you freshman week and said, 'By senior year your friends will be dedicated revolutionaries, you'll be smoking dope regularly, and not a single person you know well won't have seriously considered suicide?'"
Of course you wouldn't have believed it. I certainly didn't.
When I was in high school, the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else was to get into Harvard. Almost everything I did was geared to that end: if I joined a club, it was to get it listed in my fat little dossier; if I took an extra honors course, it was to make my record look better. One of the more adventurous projects I undertook in high school was an elaborate three-year piece of research. It started out small scale, but with tenacity, guidance, and the dangling carrot of Harvard admission, I ended up presenting my results to a national convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
I was the classic high school science wonk, and I thought it would get me in. At the same time, I knew that I was literate; in fact, I enjoyed reading and writing and writing about reading more than almost anything else, certainly more than science. But high school humanities is a peculiar thing. It usually doesn't range very far from Silas Marner, and the closest you get to, say, New Criticism, is an occasional baffling allusion in your reading.
But once-and it's the kind of once that shapes personalities-I had a fantastic English teacher. I loved her. We read Emerson and Camus, and Falkner and Melville and Dostoyevsky and Stevens and Ginsberg and Whitman and Joyce. And I began to wonder whether to drop my science project and instead to flesh out my high school conception of the professional humanist and renaissance man. But I wanted to get into Harvard, so I continued on the road that eventually led me to the AAAS convention.
Around that time, I filled out my application to Harvard. One of the questions, the essay, was, "Discuss a recent significant decision and its consequences." Here's a section of that essay, in which I rationalized my commitment to science. It's hideously embarrassing, but enough to the point to deserve extensive quotation.
SINCE THE early part of my sophomore year I have been working on a scientific research project, first in connection with the chemistry department of my school and then independently. My principle activities and thoughts have thus been chiefly scientific. However, in my junior year I was enrolled in an English course which enormously broadened my perspective. Previously my scientific orientation had limited me to the systematic cogito ergo sum of Descartes. Then for the first time I was confronted with the disturbing thought that the " I exist; now what? " school has exerted a greater impact on the sensibility of contemporary man than any well-ordered body of scientific thought. Emerson's over-soul. Faulkner's loss of Eden, Camus' death of God-to me, all these were new and vital concepts which I could not ignore.
I was faced with the dilemma of the modern scientist. It has been traditional that philosophy and humanism, with their emphasis on the internal and the empathic, cannot exist simultaneous with the precise, categorized world of science. My problem, in concrete terms, was whether or not to continue my research. The work showed a large potential for success; it seemed that the need for a project like mine was current and emphasized. But could I continue with the research, knowing that my very actions, based strictly on the scientific method, violated the principles I had formed in the past year? In short, could the conflict of the sciences and humanities be resolved?
My decision was to continue the work, fully cognizant that I might not be following the path recommended by a humanist. However, I feel that the sciences and humanities can co-exist. The purpose of one is to check the other, but there is no reason that one must completely overrule and subordinate its companion. The analytical-imaginative unit must work in complement. The consequences of my decision to proceed are that the rewards of truly understanding the principle underlying a phenomenon, the thrill of the research process, and the contact with distinguished minds which my project has involved have all helped develop my scientific sense. At the same time, I feel confident that my sense of the compassionate and my ability to appreciate existential and naturalistic viewpoints have also grown. One is not at war with the other; they are mutual aids.
Looking back at it now, I think I see why they took me. I was prime material for Harvard science.
HARVARD SCIENCE-for that matter, any intensive pre-professional science-is a very different thing from high school science. About 480 of the 1200 high-school seniors accepted indicate on their application blanks that they would major in science if they came to Harvard. Second thoughts traditionally follow the first set of hour exams. By springtime, when freshmen indicate their fields of concentration, 180 have changed their mind. By graduation, 40 more have switched out.
As an undergraduate, even as a freshman, a science major has the opportunity to take extraordinarily advanced and fast-moving courses. Physics 13, Math 55, and Chem 20, after they separate the men from the boys, divide the masochists from the men. More than native intelligence and industry are needed to succeed in these gates to future science success; grim determination, isolation, and hours of gruelling work are essential. In spades.
Chem 20, for example, has developed a mystique all its own. Confi Guide reviewers each year bill it as the nearest American equivalent to Buchenwald. Former pre-medical students list Chem 20 as the major force in their decision not to become physicians. The course is taught in three lectures, a section, and an eight-hour lab each week, there are five hour exams a term, and most of those who get honor grades spend more time (anywhere from 10 to upwards of 20 hours a week) working for that course than for any other.
Most science courses are difficult, and they demand almost endless lists of prerequisites. The high school senior who enjoyed biology and would like to major in it, for example, finds that he can't take Physiology (Bio 18) until he's had Bio 2 and Physics 1a and 1b and Chem 20, and he can't take Chem 20 until he's taken Nat Sci 3 or Chem 6. The upper level courses demand more prerequisites, are more difficult, and are sometimes dishearteningly specialized. As a result, many never get far beyond the freshman introductory courses in a science before looking enviously at the greener and less arduous pastures of the social scientist and humanitarian.
Other, less strictly academic reasons cause about 200 students each year to switch out of science. Many are concentrating in it because it is the particular subject in which they were best in high school. American secondary schools, particularly in large urban centers, are still haunted by Sputnik and the spectre of hordes of Soviet children learning special relativity. The notorious emphasis on science, with the concomitant decline of the calibre and sophistication of courses in the social sciences and the humanities, has led many to suspect that their future is in a scientific career. On arriving at Harvard, exposure to the Square, to the political and theatrical and journalistic and clubbie and athletic and literary and squalid worlds which live at Harvard in uneasy coalition, frequently makes them change their minds. The graduating senior who arrived intending to be a doctor but ended up heading toward a career in folklore and mythology is a classic example of the effect of immersion in the Harvard cauldron.
Science people, on the whole, spend more time working for their courses-long hours on problem sets, afternoons in the lab, preparing for frequent hour exams-than people in the humanities and social sciences. As a result, an unofficial stereotype surrounds the science student at Harvard: he is unread, wrapped up in his work, boring to talk to, has a slide rule attached to his belt, and knows pi to fourteen decimal places. Unfair as this characterization may be, it does play a role in establishing the caste system that determines who your friends are. If you spend most of your time writing for a newspaper or magazine, most of the people you know do the same kind of thing. If you're more often in lab than out, it's likely that your friends spend most of their time north of Kirkland Street, too.
"I feel that the sciences and humanities can coexist. The purpose of one is to check the other, but there is no reason that one must completely overrule and subordinate its companion." In fact, the only good scientist is one who throws everything he has into his work. A good scientist it Harvard eats, drinks, and sleeps only in terms of his research project. He keeps up the tremendously competitive pace precisely because his own identity is so bound up into his work. A professional failure, for a scientist here, is a personal one as well.
I came to Harvard and majored in chemistry. I took the hardest courses I could get into, started doing research in the middle of my junior year, and got a summa when I graduated. I'm never going to set foot into a laboratory again.
Who would have thunk it?
Harvard's Drug Scene: Chaos and a Good High
Just so you'll be ready, I want to describe the traditional semi-secret opening ceremony for Radcliffe and Harvard freshmen. Some years, students have come unprepared, and many have complained that their innocent surprise has made the crucial adaptation to the "Harvard way of life" more difficult.
On the third morning of freshman week, the Class of '74 will congregate in Harvard Yard. President Nathan Pusey will stand between the center pillars of Widener Library in a solid gold robe. F. Skiddy yon Stade '33, dean of Freshmen, will crouch in front of Pusey like a catcher in front of an umpire. Perhaps, if this is to be "one of those years" he will actually have on a catcher's mask, and will move his arms and upper torso rhythmically like a Kabuki dancer.
On either side of Pusey will be a tenured professor in a loincloth.
Behind them, muscular dean of Faculty John T. Dunlop, also clad in a loincloth, will open the ceremony by pounding a huge gong with a special "Veritas" mallet.
Following tradition, Pusey will then start a chant, at first in a low gravelly grumble, then rising to a triumphant benediction:
Earning... Learning... Earning...
Learning... Earning... Learning...
until the two are a mantra, mingled beyond any distinguishing.
As in the past, the crowd of freshmen at the foot of the Library steps will pick up the chant slowly, at first not understanding, hearing only the words. If the past several years are any indication, the rowdier girls and boys will make cynical comments like "what a lot of ??" or "fuck you," but the heart of the class will keep chanting louder and louder, if at first only out of respect for Harvard'sreputation and for all her big names.
But in a moment, the chant will be their own, echoing through their minds so loud that no discordant thoughts have any room to maneuver. By the end of the ceremony the chant will be so together that all voices will sound one resonance, the resonance of liberal academic tradition, and then suddenly Dean Dunlop will sound the gong once more, and the crowd will disappear, to be reconvened only at Commencement in about four years. But that resonance will keep reverberating.
OF COURSE you will not really get that ceremony. That one was made up by a cynical freshman a month through his first year. He was stoned, and, if I remember correctly, so was I. You will probably get one almost as incredible. My freshman year, all the heavies met with us in Sanders Theater, and President Pusey said we were the smartest group of human beings ever assembled in one room at one time in the history of the world, or something like that. And other people told us about our sacred responsibilities, and the faith the whole nation had in its baby elite, and then we all sang Harvard songs, and marched out. I was stoned for that one too, and my Harvard career, so far distinguished only by my inability to comprehend any of what the administration was talking about, was off and running.
Most of you already smoke lots of dope, so you can blow your minds on Freshman Week too. If you don't smoke dope yet, you will in a little while. Everybody does at Harvard. Many people, in fact, do nothing else.
So here it is: you're at Harvard, and it's nothing at all like what you thought. All the superficial things you expected are there, plenty of tweed jackets and pipes, enormous libraries, distinguished professors, but none of it seems to make sense. It's out of control, everyone rushing around madly doing important work, telling you to get with it and come on over and join the fun, and it's just too ridiculous, even though you'll wish it weren't. And you'll be all alone ... Harvard really means it about leaving you to your own devices. All you'll have is the friends you make and the books you read. Maybe a little more sex than before, but not very much of it will make you happy or fulfilled. Freshman girls will have to live up at crummy Radcliffe, freshman boys in the crummy Yard dorms.
At first, you won't be able to say why the University seems so ridiculous and distant and how it can be that it seems to speak of a different world than the one that you know. You won't even be able to say how the University seems irrelevant to your world, because the University will in effect deny your world's existence.
The Dean of Students will admit that some of your ?? are valid, or the University psychiatrist might say your condition is typical-and therefore benign. But none will really understand when you say the world has gone completely off its rocker, and that you see a big "Tilt" sign in the sky sometimes. To admit your world's coherence would destroy their own.
Perhaps this is pessimistic enough to hint at why the Freshman Class tends to smoke more dope and drop more pills than any other. See yourself sitting on the floor of your lonely dorm with a big water pipe full of dope, and all the lights out, your big candle burning on the floor, the Dead or somebody else playing on your little stereo, and you just taking away until it's all a big buzz, and maybe going for a walk later. And, oh boy, one of the first things you realize is that there's no difference between "weekdays" and "weekends" any more. Nobody goes to classes or does any work, and (wait and see) neither will you.
There are some problems with this way of looking at a University education, through rose-colored glasses, or at least big, heavy stoned shades. The first is that if it makes sense to you to get stoned and fuck around, then just about anywhere else in the universe is better for it than Harvard. Any patch of grass off any road in the country is better, for example. Harvard is not bad for the conventional reasons. Nobody ever gets busted here. That's really true. You can leave bricks of dope lying on the floor, you can hang tabs of acid out the window tied together with a bright orange string. You can walk down the street singing a song you made up with the words, "oh wowece, I sure am stoned tonight," and you won't even get stopped.
THE REASON that Cambridge is a lousy place to trip around like that is that nobody ever trips around like that. Nobody ever sings songs that they made up. Instead, they usually sit in their rooms and talk about tripping around, or about why everything's so shifty that they can't just trip around. So one rarely sees alternatives to the Harvard education of reading books and long ponderous discussions and big talk-no action. Instead, one reads books about those alternatives, or has long ponderous discussions about them.
So watch out. Don't let Harvard kill you. Think constantly about when you were younger and didn't care about anything and did whatever you felt like. Harvard will tell you that was undisciplined and immature. In fact, the scent of getting here may already have done you in. So if you're having any second thoughts about whether to wait a while before going to college, stop and think about them some more. Take them seriously. Imagine registration day like this: you turn in a little card that says "my carefree innocence," and it's gone forever and you've got your books and off you ??.
And if you can remember when someone you trusted asked you what do you want more than anything and you answered to be free and strong, than for sure don't come to Cambridge, because Harvard will take away your strength, or make you doubt you have it; and it will put a blindfold on you and spin you around a hundred different ways with a hundred neat little theories and tell you when it's over to go pin the tail on the donkey. They really will do that. They think, in fact, that one of the best things about a Harvard education is that it makes it hard to tell if things are true or not. And other much worse things, but you're probably still going to come and you'll find our for yourself.
No more disparagement. Dope is great, and there's lots of dope at Harvard. Lots of good movie theaters too, and restaurants that stay open all night, and record stores that seem to have every record you've ever heard of or can imagine might exist.
And lots of street freaks to reinforce the general paranoia and the ridiculousness. And a nice-to-look-at but polluted river that you can sit by or play guitar on the banks of or throw an errant frisbee into the middle of. And there are nice walks to take; better than any city except Paris. Sometimes on the prettiest days in the Spring, people will stop rushing around the Square as if no one else existed and actually talk to somebody they don't know and have never officially met. Like a jamboree on a Hollywood set, and you can smile and be a part of it, and light up a big joint and say ain't life grand.
And there's the revolution, and you can come to Cambridge and help understand what it's about, and maybe help make it. You'll probably get kicked out if you do though, because Dean Dunlop says he's optimistic and resolute now that he's gotten rid of the troublemakers, and he's counting on the fine Freshman Class to keep the Crimson team marching on into the future.
At the very least, march at your own speed, and keep your eyes open, because you'll see some incredible things happening.