If you are laboring under the misapprehension that what makes Harvard sospecial is a combination of acedemic excellence, noted faculty, high caliber students and great libraries you are sooo wrong. You are paying $7500 to go to this glorified landgrant college because it is the oldest college in the country; you are paying for, in the words of Tevye, the Milkman, TRADITION!
Ah, tradition, 342 years of it, give or take a few. Harvard's traditions grow like the ivy on its buildings -- somethimes so thick that they obscure what's underneath. When you get here you will no doubt be curious to wade about in some of this tradition that you are paying for, perhaps even make a little of your own, but where to go to find out what it's all shout?
You could go on a regular Crimson Key Tour. These are very nice, very traditional (your uncle who went here probably led them when he was an undergrad), but after all, sort of bland. The Crimson Key Society, which runs these officially-approved tours, makes the University attractive and awe-inspiring. But after that, if you have any more curiosity than a hermit crab, you'll want to find out what the place is really like.
With this goal in mind, let us be your Virgil and take you through Harvard and a few of its underground traditions.
As you enter Johnston Gate from Mass. Ave. you will be facing scenic, park-like Harvard Yard. Well, not so scenic this year, because they will be digging up the water pipes underneath it. But don't despair, even here the shadow of the New England past can be seen, because the pipe-diggers have uncovered a load of Indian artifacts in their trenches. As the archaelogists sift through the dirt you might contemplate the ironies of the Indians' situation relative to Harvard. The tradition here is very much the white man's layered over everything that had the impunity to come before.
Holworthy and the McCoys
But rather than soliloquize over the former Indian campground, let us move on into the Yard and see what it has to offer. Here walk the ghosts of Emerson and Thoreau, Kittredge and lots of Lowells; many of the great intellects of American history actually slept in these dorms. But that won't mean beans to you during Freshman Week, you just for here, no ghosts yet. Freshman Week is traditionally the time when Yardlings engage in a sort of mass baptismal rite, tearing around the Yard with anything that will hold liquid and dousing everything that moves. Traditionally, at least one major administrator or religious leader is blessed by the exuberant water-wielders each year causing the Dean of Freshman to decree some kind of foolish injunction against further water-fighting. Pay it no mind, your duty is to tradition and Harvard Freshman Week without water would be such a bore.
Moving through the Yard toward the north one encounters two red brick, ivy-covered dormitories at right angles to each other. These seem to be quiet, unassuming places and little would you know that between these two buildings, Holworthy, the smaller one facing across the Yard, and Thayer, the larger one facing north-south, exists one of the most bitter rivalries since the Hatfields and McCoys.
Apparently, many years ago, Thayer was built on what had been Holworthy's soccer field. This angered Holworthy's men, who in retaliation set about the systematic defamation of Thayer. Thayer of course responded in kind and the feud was on.
Now each year, despite all efforts to keep this tradition a secret from freshmen in the two dorms, voices pierce the still autumn night crying, "HOLWORTHY SUCKS!" "THAYER EATS MOOSE!" After a few rounds of this violence usually breaks out, mainly because Holworthy is still an all-male dorn (most yard dorms went co-ed in 1973) and thus the inhabitants feel insecure and are compelled to prove that they are, well, men.
The Giant Camera Leaving the brawling partisans of the North Yard to their senseless excesses we come upon the cool, technological splendor of the Science Center. Look at it for a minute, and then say the first thing that comes into your mind. But it was Polaroid Land camera, because if you'll notice the Science Center looks just like the Polaroid that ate Manhattan. Why? Because Edwin H. Land '30, president of Polaroid, gave most of the money for its construction, and Harvard is traditionally grateful to its benefactors.
But you've had enough of staring at a hyperthyroidal camera, you can turn to aq truly tradition-steeped structure, Memorial hall.
The Crimson Key tour will have informed you that Mem Hall used to have a steeple, (which got burned to a crisp in 1957) and that it used to be a church, and that all those off men who peer gargoyle-like from the eaves of Sanders Theater had some significance to someone at sometime, but that's all Fine Arts and you want tradition.
The traditions of Mem Hall have grown out of the countless exams that have been administered there. Some Harvard exam stories are true classics. One such involves a guy who was taking an exam in Mem Hall (and cheating on it), who walked up to turn in his blue book only to be told by the proctor that the gig was up, for he had been nailed committing his heinous crime.
"Do you know who I am?" the student asked pointedly.
"No, it doesn't matter who you are, you were cheating," the proctor said.
"Do you know who I am?" the student demanded even more arrogantly than before.
"No," said the proctor, "I have no idea, just give me the blue book, fella."
"Look, Do You Know Who I Am?" the student repeated for the benefit of the professor of the course who had come over to investigate the ruckus.
"Certainly not," said the professor.
"Good!" the student exclaimed as he thrust his blue book into the anonymous pile on the table and bounded away before anyone could identify him. Truly a case of success snatched from the jaw of failure.
Another Mem Hall tradition is Mr. Test When you take your first Mem Hall exam you will see him; a rotund man, his bald pate rimmed by electro-shock curly hair, a bottle of soda surgically grafted to his hand and his mellifluous bass vice oozing out of the corners of the giant mead hall in which exams are given.
"Izz everybody seated?" he croons. "Thozzze of you seated in rowzz two through 48 will be able to see the clock at the back of the room. The rest of you, start counting seconds when I say, Begin. The exam is three hourz long. Please suspend all bodily functionzz azz three izz only one bathroom."
Mr. Test does have a name, but he has transcended it by becoming a Harvard tradition.
The Lying Statue
As we leave Mem Hall and re-enter the Yard we soon come upon the famous statue of John Harvard. This is often referred to as the statue of the Three Lies. The statue is not of John Harvard, the date is wrong and he is not the true founder of Harvard College.
Why, then, you ask, does a University which has as its motto "Veritas" or "Truth" put up with an object which in and of itself embodies three patent falsehoods? Because, dear friends, the real motto of Harvard is "Appearances." There is supposed to be some kind of statue languishing in a central place on every Ivy league campus so that tourists will have something to pose in front of and students will have something to deface. Harvard was founded by an act of the Massachusetts colonia; legislature, but it seized upon John Harvard as a convenient norminal founder, and used him as an excuse to erect a statue so as not to disappoint anyone.
But if three lies are not enough, you could check out University Hall, the building directly behind the statue. University Hall might be called "The Building of the Many Obscurities." From this building come statements from Deans about such shrouded mysteries as "The Core" and "The Hot Break-fast Plan" and "The Housing Lottery." Why are these related? Because no one, including the Deans whose names are attached to the plants, knows the slightest bit about how the plans will work or how they will affect students.
Any protests by bureaucratic mysto-fog.
It is a Harvard tradition for most of the students here to believe that, given a chance, they could run the University ten times more effectively than the current administrators. It is another Harvard tradition for the people in charge never to allow the students any chance to find out if their suspicion is correct.
One other quaint U-Hall tradition; it changes hands now and then when students here get mad enough about something, like they did nine years ago about Vietnam, etc. Sometimes students just sit down in front of the building and prevent access to it, as they did last year to protest the University's policy of retaining investments in firms with operations in South Africa. When there is a protest to be held, it is a tradition to hold it at University Hall, but don't expect the building or its inhabitants to pay much attention.
Strolling around behind University Hall we see the other major section of the Yard, dominated by the glowering bulk of Widener Library.
Widener is famous for its great size, (it is the third largest library in terms of volumes owned, in the country), and for the horror stories people tell about it. Some tell tales of the Wandering Graduate Students who prowls the lower levels of the stacks feeding on old critiques of Medieval Scholaticism and accosting wayward freshmen who have lost the golden thread which they tied to the entrance of the stacks in order to find their way back. This stuff is just not true, nor are the tales of skeletal remains found in carrels or those of people who got locked in the stacks for weeks. Frankly, unless you have absolutely no directional sense at all you cannot get lost in the stacks; nervous, may be, but not lost.
Widener is linked to a more tangible Hardvard tradition through the very reason for its existence. You see, Harry Elkins Widener'07 was a young Harvard graduate when he sailed innocently enough on the Titanic. In the subsequent disaster, he died when he was unable to swim 100 yards to a lifeboat. When Mrs. Widener, his mother, gave Harvard the library as a memorial to her bibliophile son (all that money came from owning the Philadelphia trolleys) she stipulated that every Harvard graduate must be able to swim. This is why you have to swim 100 yards before you can graduate. Believe us, through, this is the least of your worries.
Widener is an impressive, very "Harvard" place but it isn't where you will spend a lot of your time as a freshman unless you have a compulsion to watch graduate students work their brains into naval jelly over their dissertations. A place where you might spend more time is Emerson Hall.
If you walk around Emerson and look up carefully at the eaves you will see the inscription, "What Is Man That Thou Art Mindful of Him?" This inscription plaque was originally going to bear some sort of fruity paean to the excellence of man but President Abbot Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, decided that he was going to teach the faculty a lesson in humility and he ordered that the less than exuberant quotation from Job be chiseled in.
The Whale Tale's Significance
Harvard tradition that obliquely involves Emerson is "Boats," a History course on oceanic exploration taught by a professor affectionately known as "Commodore" Perry. Legend has it that a student took the course (something of an easy rid) and wrote a very bogus paper on whales and whaling. Figuring that he would need to dress up his anemic effort a little, he pasted a whale, cut from a National Geographic, onto the front cover of the paper and handed it in.
He got an A- on the paper, much to his surprise, and he naturally kept it. Next year, a friend took "Boats" and borrowed the same whale paper for the course. He rewrote it a bit, affixed an even more decorative whale to the title page and turned it in. He too got an A-. Naturally, the next year another member of the group took Perry's course and decided to hand in the same paper but calculated that the whale would be a dead giveaway by this time, so he left it off. When the paper came back he was dismayed to find that he had gotten a C-. The only comment was, "Where's the whale?"
You are probably asking yourself, "Why in hell would anyone be so stupid as to turn in the same paper three years in a row?" The point is not so much that it was the same paper, it is that the paper was successful, and that is what really counts here after all. For Harvard's one, mainline, true-to-life tradition is success. That is what a great number of your predecessors at this august institution worship as their common bond. The traditions of elitism, and the closeness Harvard has with the power structures of business and government cannot be truly conveyed by the ivy and the red brick, they are an intangible part of the aura here.
The Crimson Key gives you one, the stories above are another, but when you buy into Harvard you will soon discover that the reason why this place is not just another college is because from the beginings of modern American history. The country's chosen have been almost one and the same with the chosen who sweat through the "rigors" of academic life here. Perhaps what is chiefly to be gained from the stories and legends that have formed around Harvard is a sight of the humanity of those here who have pretended for so long to know exactly why everyone should be mindful of men so great as themselves.