Harvard as Wasteland
April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, string Dull roots with spring rain. T.S. Eliot, The Wask Land
DURING THE past month the Harvard-Radcliffe community has been saddened--even desolated--by two suicides. On March 24 an Adams House sophomore, John Neumann, jumped to his death from the Criminal Courts building in Manhattan. According to The Harvard Crimson, friends described Neumann as "cheerful, outgoing and laid back," although he had been depressed for a few days before leaving for New York. He often traveled to New York to engage in meditation sessions with Sri Chinmoy, of whom Leonard Bernstein had written: "What power is in this man's music. My spirit is very, very deeply impressed." A security guard at Adams House, Robert McLaughlin, who himself became despondent when John Neuman took his life, has told me again and again how giving and caring John was. He tried to encourage Bob to make the most of his not inconsiderable talents. John, according to Bob, was a very spiritual person.
On April 11 Ru Selle Diana Harwood, a Mather House senior, also plunged to her death from the Mather House tower. Ru Selle was a bright Economics concentrator with good grades She was a popular clarinetist in the Harvard Band, whom the band manager described as "an extraordinarily intelligent and talented woman." "A member of the Mather House Committee characterized Ru Selle as "a well-put together person who was organized and extremely intelligent," she was prominent in Harvard Student Agencies, as treasurer and head bookkeeper, a demanding role which necessitated a great deal of hard work Ru Selle was also active in the Mather House women's issues table.
Ru Selle Harwood's suicide appears to have been carefully planned. She closed her bank account, did her laundry, cleaned her room and then got up early the next morning, left eight suicide notes for friends and family, then leaped to her death.
A service of thanksgiving for Ru Selle's life was held on April 26th in Memorial Church Professor Patricia Herlihy, co-master of Mather House, was, like most everyone, almost at a loss for words. "What can be said about a 21-year-old who died?" Like John Neumann, Ru Selle was an idealist of powerful commitments who found it difficult to reconcile her enthusiasms with the world she saw around her. In high school, she was devoted to her church and in college most generous to her friends. The quotation from Ru Selle which was chosen to appear on the program of the memorial service was "The right things have been said before, but not enough have listened."
At the reception in the Mather House Master's Residence afterwards, a number of students said: "She kept it all in." The same was true of John Neumann. While seemingly surrounded by many friends and acquaintances, both Ru Selle and John appear to have been profoundly lonely. No one had a real clue that they would do themselves in. There was not that one special person to confide in who might have been able to calm their darkest fears--and possibly prevent far too young death.
From my experiences as a resident tutor in Dunster House, my association with Mather House and in teaching undergraduate courses, loneliness seems to be an enormous problem at Harvard and Radcliffe. There are many opportunities to meet people here--foremost at meals in the co-ed Houses, in organizations like the Collegium Musicum, the Harvard Gilbert and Sullivand Players, The Crimson and Lampoon, and Harvard and Radcliffe Hillel and the Catholic Student Center. As an undergraduate myself, I participated in many activities, yet was so insecure and shy that I hardly ever dated. I felt at the time that I was along in this predicament. Subsequent experience with students indicates that it is commonplace.
One can never know the reasons for a suicide--or understand the complex maze of fears and emotions that go into the act. But the deaths of Ru Selle Harwood and John Neumann must memorably raise anew the question of loneliness at Harvard-Radcliffe in the daily rush of exempts, papers, and LSAT preparations they are a stark reminder of the ongoing need for the most important qualities those of compassion and friendship.
IN A FAMOUS article, "Loneliness At Harvard," which appeared in the Harvard Alumni Bullerin in May 1967, Dr. Graham B. Blaine '40 tried to examine the causes of student isolation. What he said then seems to me very true today I paraphrases much of his article with his permission.
Students come to Harvard and Radcliffe, according to Dr. Blaine, when they are passing through a complex stage of their development.
There are three principal underlying conflicts that make the student more vulnerable and insecure. First, the wish to be independent conflicts with lingering feelings of childish dependency. The other two conflicts are best described by Frik Frikson, the most through and maginative student of students. He defines one as the opposing forces pulling on the one hand towards identity formation, and on the other towards a diffusion of role, and the second as a wish to develop intimacy opposed by a conflicting pull towards isolation.
Almost every student who has passed through Harvard realizes the critical importance of the House system. A House is a protective environment which allows, through the House Committees, an opportunity for self government and through drama societies and musical organizations, for creativity. But it is also a principal but work against loneliness. unfortunately not strong enough in the case of John Neumann and Ru Selle Harwood.
"Loneliness," as Graham Blaine's article makes clear, is chiefly "related to the third basic task of the young adult-the achievement of intimacy and the avoidance of isolation Intimate relationships in the Eriksonian sense, cannot be established until identity formation is complete. Intimacy occurs, according to Erikson, when two people of the opposite sex share trust which enables them to develop individual and mutual patterns of work, procreation and recreation. A feeling of the need for achievement of such relationship usually follows quickly upon the attainment of identity, and opportunities for gaining it should be easily found in the ideal college community. With Harvard and Radcliffe as enmeshed as they are, such opportunities should be many."
Why, then, is there so much loneliness and isolation--and recently suicide--in the Houses? Dr. Blaine attributes it primarily to the very competitive nature of the College, particularly over gaining the grades necessary for admission to prestigious law, medical or graduate schools. Even though I graduate with high honors from the College, the series of perfectionism which Harvard (and the earlier training which produces students who gain admission to Harvard and Radcliffe) engenders made me feel almost continually like a failure. My experience at Harvard Law School was even worse. For most of my class, the formation of intimate friendships was few and far between, subsequent experience has shown that this is still true in the College.
One of the most physically attractive and successful Harvard undergraduates I know has recently written me:
As for the social picture, I've not been particularly successful. We are both looking for that one woman to make our life complete. And she's not easy to find (I happen to want a lot in a woman and prove willing to accept very little less. I guess you're that way as well). And, at least for the last few years for me, there has been a lot of pain in the process. Every time I find someone who I would really like to get to know better and truly get involved with, something doesn't work out. That usually means that she wants nothing to do with me...
I tend to be confident in school and do fairly well, it is socially that I have my problems and get disenchanted I always try my best to treat people well and help people whenever I can. As for my troubles, I usually get treated badly I'm the guy who people count on to help them through hard times. But when they are doing well, they don't even know I exist. When I'm really low I tend to think that I Leo Durocher's baseball expression. Nice guys finish last also apple to social relations But I have not become that cynical on life yet. I'm still confident that things will turn just waiting for all that good to start coming into my life.
There are many caretakers at Harvard and Radcliffe. On the front lines are proctors and advisors in the Yard and tutors in the Houses When I was a resident tutor in Duster House, innumerable students would knock on my door, usually late in the evening, and want to talk Problems of loneliness far outweighed concern about studies. When I was a section man in a Humanities course, two students individually came to me and said that they liked one another but were too shy to ask each other out I got them two tickets next to each other for a concert to Sanders Theater Then they were able to start dating in the '60s the concern of Dunster House tutors that many students remained isolated in their rooms on Saturday evenings be came so great that pairs of us took turns giving parties in the Senior Common Room Curiously, some of the very most attractive Radcliffe students came to these gatherings.
I believe that the overly competitive atmosphere here has an enormous amount to do with this loneliness. As Dr. Blaine again observes: "Men and women who are being compared in regard to their intellect, creativity, and conscientiousness--as students tend to be when they are competing for grades--become ill at ease and even suspicious in their dealings with each other." In some countries, such as Japan, where the number of places in universities is quite limited and almost everything in terms of success in later life depends on one's performance on a few examinations, such self-hate and rejection develops that suicide is frequently the result.
WHAT CAN be done to case the situation? The Freshman Seminar Program is one venture which has been very successful. Its small classes and unguarded nature often allow for great friendship and creativity. I have long been a proponent of House courses. It has been, by far, the most enjoyable teaching I have done at Harvard, with the possible exception of teaching a small group of undergraduates Shakespeare. Joyce, Yeats and Robert Lowell. In a 1973 article in the Harvard Law School Bulletin I described the joys of dealing with students on an intimate basis in may year-long Dunster House course on constitutional law.
The course was taught in the evening. Before it, we usually are dinner together, often with a guest who was an expert in the topic under discussion. For example, many of the cases we were studying were in the field of school desegregation and reverse discrimination. J. Harold Flannery, then Director of the Harvard Center for Law and Education, was a frequent guest, as was Archibald Cox, who had field an amicus curie brief in DeFunis v. Odegard, involving the question of whether a law school may constitutionally give preference to members of racial minorities. When the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wode, the celebrated abortion case, was handed down, our guests included a professor with an appointment at both the Divinity School and School of Public Health, a Roman Catholic nun, a pregnancy counselor at the Harvard University Health Services and a physician from the Massachuseets General Hospital. The purpose of this was more than informational. It was to provide intimate contact with a variety of professionals to help the students sort out possible career decisions. Some students even ended up getting summer jobs with our guests.
In addition to giving students rigorous exposure to analytic thinking through use of the Socratic Method, the course aimed to create a sense of community--to alleviate the loneliness and isolation which seemed so prevalent to me and other tutors. So many students want personal contact with at least one teacher and seldom get it at a research-oriented university like Harvard, save, perhaps, from their tutor. The instructor who teaches a course in the fashion often pays a price. There are countless requests for recommendations One follows, and frequently is asked advice from, students at major turning points all through their lives--in graduate school or law school, at the time of securing a first job of making a career change, at the time of marriage and always sadly, at the time of breakup of relationships I have similar relationships with two of my teachers, my college tutor, David Bevington, and Andrew Kautman, whom I had in a small seminar in constitutional law at the Law School I'am certain that I have gone into teaching and care about students glorious--example.
The hope that House courses would provide a "community" became apparent to me after I was given the results of anonymous taped interviews with members of my class done behind my back conducted by the Harvard University Office for Tests.
I think it is very, demonstrable in most section of large course that there is a great deal of peer group intolerance . . . a sort of lack of respect for other people's opinions and views. It is sort of tight high pressure Whereas in this senior this House course although academically and intellectually you are constrained to be under a lot of pressure, thinking about it, constantly working, there isn't intolerance towards other people's ideas it's much more of a communal thing I think that helps a lot.
it does give a sort of sense of community without being overbearing and a burden on People who aren't in the House. But. . to get a sense of community you need some kind of core(which a nucleus of House members in the course Provides)as long as the People in that core are not so tight that other people feel left out. That's the only danger.
uch simple things as providing refreshments in class were appreciated far out of proportion to their cost:
People referred to this before but Harvard is, to some extent, an isolated and isolating place. It doesn't have to be. I don't have to be. I don't think that is peculiar to Harvard, but I can see a lot of lonely people here who just go back to their rooms after their seminar. In The Development of Law there is some sense of community, and may be this is partly because it is a House course. There are refreshments and all the little mechanisms do add up to a looseness and an easiness like with people and with the teacher.
If there is any tragedy about these remarks, it is that students are too appreciative of these small things. So easy to do, they are, inexplicably, seldom done.
BUT HOLDING more seminars and pushing student-tutor contact can only be part of an effort to get at the problem on loneliness. What is also required are qualities of personal warmth and understanding, and the effort, on an individual level to reach out to those who might be lonely and in need of help.
Both John Neumann and Ru Selle Harwood's suicides have had a profound impact on the Harvard-Radcliffe community. As Ted Polich, a junior in Eliot House, has put it, their deaths have made almost everyone reflect upon what is most important to them. For Ted, a member of the Harvard football team who was laid up in Stillman Infirmary, as was I, the most central thing in his life is not the fierce competition for grades, but the love of his family and friends. Friends, from the legions I see streaming past my room into his he has many: And, to earn this, I suspect be has been a very good friend himself.
Both in London and New York at the present times is an exciting new play. Tom Stoppard's The Real thing. The play casts a weary and jaundiced eye (much as John and Ru Selle would have done) at a world preoccupied with lust. materialism sensation, and self gratification Christopher Lasch in , The Cultone of Narcissism published in 1978, talks about the same theme.
The Real Thing, by contrast, is love, intimacy, fidelity and trust in marriage. To M.D. Aesechliman, who has written a marvelously moving review of Stoppard's play in the April 6, 1984 National Revies the sentiments expressed in the Real Thingrecall these lines from Mathew Arnold's Dover Beach.
Ah, love let us be true To one another! For the world, which seems to be before unlike a land of dreams. So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light. Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain, And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
If John Neumann and Ru Selle Diana Harwood have left any legacy--and I believe they have left a very rich one--it is to keep our hearts and minds forever fixed on what is most important in this too often dark and turbulent world--qualities of compassion, the meaningful pursuit of excellence in the service of human needs, and great love. As we mourn their passing, we should be thankful for them. It was once written of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "Standing apart is one way of standing out." Let us hope that John and RuSelle's standing Loneliness' and isolation will be instructive to us all.