Changing the Non-Harvard World
ON April 9, 1969, more than 75 Harvard undergraduates stormed Universtity Hall in protest of college policy on ROTC, low-income housing in Cambridge, and Afro-American studies.
On February 24, 1989, fewer than 50 students chose to attend a peaceful pro-divestment rally in the Yard.
The twentieth anniversary of the Harvard strike brought the question home: Do 1989 Harvard students really care about Harvard's actions?
Many 1969 alumni participating in the reunion don't think so. Harvard still continues to support social inequities, they protested, so where are the students?
ONE possible answer to this question is that the students are at Phillips Brooks House (PBH). More than 1000 undergraduates work in local hospitals, tutor inner-city children, or contribute to other needed social services in the Boston area.
But public service at PBH is not a substitute for demanding changes from the Harvard administration. PBH volunteers staff homeless shelters, for example, yet how many students realize that Harvard Real Estate's dealings in Cambridge may act to increase homelessness?
PBH members seek to increase opportunity for members of groups that have experienced discrimination. But few students are active in forcing Harvard to take a moral stand against the most vicious racist system in the world. Every reputed Black leader has called for divestment; how many Harvard students are willing to work for it?
Another answer to the student activism question is that many current students look beyond Harvard to politics on a national level. Estimates indicate that as many as 1000 Harvard students attended the recent march on Washington for women's rights.
As noble as these activities are, they do not make present gender inequities at Harvard any more bearable. Will 1000 students attend the Take Back the Night rally next week? Probably not, even though the rally should theoretically attract additional students who oppose abortion.
IT is not that Harvard students don't care about about pressing social problems. It is that most refuse to ask Harvard to address them.
Cynicism about changing the policies of the orwellian Corporation certainly contributes to this refusal. Several years ago, students erected shanties and stopped traffic in the Square to protest Harvard's investments in South Africa. The Corporation didn't budge. Working at PBH, by contrast, guarantees good results; hours of efforts won't end in total frustration.
The shadow of the 1960s may also limit student activism on campus. Who wants to be lumped in with blindly idealistic 1960s radicals? Rallies on campus conjure up images of the violent University Hall takeover. These images may provoke nostalgia among reunion alumni but create moral ambivalence in the minds of most of today's students.
There is no reason, however, why the "violent few" model must be adopted for 1989 activism. A fair reading of the 1969 Spring of Discontent reveals that Harvard reacted when two-thirds of the students struck--not when a few dozen zealots carried Dean Archie Epps into the Yard. Mass student participation works.
For concrete changes to occur, students must connect their national political goals and public service work with Harvard's transgressions. They must realize that Harvard isn't just a place to take classes, but an educational institution which sets important precedents in the world.
It is not apathy which plagues Harvard students; it is a reluctance to question the sincerity of the liberalism of the "liberal boutique" which admitted them inside its hallowed walls.