"Enter to grow in wisdom / Depart to better serve thy country and thy kind"
For the Class of '99, hurtling toward Commencement, the oft-cited inscription on the two sides of Dexter Gate has never seemed more relevant. But though many of us have passed beneath the gate opposite the Harvard Book Store daily for the past three years, do we know what the words really mean? The inscription is poetically vague, even cryptic, and merits a few minutes' reflection before leaving Cambridge for good.
Interestingly, the simplest interpretation seems based on inconsistent logic, and thus not so simple at all. On this reading, the inscription on the Mass Ave. side of the gate, "Enter to grow in wisdom," is read as a conditional statement. That is: "If you enter Harvard Yard, then you will grow in wisdom." It is as if Harvard is making us a promise: Come into my gate and you will learn.
But that is not how we are liable to read the inscription on the other side. Thinking of "Depart to better serve thy country and thy kind" as a conditional would make little sense. Instead, we read the second inscription as an imperative--as if Harvard is now imploring us to put the wisdom learned inside the Yard to practical effect. Put the two readings together, and you have a trap: Harvard beckons us in with the promise of learning and personal intellectual growth. We merely need to enter. But once inside, we find that there is a price to the privilege of intellectual growth: the responsibility to improve ourselves and society. We entered, or perhaps scaled, the Iv(or)y Tower for ourselves, or so we thought, but we are to leave for the purpose of helping others.
True? Not really. Many of us came to Harvard already active in community service and concerned about political issues; many more leave Harvard in order to help ourselves. Still, there is an "out" in the inscription for those who will be leaving Harvard this spring not primarily to serve their country or kind, but primarily to make money or have fun or simply be themselves and follow their passion. The inscription, recall, says "Depart to better serve thy country and thy kind"--better than what? Better, it seems logical to presume, than we could before entering the Yard in the first place.
Indeed, in this "better" lies something of a compromise between the scores of students who have and will go through recruiting, and the dogooders who look down upon their peers as sellouts. Tempting as it is, Harvard's success in contributing to the formation of good people and good citizens should not be measured by the number of students who choose to make careers on Wall Street. It is business, with its ethic of selfinterest, that has made the United States the world's chief promoter and defender of peace and democracy. Rather than lambaste each other for our career paths, we must do something both harder and fairer: look at the person behind that first job out of college--look to see whether Harvard graduates have become more inclined to serve society and help others in their daily lives.
Reading the inscriptions as a trap--an offer on one side, an obligation on the other--is not necessarily a reflection of the kind of directional transformation that should go on at college and at Harvard in particular. But what would happen if we instead read the inscriptions more consistently--if we read the entering inscription as an imperative, thinking of "Enter" as a command, and read the departing inscription as an offer and not an imperative?
We would then be faced with an equally realistic outlook on the Harvard experience. In this revised view, we come into Harvard because we are commanded to do so. "Enter," we are told by our guidance counselors, our families, our internal social barometer. Once the gate is open to us, it is barely possible to do otherwise. But if it was not our choice to come in, is the burden foisted upon us when we leave then especially unfair? Hardly. We did not ask for our intelligence or our privileges, but we did not refuse them, either.
Nonetheless, thinking of Enter as a command may cut into our stress level as we attempt to live up to the Harvard name. Whatever burdens come with the Harvard education are ours to bear. Just as we were pushed through Dexter Gate by those around us, so are we pulled out of it.
We can also think of the departing inscription as an offer. Perhaps Harvard is not telling us what to do and what kind of people to be once we leave, but is offering a suggestion that can comfort us as we make the difficult transition to the world outside. That is, the inscription can be read to say that just as "to grow in wisdom" gave us a reason to enter, "to better serve thy country and thy kind" can give us a reason to leave. As much as we may want to stay in the Ivory Tower, the gate can give us the motivation to say farewell to Harvard and to move on to the next stage in life.
The conventional wisdom is that the inscriptions refer to the Harvard experience as a whole. But there is no reason this kind of contemplation should be limited to seniors. Whenever we leave the Yard, whether for the evening, for the summer or for good, it is the right time to think about what the inscriptions mean--about the relationship between wisdom and service, between offers and obligations. However you read the inscriptions, they can reflect, if not shape, your lasting impressions of your days in and around the Yard. Geoffrey C. Upton '99 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.