The Truth About John Harvard

To pee or not to pee: that is the question

John Harvard’s statue enjoys a peculiar fate. From the moment the sun rises, tourists come by the busload to stand before him like pilgrims gazing upon a relic. From the moment the sun sets, people pee on him. This combination of veneration by day and urination by night is one of Harvard College’s most pregnant idiosyncrasies. It reveals the startling contrast between the way the world perceives Harvard and the way that we perceive ourselves, and an arrogance more rank than the sewage drenching John Harvard every Saturday night.

It is ironic that so many visitors feel compelled to have their picture taken next to a glorified outhouse. But Harvard’s favorite late-night pit stop is considerably more than just a statue. To outsiders, John Harvard represents the pinnacle of success and academic achievement. When tourist after smiling tourist rubs the famously shiny foot, it is almost as if he pays homage to the American Dream itself. As a Harvard undergraduate, it is difficult not to be tickled by the attention. The clicks of the flashbulbs serve as a constant reminder that we are students at a remarkable place capable of inspiring profound emotions in many people. John Harvard’s stern gaze tells us where we are.

So naturally, we pee on him. And not just once. We pee on him with such great frequency that from dusk until dawn the urine rains down like a biblical plague. Urinators comment that the statue can be difficult to mount, since it is already dripping wet from previous visitors. I know a room of boys that peed on John Harvard three times a night for an entire week—it was the primary activity of their evenings.

It may be convenient to write off the Saturday evening deluge as nothing more than a gaggle of inebriated students ingesting alcohol in one place and then depositing it in another, but as the proverb goes, in vino veritas. There is more truth than meets the eye in this drunken tradition.

Nobody really forgets about the tourists. Rather, John Harvard’s adoring visitors endow the ritual with meaning. Harvard students do not pee on the statue in spite of its significance. They pee on the statue because of its significance. Urinating on the monument to higher education in America is a bizarre attempt at self-affirmation. It says: "Not only do I go to Harvard, but I spit, nay, pee, on it as well."

The phenomenon does not end at John Harvard’s foot. Harvard may be an elite institution open only to a lucky few, yet it seems to exacerbate, rather than mollify, concerns about status. The product of this anxiety is frequent displays of contempt for the institution. We pee (figuratively) on things all the time: we skip classes, we are contemptuous of the entire education system, and we constantly bemoan the inadequacy of the social life. Peeing on John Harvard is like walking through the front door of your final club while everyone else has to wait outside. It’s what this place is all about.

This reality is a stark contrast to the mythic, idealized Harvard imagined by its tourists. Every morning, the urine is gone, and the statue appears pristine, but we students know the truth. Each time a visitor reaches to touch John Harvard’s lucky foot, we cringe perhaps not only from disgust, but from embarrassment as well.

So pee on John Harvard if you like, but know where you’re standing.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Straus Hall.