20 Below and In the Shade

20 Below and In the Shade

September 1955

The newcomer to the University very quickly notices three things: the only people who say hello to other people are tourists; as many undergraduates spend fall Saturday afternoons in their rooms or in libraries as in the stadium; and some of Harvard’s biggest academic names schedule their office hours in out of the way places at inconvenient times.

The University immediately seems like a very cold and hostile place, and superficially it is. The administration cares little whether an individual student sinks or swims, so long as the admissions people keep bringing in high enough a percentage of swimmers each year. Because of this seeming official apathy, the new freshman finds it perilously easy to sleep in a huge lecture hall when he is only one of 400, or even to stay at home and sleep more comfortably. One can easily spend four years in Cambridge without meeting a faculty member of higher rank than a teaching fellow. And it is possible to make a gentleman’s C with little or no work and have the only permanent trace of one’s presence here a series of impressions on an IBM card.

This spirit of live and let live extends through every aspect of undergraduate life. There are no big men on campus, only a host of little big men. The quest for fame reaches an early, flickering peak when 50 freshmen of whom no one but a few old-school friends have ever heard vie for the votes of an apathetic class to make the Union or Jubilee committees. An astonishingly large percentage of each class cannot tell you who the current football captain is, and at least an equally large percentage do not know the difference between a Junior Fellow and a University Professor.

It is easy for a student merely to let himself drift here because of one great distinction that separates the University from the average American institution. Harvard is designed to speed ahead the superior student, not to herd on the average one. There is a tremendous difference between the honors and non-honors programs. The man who wants expert advice and individual attention to his academic problems can get all he needs if he is willing to work for it. And conversely it is just as easy to be left alone.

There is no such thing as school spirit per se. Attendance at the rare football rallies is often so poor that everybody walks home without even attempting to cheer. The so called “All-College Weekend” has been abandoned as a miserable flop. Yet when President Pusey replied to Senator McCarthy’s charges that there was hardly a single undergraduate who was not proud of his university and its president. This kind of pride, demonstrated by the faculty in their commendations for the president and the administration, is a clue to the real spirit that is Harvard, a spirit that was summed up by the philosopher George Santayana, who near the turn of the century wrote that the undergraduate “does, except when the pressure of fear of the outside world constrains him, only when he finds worth doing for its own sake.”