Last summer, I got into the habit of running along the Charles at night without my contacts on. One piece I began writing would have described the unique freedom of rushing forward with only my feet and the periodic, depthless glare of headlights to guide me. It would have drawn the parallel between running without contact lenses and the need to occasionally relax our myopic focuses and trust ourselves, trust the ground beneath our feet, trust the night.
In recent weeks, however, I have been reminded yet again that there is a tremendous inconsistency in the world—or maybe just a horrifying consistency—that at one point I ran alone, at night, essentially blind, not only without dire consequence but with a sense of exhilaration, while for others even the ground is a constant source of existential terror.
I spent this past spring break with the Phillips Brook House Association, volunteering as a teacher’s assistant in a high school in D.C. High school classrooms have never been enclaves of Puritan discipline, but the school’s policy of providing every student with a personal laptop added an extra layer of chaos. Students surfed the internet, quickly clicking to assignments when they sensed me approach. Some kept one earplug in as the teacher spoke. It was even more unnerving, however, to stand at the front of the classroom and make eye contact with nobody. There were just twenty glowing pupils, fixed somewhere and in some other time.
I can’t blame the students. I never used a laptop in school until I came to Harvard, but the habit is easily acquired, and I’m typing this during a lecture. I can’t imagine what it would have been like, and how I would be different, if I had grown up with a screen in all my classrooms. Beyond the (deservedly researched and debated) sub-question of whether we learn better in digital or analog is the question of how screens have eroded our crucial relationship to the spatial and temporal world. The ability to devote sustained attention to the place and moment at hand is not only valuable to our pursuits, but also key to having autonomy in and enjoying life. It is also something that all of us are increasingly relinquishing.
For someone lonely on a weekend night, Harvard Square is nothing but windows. Walk down Mass. Ave, take the left onto JFK, loop back around to Mt. Auburn, and you’ll pass the Kong, Tatte, J.P. Licks, Clover, Starbucks, Felipe’s, Tealuxe, Tasty Burger, El Jefe’s. Even the 1 bus is just one long, shifting pane of glass.
We sight-dependent humans love to describe things in terms of vision, and windows—that enchanting marriage of visual transparency and physical impenetrability—occupy a special place in our imaginations and metaphorical landscapes. One of the most recognizable American paintings is Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” which depicts a late-night view into a diner. The streets sulk browns and turquoises, but the diner’s walls radiate pale yellow, and the blond bartender is dressed in white. A couple sits side-by-side at the bar with faces toward the viewer, hands resting close to each other on the counter; the third customer, another sharply-dressed man, sits a few stools down.
A Dimetrodon milleri lurks in the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s Romer Hall, the museum’s vertebrate paleontology room. About six feet long from tail tip to snout, the dimetrodon resembles a large lizard with a flared ridge “sail” down its spine and an obstinate blunt snout, like a cross between a dog’s and a crocodile’s. The Dimetrodon display’s interactive screen presents a trivia question: To which is the dimetrodon most closely related—dinosaur, chicken, lizard, or human?
The HMNH features bright hallways of animals taxidermied and fossilized, extant and extinct. Hummingbirds float in neatly pinned columns. South American armadillos rear twelve feet into the air. Crustaceans glow in the buttery distortion of preservative jars. Soft-bodied sea creatures, impossible to naturally preserve, attain immortality as glass recreations by the Blaschkas, the father-son duo also responsible for the museum’s acclaimed glass flower collection. In a room dedicated to geology, white shelves offset the glittering fractal palettes of rock specimens.
The Boston Public Library’s central branch in Copley Square was designed by Charles Follen McKim as a “palace for the people.” Original sections of the library, which opened in 1895, include a grand marble staircase presided over by twin statues of reposing lions and paintings depicting the Muses of Inspiration; Bates Hall, a Hogwarts-esque room whose barrel-arched ceiling soars over countless rows of study desks; and an open courtyard ringed by Spanish columned walkways. In July 2016, the BPL unveiled the renovated Johnson Building, which substitutes marble and granite for glass, wood, and carpet. The Johnson wing’s walls are entirely glass, letting all the light of Boylston Street wash over the modern café, new bookshelves, and computer labs inside. Bostonians of all stripes frequent this beautiful place, far more of them than you might expect given the collective impression that anything associated with books is dead or dying.
Our own Widener is exclusive by nature and necessity. I can’t honestly complain: I don’t want to try studying while tourists mill around. But even for a registered Harvard student, Widener—like, let’s be fair, a lot of our institution—captures a certain restrictive ethos. You mostly go to Widener to do work that leads to your “qualification” in some set of skills. You use its resources in pursuit of knowledge that, even if that specific assignment is not intended to be groundbreaking, trains you in the tradition whose goal it is to produce original scholarship. In Widener and on campus in general, one cannot escape the sense of being educated, and that our learning methodically and relentlessly hones us toward a purposed specialization. Something would be wrong if we were to attend university and not feel that we were being educated. But I am wary of the sensation that our minds are being poured into channels through which they rush forward. Some narrow and accelerate to achieve laser-like breadth and power; some significantly shape the earth around them.