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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

"Enter To Grow in Wisdom'

By Byron STOOKEY Jr.

Associate Director of Advanced Standing

We live, in the university, with some awareness of the categories by which our lives are ordered. The curriculum informs us that mathematics is neatly distinguishable form physics, psychology from philosophy, literature from history. We know this is not so, and, knowing that it is not, are able to hold reality in view while working within these categories. But we live, in the university, with another categorization, so encompassing that we are only vaguely aware of its power to obscure reality.

The inscription facing Massachusetts Avenue says, "Enter To Grow in Wisdom." And at the same gate, as you leave the Yard: "Depart To Serve better Thy Country and Mankind." In the Yard, grow in wisdom: outside, serve mankind. And at Radcliffe there is talk of surrounding the quadrangle with a wall to buttress as unconfident identity. There will be a gate, and a similar inscription.

The university: the world. Education: life. Where, in this categorization, is reality? We riot because diplomas are to be in English rather than Latin and wonder why we have not instead rioted about things that matter. Perhaps it is because there are diplomas that we riot about diplomas; perhaps it is because there is commencement that things that matter are deferred. We learn, we mark with pompous festival the end of learning, and then we do. And both the character of our learning and the character of our careers reflect our acceptance of this categorization of which diplomas and commencement are our symbol.

But perhaps diplomas and commencement are not all. They exist because we have created a boundary for them to mark; perhaps it is the boundary that we should question.

We defend the walls we have erected at the edge of college by saying that they delimit only "formal" education. But suppose even that this implication about later and non-formal education were as valid as we pretend to think--by what logic whould this justify encapsulation of the university? Do we believe that we all know, when we are 19, what we want to learn? Do we have so little faith, really, in the tools of the university that we are ready to rely, for our on-going education, on the resources of Teaneck or Winnetka?

In Utopia, perhaps, a student might enter college, study for some unspecified period, and, having discovered some knowledge and questions, leave to do some job that seemed challenging, important, fun. He might live far away from college and family; he might establish a family of his own. At the end of some years he might discover a more useful and rewarding vocation for which he he were inadequately trained. Or he might perhaps find questions to which it seemed important, and apart form vocation, to try to discover answers. And he might return, eventually to his original work, perhaps to something different. And it might be, in Utopia, that at age 40 or 50, having meanwhile occasionally returned to the university for a term or summer at a time, he would choose to return for a longer period--for furthe training, or to seek out answers to now questions that had gained meaning as his life evolved. And he might then return to his former work or some work wholly different in Utopia.

Why not in Harvard and Winnetka? Perhaps because it is simply not practical, for people who have settled in New Jersey or Illinois to pick up and return to Harvard, Indeed it is not. But is may be practical, for many who have settled elsewhere, to enroll at other universities. Not everyone lives in range of Columbia or Chicago, or of Stanford or Chariottesville, but there are many colleges and universities in the country which offer opportunity for learningBut how them could Harvard award a degree? Perhaps by large extension of the tenuous recipre- city by which transfer student are now accredited. Or perhaps we would eventually do away with the degree. But how, if we did that, would the professional and business worlds assess the qualifications of our students? They might develop ways, such as we have too seldom uses for earnest evaluation of the merits of individuals. But what of the problem of disjointed careers? If we are convinced on the basis of evidence in hand that one should bind oneself to a particular career before ever leaving school, and we can decide that alienation from work has nothing to do with our demand that one remain for 45 years in the work that was attractive at age 20, then interim study may be a nusiance. But perhaps we are not so content as this with the effects of traditional chronology.

How, though, could the individual or university manage such an arrangement financially? Perhaps we could institute, in colleges and universities, a scaled system of charges. The 18-year-old in his first year of study might be charged $600 for tuition: the 46-year-old in his seventh year $ 2500. The financial aid problem would be complex, but the university of our institutions, more dependent financially, as intellectually, on charity own resources and initiative.

Such a plan might affect the character of our teaching, and our thinking about curriculum. But it seems unlikely that what is valuable would be lost what is less valuable might slowly change.

We have strong and useful traditions in the university, but some that are overbearing. To the tradition of segragating life from education we have in recent years made exceptions. Our few small post-professional programs, the new Radcliffe Institute, our provisions for independent and foreign study, our occassional acceptance of transfer students, and our sanctioning of undergraduate leaves of absence are among significant exceptions: they signify by the exceptional character we have given them our unconcious commitment, by and large, to an inflexible pattern which since the gates were errected around the Yard has not significantly changed.

Fifty years ago there were not 1800 colleges and universities spread out across the country. Fifty years ago an unabundant economy made one's ties to a single and unbroken career financially more binding. Fifty years ago the university was the preserve of a more or less chosen few, who raised few questions about its purpose. These things have changed and those who return now to Harvard for reunion will note that even here there has been change. We shall change further. And perhaps it will happen that those who return twenty-five years hence will have come for a different purpose

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