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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

From Nostalgia to Diploma: The Alumni College

By Max Rudmann

ASWARM of 161 potential China pundits arrived at Kirkland House on July 4 to begin ten days of apprenticeship with Harvard's most celebrated Sinologist, John K. Fairbank, and his wife, Wilma, at the Alumni College.

From Coop card to diploma:

The inaugural of Nostalgia '73 began in April. Alumni of Radcliffe, Harvard College and University, as well as parents of undergraduates, were invited to return to their (or their children's) alma mater for ten or five days of lectures and discussions. There were two sessions offered: China (its history and culture) and/or black fiction and cinema. Appended to the description of the China offering (Session I) was a picture of Chou Enlai flanked by the Fairbanks.

Along with identification tags, returning alumni received reading lists, ordering forms and Coop cards.

Ten days after settling in their "student quarters" temporarily refurbished with carpets, pole lamps, and coffee tables, the Chinese pundits were shepherded into Harvard's most recent architectural monstrosity, the Science Center, and accorded another parchment: "This is to certify that-----has participated as a member of Harvard Alumni College sponsored by the Associated Harvard Alumni at the Harvard Summer School July 1973."

This year alumni were polled for occupational status. The largest categories were business and law. Next came "education": in addition to elementary school teachers, several professors (and one college president) attended this year's sessions. Other occupations varied from evangelist to woman of thought (a fine arts student).

Why did you come back?

ALUMNI OFFICERS, alumni, and alumni instructors differ in explaining the return of alumni to their alma mater; Henry de Montebello, coordinator of A.C. this year, emphasized nostalgia as the big reason. In a sense, the A.C. is an intensification of reunions. Alumni shack in student dorms, eat at the Harvard Union, meet Faculty members who give a couple of lectures, and have group-pictures taken. For bonuses A.C. gives classes at 8:30 and 9 a.m., reading lists, library privileges, reserved books, and a diploma. Cocktail hour revitalizes burdened minds and provides a natural setting for University personnel (President Bok, Dean Rosovsky, Dean Phelps, Dr. Chase Peterson, Eliot Master, Alan Heimert) to meet alumni. None, however, solicit funds for the College Fund. Perhaps it is felt, as James H. Bates, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni, say that "it would be like mixing oil and water." Mixing money and mind would be as unseemly.

For Professor William Alfred, a favorite speaker on the lecture circuit, the nostalgia theme is important. Alumni come back to classrooms to find out about the changes they are unable to experience vicariously, through their children.

What does a 19-year-old know about sin?

FOR Roger Rosenblatt, who leads the black-fiction seminar this year, A.C. serves the real audience of fiction classics. "What does a 19-year-old know about sin?" he asked a mother who had decided to return to college after more than 20 years away from school, although she felt embarrassed before her younger classmates. To Rosenblatt the alumni's questions about literature are more important than those asked by undergraduates for they dealt with life-related rather than literary-related themes. He was astonished when an alumnus sought to draw a parallel between Invisible Man and Watergate. Rosenblatt echoes many instructors who have taught alumni summer sessions when he reviews his experience: "Undergraduates and graduates are aware of the limitations of literary analysis. They don't ask questions pertaining to their own lives."

Faddism or inarticulateness?

The disparity between the numbers attending the sessions on China (161) and on black-fiction and film (35), underscores a notorious feature of A.C., the thin line between 'interest' and 'fad.' Four years ago, when black-fiction was "in", one could have expected droves of chic radicals enrolling in a five-day seminar catchily titled, Black Rage, from Little Rock to Black Panthers. Today only a handful of devotees remain, like Jeremiah Sheehy who believes that "black fiction is more relevant to my life than China." For many, then, A.C. may represent a sophisticated 'prep school' for cocktail circuits. That many adopt a faddist topic was underscored by an appalling inarticulateness among the participants of the Cinga session in expressing their interest for the subject. The vast majority of those I spoke to explained that China was important because it contained about one-third of the world's population. It seemed that China had surfaced to terrestrial history last year, and only then legitimized. It was a rare person, like Steve Hall '15, who poopoohed the number argument and applied what he had learned from the lectures: China was an internally-oriented society, with little interest in imperialist, foreign ventures; there was no reason to fear it.

THROUGHOUT the seminar, right up to the end, many of those I met explained that what most appealed to them in China was its peace and quiet, its ancient ethical system. The revolution of 1949, the Great Leap Forward of the 50s, the Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the late 60s, were tucked away.

It is dubious that many took to heart Professor Fairbank's caution: "They are no model unless we go backward in material terms... Their inspiration for us is very superficial." Nor his earlier one referring to the changing attitudes toward China since the 50s: "They're the same people... the same Mao... It's an anti-individualistic society but we admire it... I suggest we face a contradiction. We can admire a people living on a not admirable basis, but achieving something, and not admire ourselves... The recognition of this reality is the beginning of wisdom." Watergate must have dulled many critical faculties for unabashed admiration for China exuded from the participants.

In addition to those who are striving to stay 'with it,' there are a few genuinely interested in the programs offered by A.C. In last year's seminar on education, school teachers and parents working on school boards came. At the China seminar there were several who had travelled in the Far East, several who were planning to visit China, and some who had actually been there. Of the latter group, the Fairbanks chose five who could give accounts of their dealings with the Chinese. One was Lee Sobin, general manager of Friendship International Inc., and a three-time visitor of the Canton fair trade; another was Emile Chi who was interested in how Chinese Universities handled students from low-income families. They provided the closest thing to 'Let's go China' for the many there wishing to go. On the whole the reasons for going to A.C. were varied: there were those whose vacation schedules permit them to attend, some had come before (15-20 per cent) and enjoyed their stay, some had professional interests, others wished to escape their family responsibilities for a few days in peace and quiet pursuing a subject that interested them.

THE meanings A.C. held for participants were equally as varied. Florence G. Baskin views her seminar as affording an opportunity for "mental calisthenics." Others saw it as a means of escaping the "rut" of stagnant intellectuality. While many appreciated the chance for an interchange of opinions, some appreciated best the social ambiance--Mary Ellen Goodman would return no matter what A.C.'s offerings were, she so enjoys the social atmosphere, the opportunity to meet persons of other age.

There can be no doubt about it, the vast majority of A.C. alumni enjoyed their stay. Or, at least the discontented were not vocal. Nostalgia may have bulldozed any complaints. As one alumnus put it: "The food is shitty, the room is noisy, but it does not matter I love it." For many A.C. week with its demands on the mind and the stomach may have been like "Roughing it"--they would recuperate on the remainder of their vacation.

Unlike recent graduating classes, A.C. alumni are a grateful lot. They appreciate the time which instructors spend with them, at cocktails and lunches. And gifts for their teachers are natural. At the China seminar, in token of thanks for teaching that was clearly "no scissors and paste job," money was collected for two Harvard chairs. The general contributions were voluntary, of course. To particularize the gratitude, a scroll was given on which several moving inscriptions were written: "I came for a vacation, I found a marvelous renewal of my life. Thanks very much." "A great intellectual and human experience."

If the repeated expression of "deep appreciation" speaks of something other than ritual, it may indicate that A.C. has satisfied a profound need for self-renewal. One alumni officer may have explained this feeling when he remarked that alumni are held to be dull, boring, finished. By giving them for a short time the intellectual challenge they faced in undergraduate days, A.C. may have revived some self-esteem.

Genesis... or Harvard is second but better.

AS WITH so much else, Harvard is a latecomer to the field of "Continuing Education" (post-baccalaureate studies). Or, at least, it was not until the seventies that attention was focussed on non-professional instruction for alumni. At the School of Business Administration and the Medical School, the return of graduates had become a respectable and profitable practice. Part of the retuning involved directing the attention of executives and professionals to pressing social and political issues (ecology, the war, the demands of blacks and women). Cultural topics with less pressing political dimensions (literature for example) were disseminated sporadically by professors hitting the University-comes-to the Harvard-Club circuit.

Unlike the Alumni offices at Yale, Amherst, Cornell, or Dartmouth who initiated extensive programs to bring back former students, Harvard's, until recently, betrayed little interest. It relied on the hallowed football games and 25th Reunions to demonstrate its centrality in the lives of alumni.

When Harvard finally decided to adopt the idea of continuing education it did so for reasons of its own. Among the Board of Directors of AHA in the 60s, there was a feeling that alumni would "appreciate" returning to Harvard for a week of classes. It was not until 1969, however, that a committee on Continuing Education was created to consider seriously the proposal.

The committee's work was given impetus by circumstances. It was decided not to ask the Faculty for financial support or a supervisory committee and to launch the project on an ad hoc basis; simultaneously because large numbers of undergraduates were taking leaves of absence the Houses accummulated deficits. The fact that A.C. would provide new funds triggered the interest of John T. Dunlop, former dean of the Faculty. The student activism of the 60s was yet another spur to action. The university was "much less sure with younger alumni of lasting loyalty by bringing them within traditional alumni programs," recalls Peter Shultz, general secretary of AHA. It was believed that "Younger alumni are more interested in maintaining their intellectual ties with the university than the older alumni."

Solvent venture:

IN THE last three years A.C. has proved to be a solvent venture. A new associate general secretary for Continuing Education has been hired. A.C.'s clientele, however, has been primarily an elderly one. The median age of A.C. members falls in the late forties-fifties range where it is about ten years younger at other universities with A.C. programs, as Dartmough, Cornell, Yale. One explanation is the environmental one: Hanover and Ithica offer a country-and-campus package attractive to those who wish to excape an urban environment. Another reason high cost. Younger alumni cannot affort a stiff $275 (for 10 days) for a refresher course. (Yale's price is a low $45.)

Neither of these explanations, however, accounts wholly for the small attendance (rarely more than 300 each summer) at A.C. programs. For Bates, of Yale, it frequently takes 20 years before people decide to return--prior to their forties "people are still stumbling all over the place." President Bok shares that opinion. In the first few years after college "many have had it with school. In the thirties, forties, and fifties you get a different kind of attitude. There is a desire to go back. The university seems to be much more interesting and novel when three or four you don't remember what you have had in college."

Other reasons for increasing interest in social education are, according to Bok, "First there is a need: "It's much harder to remain educated," with even more competitive professionalism. There is alos the opportunity and more leisure time.

TO EXPAND the net of continuing education, A.C. plans for this fall a trial three-day session on the West Coast. Simultaneously with the inauguration of A.C. in 1971, AHA has publicized its national network of clubs weekend seminars taught by Harvard faculty. Tapes of this year's A.C. offerings will be available to alumni. But A.C. officials still focus their energies on bringing alumni back to Cambridge, though it remains only a minimal concern of AHA. Understandably when you recall that this year's 25th Reunion pledged $1 million, while A.C. yields barely a few hundred dollars.

Focussing on reaping the fruits of nostalgia, AHA has failed to expand its narrow parochial sense of responsibility. The University, not its alumni foundations, claims their energies. At a time when the Bachelor of Arts degree has decreasing financial value (if it ever did, according to Jencks) a college education is approached more as an end in itself than a means to an end. Furthering our enlightenment, there is no reason why the educational experience should stop with the acquisition of a diploma. The University's responsibility to its students does not end on Commencement Day. Nor should alumni's relationship to education be confined to yearly contributions to the scholastic pursuit of arcane truths.

Since libraries and museums are the major educational resources available to those who cannot attend lectures, programs could be developed to permit autodidactic pursuit of new intellectual interests. Reading lists, tapings of General Education lectures are some of the methods readily available for an expansion of the present offerings of continuing education but as of today, the present sturcture of the AHA program rests primarily on an appeal to nostalgia; its biggest pull is exerted on those with means, those who seek to recapture a past embedded in brick.

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