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Graduating seniors should not expect that Class Day 1977 will contain vigorous calls for social change, demands for changes in foreign policy, or rhetorical attacks on the nation's leaders. Radically, to the contrary, this Class Day may mark the beginning of the admitted complacency stage of undergraduate life here at Harvard--when seniors have resigned themselves to inward reflections and outward comedy.
The demarcation point became clear this Sunday when the Class Day selection committee chose Robert Ullman's speech, originally submitted for the comic Ivy Oration, as the winner of the serious Harvard oration competition. Ullman is revising his speech, which the Class Day committee members described as "poignant." But he says that the selection makes the quality of his humor a little suspect. He claims that his topic, the story of Morton Zyzford, a real cypher who can't come to terms with Harvard, has a serious message about the importance of success. The overall tone will stay light, he says, adding "It is difficult for me to speak seriously about success. Besides I don't think this is the year to beat people over the heads with serious messages." Ullman says he is looking forward to his June 15 opportunity but he has some real qualms, most notably that people might chuckle during his more solemn passages.
"I made Morton an extreme case of failure, so no one would think about him too much, but would realize that they had shared his feelings of failure while at Harvard," Ullman says. He adds he would like to make Morton a hero of some sort, so if people felt they had not succeeded by Harvard standards, it is possible they might have done something right anyway. Although Morton will be given dreams and realistic views which the author says he does not accept, the speech will be more entertaining than critical.
Had he given the oration in the late 1960s, Ullman says, he "would have been rallying around a great cause. People aren't as receptive to causes anymore. This is a time to find out what causes are there, not a time to run out and change things."
There have been many times at Harvard when Class Day speakers felt inspired enough by life outside the University to place Harvard in that context. The Harvard Archives have preserved only a few of these speeches, but from the few which remain, their themes are easily recognizable. In 1940, a time when most Americans were still enjoying the liberties of post-World War I isolation one-and-a-half years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Tudor Gardiner spoke about the dangers of peacetime, and American security:
A generation ago Germany troubled the peace of the world, and the American people chose to enter a war to end wars, a war to make the world safe for democracy. That was a noble action and its heavy sacrifices in treasure and in blood are consecrated to valor and ideals. But that war stands condemned by its results and America must not again be dragged into the anarchy that is Europe...
But there are people who tell us that the nations of this Western World cannot defend their own coasts, in the same breath that they assure us that American moral support, and surplus armament, and possibly a few men, if it should ultimately prove necessary, can turn the tide of a lost war, 3000 miles from home against the mightiest military machine the world has known. Both of these statements are fantastic nonsense. Our moral support will not wreck a single tank nor check the explosion of a single shell, and as for economic support...
America must face the fact that we can never wield great power abroad, except at a sacrifice fatal to the America we know and love. But we can make this hemisphere impregnable. The allies prepared for the last war, and it is too late to help them. We must start preparing for the next war now. It may come closer, and from an unexpected direction. Under the circumstances we cannot police the world.
Gardiner was expressing Americans' ambivalences toward another European war, while at the same time he argued for preparedness. He urged his classmates to devote themselves "to the service of peace and democracy." Gardiner's views still have not changed: "It was absolutely idiotic for us to get into World War II" he said this week from his Boston home. "All we accomplished was that we lined ourselves up for the World Series with the Soviet Union," Gardiner, who is in the investment business, said yesterday. Gardiner added he thinks America should basically mind its own business and only get into wars when American borders are threatened.
Eleven years later, in the post-World War II era, some American politicians and citizens felt differently. For some, American isolationism was replaced by a more internationalist commitment to preserve global security and peace. John Cowles Jr., on Class Day, June 1951, had a different message from Gardiner for his classmates:
...Because only a few of us are veterans of the armed services, ours is often considered the first 'normal' class to be graduated from Harvard since before the Second World War.
But if, because of its composition and history, this Class of 1951 is considered normal, the world around us is not. We may be thought of now as pre-war in type, but future history may refer to our class as pre-war in actual fact. Perhaps our peaceful years at Harvard shall prove to have been only the years of prelude to another world conflict--a world conflict even more destructive of humanity than the Second World War so recently concluded. It is to guard against and prevent such a Third World War that many of us here today shall soon be entering the active military service of our country.
Our military service will help protect our peace and security in the future. But our concern must extend beyond our personal lives and beyond the borders of this nation and of this hemisphere. The current state of world affairs is both tragic and dangerous, but if we have not yet achieved "One World" at least we must realize that there can be only one kind of peace in this world: peace for all of us, or peace for none of us...Although we stand here today as individuals, none of us has either the capacity or the right to isolate himself from the rest of mankind, or to divorce his personal well-being from the well-being of his fellow men--whether at home or abroad.
In the 1960s, the political mood on campus again reflected the national mood, but, unfortunately, records of these Class Day speeches were not kept. Not until much of the campus turmoil had subdued, in 1974, are records available. At that time, Harvard orator and former Crimson president Daniel A. Swanson '74 talked of his feeling about Vietnam and Chile as he entered the University in 1971. His parting thoughts included:
When I entered this University in 1970, American bombers were carpeting Vietnam and Salvador Allende had just been elected president of Chile. During the past four years, millions starved in Africa and Bangladesh, more Vietnamese were dismembered by bombs made in Wisconsin's dairy hills, and the Chilean president who had quickened the hopes of his people was lowered into an unmarked grave in a Santiago cemetery.
At times during the past four years, I have had difficulty reconciling my comfortable presence at Harvard with the continuing sorrow elsewhere on our planet. I was conscious somewhat of my obligations to the rest of the world, yet I read books and wrote articles while some of our brothers and sisters screamed and died. I strained to keep up my connections with the world outside Harvard. I returned to my Chicago neighborhood to organize with the people I had left behind and to distill some common meaning from the diverging patterns of our lives. Yet still I could not shake the sense that some of the clearest memories I have of the past four years--being locked in a narrow jail cell with 50 other people after the anti-war demonstrations at the 1972 Republican Convention or walking down Brooklyn streets with a green-eyed woman--have nothing to do with Harvard.
...I have come around to a different view of Harvard, although my feelings regarding Kissinger can never change. There are men and women here, I realize, who have an alternative view of the purpose of a University. These people study American foreign policy or Vietnamese culture not because they wish to plan aggressive war or destroy Vietnam, but because they seek to push outward the frontiers of knowledge and enable people everywhere to grapple a bit better with the problems which confound us all.
The tyrants who rule the world and brutalize its people thrive on ignorance, doubt and supicion. Truth is radical; it works like water gently seeping, eating away at the structures of oppression. I no longer think of a university as necessarily a staging ground for the Kissingers; I think the Kissingers pervert the meaning of a university. My disgust for Harvard is no longer so general. It is directed at the Kissingers, the Bundys and the McNamaras and their apologists who murder and lie and then smugly smirk behind the liberal values they maintain.
Members of last year's class heard appeals from the Class Day speakers to turn "outward once again, turn outward to find again our place in the ongoing struggle of world rejuvenation." Sydney Freedberg, Radcliffe orator, told the Class Day crowds that the Class of 1976 had been shaped by its time, frightened by the United States' seemingly endless moral and economic depression. In response to this malaise, Freedberg asked her classmates to "turn to the future...Now that we have taken a long hard look at ourselves, it is time to act."
The need for action has not necessarily passed us by, but Ullman will attempt a lighter, comical approach:
Through the hallowed halls of Harvard, destiny now calls to us, the graduating Class of 1977. And if history serves as a knowing guide, our class will answer. Up from the Class of 1977 will come some 267 lawyers and 400 doctors earning an average salary of $80,000, 31 malcontents writing an average of 55 poems, 140 politicians and presidential advisors serving an average prison term of 18 months, and 1180 other respected and successful citizens. Morton Zyzford will not be one of these.
Morton Zyzford is the only members of our class to join no organizations, have no honors grades, receive no mail and no telephone calls, and establish no connections for later life. His sole distinction in our class is as last student listed alphabetically and even this has come to haunt him.
Humorous speeches often attract and move the largest numbers of people and by no means are to be frowned upon. Mark O'Donnell '76, who wrote numerous plays and lyrics during his four years at Harvard, received the loudest applause of the day for his Ivy oration last year. In his speech he defined the Harvard Experience with the help of a Webster Dictionary and a good deal of wit:
The Harvard Experience. (ahem) How does Webster's Dictionary define "Harvard?" A quick, haphazard glance provides this definition: "The gathering of crops...The season when ripened crops are gathered, a crop or yield of one growing season."
Well, this is clearly insufficient, if not outright misleading. How then, does Webster's define "experience"? Quite simply, it doesn't. It's a very bad dictionary. In fact, some editions of it have been known to bite small children.
All any of this proves is that the Harvard Experience is hard to recognize. I for one was a little leery, so I took my Harvard Experience downtown and had it appraised. It turns out I've been paying 6000 dollars a year for the Tufts Experience. I don't know if counterfeiting like this is rampant, but I guess the practice will continue as long as there are Ohioans.
He admits he wrote the oration for the sake of his "con-artist tendencies and a with to make people laugh."
On his return to Harvard from a six month stay in Ireland, O'Donnell is currently assisting in the production of a soon-to-be presented Harvard Premiere Society review. O'Donnell now claims to have never thought much about his Harvard Experience until he sat down to write a speech about it. "It's something you think about at the moment, not something you think about every day," O'Donnell says.
If the speech topics in 1977 are hard to come by, the Harvard Experience, whether presented in its barest forms or in the context of a larger world view has amused and sobered Class Day crowds for many Junes. Emil Guillermo, Ivy orator for 1977 has entitled his speech, "On Harvard where the B sucks and I got Cs." Guillermo says he feels changed by Harvard by having been "a Harvard Square pedestrian." He says in his speech: "To be totally dead is to be stripped of all your recommendations and test scores and have them attributed to someone else."
If it is the little experiences of everyday life at Harvard which the Class of 1977 will remember, at least the Class of 1977 speakers will be remembered for being the first in a long time to call for inward reflection. Speakers will be applauded for not asking their fellow classmates to act outwardly, but rather to consider their four years at Harvard with the quiet introspection that the seventies' students seem to demand.
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