Remembrance of Things Past

It started with snow. Most years do; this one was just unusually cooperative. Snow filled January, floating softly through reading period, building up strength and momentum through examinations, inundating semester break. Then came February, with 27 inches of it, and martial law and Army trucks rattling through deserted streets. Snow set the tone for the coming months: this was to be a year of splendid, horrifying, numbing excess.

February's blizzard offered a lesson in humility, if nothing else. Harvard does not take interruptions lightly, even from on high; as Dean Archie Epps had put it during a heavy snowfall the year before, "Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world." The University had not closed because of bad weather since 1938, when a homicidal hurricane boiled up out of the Caribbean and savaged the entire Eastern seaboard, killing hundreds--as close as you might want to get to the end of the world. The blizzard, it was decided, was also a reasonable fascimile.

And so the world ended, at least for three days, while the Army trucks rattled and the blood lines formed and The Duke looked great on television. Harvard was humbled, the Commonwealth was humbled, but everyone dug out. Except Dukakis, who had already done his digging: he had looked great on T.V., and everyone knew this strong-man governor was rolling into November with the throttle open. No stops.

And so February eased into March, with all the niceties that make a month worth living, if not remembering. The snow blackened and turned to crumbs. The Faculty got ready to make itself famous with this beast called a Core Curriculum, and smiled as The Times and half the other newspapers in the country dropped them onto the front page--not the lead story, to be sure, but still down there on the front page, set in a nice conservative block of type.

And so the Core marched forward, through Faculty Council and debate in the full Faculty. It became A Cause: it was the future of Harvard, and also the past, a way of preparing the school to deal with the future, and also redeeming it to fulfill the goals of its hoary liberal-arts tradition. It was a monument to Henry Rosovsky, the man of the future, and a memorial to James B. Conant '14, the man of the past. Conant's death in mid-February hammered home the point; the death of the architect of General Education, the first Harvard president to become a major force in educational theory, could only be met by raising a headstone like the Core. Looking back, looking forward; the Core seemed a bit unsure of its direction. But its backers were not--they would pass it, for sure.


The Core bulled its way into April, carrying the rest of us along with it, but it was hardly the only distraction. Nothing so structured, so rational, could dominate for long; the world needs too much room in which to go mad. This little island in Cambridge, rising with calm through the storm, still could not but hear the raging of the elements outside: Lebanon, Palestine and Italy, where Aldo Moro's bodyguards lay dead, and where Moro himself would, after a series of pathetic letters, pay the Red Brigades' price. No comfort there; the outside looked ugly.

The outside stepped inside in late April. The Core had muscled its way almost to completion, and likewise, the College's first student constitution in nine years had just about been birthed. But for a week no one cared much about them, for it was springtime, and demonstrations were in the air. Thie year the issue was South Africa, and the protests had to be taken seriously.

It's not clear that they were, though. The week passed in a frenzy, all chants and demands and marches and late-night deadlines. Vignettes: Derek Bok's frozen smile as he crossed the Yard, bureaucratic calm amidst a self-righteous storm; Dan Steiner chatting with protestors on the steps of University Hall, a few left-over torches burning down after the year's most spectacular protest march; the bemused set to the jaws of the University policement covering the demos, unsure of how to handle these kids who, they were told but did not quite believe, might try to grab a building at any minute. But then the show ended, reading period stepped up, and it was over. The demonstrators did not get what they wanted, harvard did, and then it was time for burial in Lamont. Reading period can do that.

It does every year. So many things happen during reading period, it seems, because there is no one around to complain; if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, is there noise? Has the tree fallen at all?

A big one fell in early May; the Faculty got its Core, over the objections of some purists who don't like academic structure, and more than a few scientists who wanted to see a little more of their own turf included under the Core. Bok and Rosovsky rejoiced, as did The Times, which trumpeted a new day in liberal-arts education. The Faculty set merrily about its task of building a new bureaucracy to nurse its fledgling new day; Harvard was returning to structure, shaking off the unpleasant, torchlit dreams f late April.

There is nothing like Commencement, however, for waking up from a reading period stupor. There is, as the man once said, "always something" to slap you in the face, to dash a little cold water at you before you start out on a hot summer day. The slap this year came from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who journeyed down from exile in Vermont to pick up an honorary degree and chide America for flabby morals and a lack of purpose. The national press took note, as it usually does when people start talking about morals or anything else at a Harvard Commencement, and even the First Lady took the time to say she thought America was still strong, still moral. But the slap still stung, on into July, which is about when the letters stopped pouring in to the editors of The Globe.

By that time, however, Boston was oblivious to anything occurring outside the vicinity of Landsdowne St. Summer in Boston is, after all, not much more than a humid, sweaty fantasy, two months of radiant heat and soaking t-shirts designed simply to occupy the space between semesters. And to watch baseball, which is far more of an opiate than religion, at least as far as Bostonians are concerned.

And so July was spent, or was wished it had been spent, in the center-field bleachers at Fenway Park, listening to the gentle animal roar of a bemused crowd as Rice would flick his wrists and explode another hanging curve over The Wall, or Evans would dance and whirl through space before seizing a misguided double. Nothing else seemed to matter; Mideast maneuvers and the difficulties of Dr. Peter Bourne with the Controlled Substances Act--all fell below the headlines screaming Yaz's latest heroism, bewailing Lynn's sprained pinky. And Rice continued to explode curveballs, and Evans to dance in right field, and the world was good.

August brought a sickness. No one could be sure--maybe it was Hobson's elbow, maybe Evans's eyes. Or Lee's mouth. Or Zimmer's head. No one knew, but it soon became clear that these gods were mortal, after all, and that perhaps the Yankees--Billy Martin or no--were not. the Boomer would whiff with two men on, and all of a sudden the news became more noticeable. Weeks before Yaz's foul pop settled into Nettles's glove, the fantasy had ended, and the real world was important again.

But the heart had gone out of it. Derek Bok parried with Adm. Turner over Harvard's right to know what the CIA was doing on campus, and Dean Howard Hiatt took it on the chin from the faculty at the School of Public Health, who wanted to know a bit more about how things got done at their own school. The CIA gave Bok the brush-off and Hiatt settled himself down for a bruising power struggle that would determine the direction the school would take in trying to modernize itself. Still, it was late summer, and the woes of bureaucracy held no spark, no charm. Registration was too close.