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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

History With a Backbeat

By Charles W. Slack

The popular music of the sixties in England and America, more than anything, glorified youth. The kids rallied around rock 'n' roll, and the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and countless others churned out anthems for the under-thirty. Rock music soon became the symbol of everything the Establishment--businessmen, police, university faculties and administrations--hated, and the rock 'n' roll kids played on louder than ever and hated the Establishment right back.

But gradually the violent protests began to die down, as the sixties merged into the seventies, and the generation gap began to narrow. In the interest of self-preservation, the rock songwriters softened their blows against people over thirty as they found themselves approaching and finally crossing that once forbidden barrier.

Inevitably, the world grew less clearly divided between the rockers and the squares. As the youths grew up and entered the work force, the Establishment, they brought their music with them. One representative of this meshing at Harvard is Simon M. Schama, professor of History.

At 36, Schama is already widely respected as one of the top European history scholars in the world. Author of two books and numerous articles, he has received a number of prizes and awards for his work, including the Wolfson Literary Prize for History for his book, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780-1813. Before coming to Harvard as a professor last year, Schama taught at Cambridge and Oxford in England and at the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies in Colorado. In 1978 he lectured at Brandeis and at Harvard.

Sitting in his cluttered office tucked away on the third floor of the Center for European Studies, itself a secluded enclave on a quiet residential street four or five blocks from the Science Center, Schama is dressed in stylish New Wave clothes, a fashionable dress leather jacket draped over the back of his chair. His cultured British accent adding, at least to an American ear, an extra touch of grace to his already eloquent speech, Schama speaks of rock music with the same passion with which he discusses academics.

Born in England in 1945, Schama entered Christ's College, Cambridge, as a student in 1963, the year the Beatles first soared toward international fame. "We all felt in some peculiar way that the Beatles represented us," he says, adding that when he and some friends visited the United States in the early sixties, "everyone kept asking us 'do you know the Beatles?' because we were from England. So we all adopted Liverpool accents and said 'sure we do.'"

He said the Beatles chief strength during their early years, aside from their music, was their ability to capture the sentiments of the British youths in their lyrics. "Their lyrics were very positive, and most of us at the time felt very positive about our own futures and the future of England." Schama says his favorite rock band during the '60s was the Who. "The thing that endeared the Who" to him was seeing Pete Townsend and Keith Moon breaking their instruments at a concert, he says with a smile.

Today's music in England, particularly that of the punk movement, reflects a much more negative attitude of British youth toward their country than that of the early sixties, the professor says, adding that this trend emerged from a "post-sixties cynicism," caused by increasingly tough economic times in England. Although Schama has a deep interest in classical music and opera, he has maintained his interest in rock. His favorite contemporary musician is Ian Dury, best known in this country for his song "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick." Although Dury "is thought to be a punk rocker," Schama says he could be better titled as "the poet of Mrs. Thatcher's England. He is clearly in love with Britain and yet he is quite cynical. He sings in the accent of the blighted London suburb."

The major difference between British and American rock music of today, Schama says, is the degree of cynicism that each displays. The punk movement in England is built on a "culture of hatred and a collapse of role models" for today's youths. In America, on the other hand, the punk movement was based much less on economic problems and was more of a fad. "In America, the punk movement is not nearly as ferocious as in England--you'd be much less likely to see people doing things like putting safety pins through their cheeks."

The overwhelming cynicism of British youth compared to those of American also provides one of the chief differences between the attitudes students take toward college, Schama says. Since British students must choose their specialty much earlier than American students, they "show an early weariness with higher education itself" than do their American counterparts. "British students tend to look on college as finishing school--a sort of rite of passage to a career. In the United States, on the other band, college represents the start of a long period of training, and students demonstrate an open receptiveness and enthusiasm about higher education."

One positive result of the British cynicism, however, is the student's tendency not to trust openly his educational sources or take information at face value, Schama says, adding that American students are too often willing to accept information unquestioningly. "American students need to be given the courage to attack sources the way British students do." He adds, however, that the British students "often do this to excess." Schama says that although Harvard students are reputed in this country to be very cynical toward the education they receive, "their cynicism is that of wild spontaneous naivete compared to that or their cousins at Oxford or Cambridge."

As a teacher, Schama said he has enjoyed working at Harvard more than at Oxford or Cambridge. "Harvard offers the chance to teach both on a one-to-one level in tutorials, which I enjoy very much, and also the opportunity to teach large lecture courses. At Oxford and Cambridge, very little teaching is done in large lectures--mostly in weekly tutorial meetings." He says these meetings often involve simply a student reading around a paper he has written the night before for forty minutes out of the hour and then twenty minutes of discussion at the end. "A teacher can end up reading 25-30 papers a week under this system, many of which have little to do with his specialty."

The advantage of Harvard's system of lectures is that it "forces a professor to continually ask himself 'why am I studying this particular field?' At Oxford and Cambridge you just don't ask yourself that--you don't question your reasons for studying the field you do. It's like taking your trousers off in public."

Schama, who will teach three courses this year, including the Corecourse "Lit and Arts C-23, Art and Politics in Europe, 1700-1871," says that history has been a "passion" with him since he was an infant. At the age of seven, he undertook the rather ambitious project of writing "an illustrated history of the British Navy." The result, he remembers, was "highly fictitious."

Although Schama says he enjoys teaching at Harvard and living in the U.S., he remains, in most ways, very British. "I run out and buy the British papers all the time just to find out the football and cricket scores." Though not himself an athlete, Schama describes himself as an avid fan of both sports, and expresses great disappointment in the failure of American papers--not even the New York Times--to carry the cricket scores. He says he has taken somewhat of an interest in baseball since he arrived here, but still finds American football "wholly mystifying and staccato--a baffling and dull sport." He readily admits, however, that an American could easily say the same of cricket.

And, like any good Englishman, Schama say the recent royal wedding brought home feelings of patriotism. "It's the one thing left from the days of the Empire--the trappings of the culture remain. It was a sort of nose-thumbing at the modern world and a fairly innocuous form of self-deception," he says.

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