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Four More Years

Our Harvard Reflections on College Life by Twenty-Two Distinguished Graduates Edited by Jeffrey Lant 345 pp. $19 95

By William E. McKibben

JOURNALISTS wishing to advance their own views on a topic must usually follow certain forms; I wish to discuss Harvard in a grand and over broad manner, and hence must resort to the guise of review books that do the same. They, however, will be put down with a few snide and summary remarks, and I will then take my ego out for a stroll of some length.

All across the nation, overachieving high school juniors are even now rejoicing at the award of The Harvard Book, better known as the Harvard Prize Book. Given in communities where a local and loyal alumnus is willing to underwrite the price, the award ostensibly goes to the junior in each high school who has demonstrated the greatest achievement I received mine, in the long-ago spring of 1977, because the teacher who picked the winner was incensed that I had been passed over by the teacher who selected members of the National Honor Society. Despite my dubious claim to the book. I enjoyed some of the essays that it contained, listed its receipt on my Harvard application, and placed the volume conspicuously on my bedroom book shelf from which it has not since strayed. In truth, I had forgotten about the book until an updated version appeared in the mail several weeks ago, just as I was looking for an excuse to feel nostalgic.

Take the institution describes, The Harvard Book changes very little from year to year. Of the 108 essays and articles included, five have been written since Lexington High School honored its distinguished junior of 1977. One of the five-Kevin Starr's reflections in Walter Jackson Bate-is interesting, and another-Peter Gomes' sermonette on Commencement-rank's among the best chuncks of Harvardiana Two others, an appropriately short anthology of the wisdom of derek C Bok, and an official explanation of "What is Radcliffe" will be skipped over by all but the most ardent high scholars, and those who do read them will get what they deserve. The final new essay is a howl. Written by none other than Associate Dean of Freshmen, W.C. Burriss Young '55 and entitled "Sage Warnings to Freshmen," it brims over with advice on everything form food fights ("So cut it out") to fire alarms in the Union ("When you hear one go off, get outside. It is better to eat cold toast than to be toasted") truly, it is unsurprising that the yield of freshmen accepting Harvard's offer of admissions has begun to drop.

The other book, Jeffrey Lant's collection of reminiscences, spans "distinguished graduates" form 1917 (Buckminster Fuller) to 1981 John H. Adler. Since I am neither distinguished nor-till tomorrow-a graduate, my criticism will likely sound shrill, still and all, a good number of these stones might better have been recounted over drinks at the Harvest during twenty-fifth reunions. As a general rule, the older grads are more interesting, if much less recognizable. And in one short piece, a tribute to Perry Miler, Robert Coles '50 succeeds better then the rest in being both eloquent and moving. As for the rest, tremendous vignettes of outstanding personalities and scenes are scattered amidst not so tremendous stories of club punches. The Signet Society is the most prominent character in the whole tome (not surprising, since these distinguished graduates are mostly writers by trade, and the Signet is reputedly literary). Probably, it is this stress on the congeniality of that yellow building that prejudiced me against Lant's book. Virtually all of my predecessors as President of The Crimson were asked to join the Signet, and I hoped to emulate the example of one of my favorite mentor. Francis J Connolly '79, who answered the invitation in the words of Groucho Mars. "Any club that would have me as a member I wouldn't want to join." Alas, the powers that be at the Dunster St. fortress may have divined my intention, or (more likely) deemed me insufficiently literary. At any rate, I was never invited to join Robbed of the chance for snubbing and reverse snubbing in one stroke. I vowed not only never to step inside but also to slur the Signet on every appropriate occasion. They are pledges I have kept.

Read Our Harvard at one sitting for one leafing, while standing in the Coop), for its essays have much more impact cumulatively than separately. This is the story not so much of one Harvard but of three, and as such it says much about the curious hybrid we graduate from tomorrow.

The first College, remembered by those men gathering this week for their 50th reunion, stretched from who knows when until World War II, it is the old Harvard most people mean when they pronounce the word with a broad "H". President Lowell read from the Bible to silent students and walked his spaniel Phantom around the campus, one could and occasionally did walk to Walden Pond, The Advocate published with some regularity, and the clubs were a center of College life. As Thornton F. Bradshaw '40, later president of Atlantic Richfield and RCA, recalls: "The Porcellian, Delphic, A.D. and Fly were still spoken of with awe by those of us who were in the lesser clubs" Adds Thomas Boylston Adams '33. "There were classes of course. Some time had to be given to them. But the object of coming to Harvard was suddenly apparent. It was to get into a Club. The Club was as pleasant a place as he would ever know. Companionship was there always and mild ways of wasting a little money and a great deal of time. From the Club, gentlemen went to classes, always wearing coat, tie, and hat. "Other types did come here, even then, President Conant created Dudley House for what Theodore H. white '38 called "menthalls"; scholarship and day students, many from Boston Latin High School, looking for a way up and out. And some students didn't fit any of the stereotypes-soul-tortured. Thomas Wolfe, trying to read every book in Widener, comes to mind. But in general gentility ruled. Describing the "soul" of Harvard. Robert Stuart Fitzgerald '33 remembers a stay in Stillman Infirmary during his undergraduate years. One afternoon, a visitor called, "a slightly portly gentlemen with walrus mustaches in chesterfield and homburg, with a small black Scotty on a leash. He inquired into our condition and passed the time of day. It was Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of the University, out for his constitutional and visiting the sick Visiting his sick. That kind of thing, soon enough to go out, still happened."

Members of the transitional classes-those who came to Harvard before or during the war and completed their degrees after the peace-often cite one fact to explain the change they saw. Before, in the old Harvard, one sat down to dinner, printed menu in hand, and waited for the attentions of a water a waiter. After, in the new College, lines formed in front of steam tables, where dinner was dished out service-style. "Fish or cut bait," a dean told Anton Myrer '47 upon his return. "We've got no time for that prewar folderol 'Fish or cut bait'. There were double-decker banks in the houses, chow lines, both lines at the Coop". The new Harvard bore only occasional resemblance to the old, great professors still trod the floor boards of Server and Emerson, but these stars (Perry Miller forcemeat among them) had only two names, not the three (George Washington Pierce, George Lyman Kittredge, Charles Townsend Coppland) that had distinguished their predecessors. The clubs carried on, but as D.U. member Peter S. Prescott '57 insists. "It was impossible to underestimate their importance;" they were rapidly giving way to mere Pierian organizations-The Crimson, for one, which underwent in great boom in the 1950's. This period saw the birth of "diversity," a phrase that replaced "exclusively" on the tongues of Harvard men. True, the diversity went only so far (leaf through a 1950s vintage Yearbook some time; a Black face appears every fifth or sixth page). Still, by 1961 diplomas carried situations in the vernacular and not the Latin. A sense of excellence, of self-satisfaction, and of confidence, dominate the reminiscences from this year in Lant's book: "Freshman year I was thrown among brilliant strangers," John D. Spooner '59 writes. "General Motors Scholars, National Merit Scholars from Nebraska, Mississippi Pennsylvania, California, New Jersy and Texas...all public school boys. They were all brilliant, but they felt instinctively that they were special and had special things waiting for them in life."

In the fall of 1964, The Crimson polled undergraduates to find out, given the opportunity, what presidential candidate they would support. Nearly 90 percent said Lyndon B. Johnson. "Almost everyone seemed to share the basic goals-and the basic confidence-of the national administration." Michael Barone '66 writes in the Lant book. The College was liberal, ambitious-and ready to implode. Secretary of Defense Robert S McNamara visited Quincy House in 1966, and several hundred members and sympathizers of Students for a Democratic Society gathered to block his egress, forcing him to climb on top of his car and snottily answer queries about the war in Vietnam.

Nearly 3000 undergraduates signed a petition apologizing to McNamara for the disruption, still and all, the demonstration marked the birth of a third Harvard, a short-lived, hot-burning era that lasted until 1972 or thereabouts but whose effects linger still. This Harvard closed down spring after spring as students went on strike, occupied buildings, marched for peace, revolution, better treatment for local tenants and any number of other causes. This Harvard allowed little time for gentility or even excellence. "There was an element of uncertainty and disorientation that is easy so overlook, now that we all know how things turned out." James Fallows '70 remembers. "My own sense was of being on a gyre of history whose final resting point no one could safety predict." Clubs, mixers, even sports verged on the irrelevant one memorable spring, the sports staff of The Crimson voted to cover no more games and write no more columns, so the paper could devote its full energy and full space to tracking the upheaval Scholarship, which in Harvard's history often had taken a back seat to other activities, was stuffed in the trunk by many. Depressing and exhilarating, the era shattered the confidence of the postwar College, and punctured most of the stuffy heritage (and too many of the civilized and gentle men) that always had marked this school. It was probably the shortest lived important era in the College's history. By 1973, the blister had burst, the swelling gone down, the fever broken. William Mattin '72, "I seem to recall another building occupation what was largely ignored during my senior year, but by my graduation in 1972, the seventies, for better or worse, had begun." WHICH brings us to the present, to the era that includes the class of 1982. Oddly, since I was here for the period, my sense of what distinguished our four years is not nearly so well defined as my ideas of what earlier times were like. I know what I did, and what others did, and I have some clue as to what I and they thought, but it doesn't add up to an animal that can be stuffed with generalities and put on display. This fourth Harvard lacks the distinctiveness of its predecessors; it partakes of all that went before, but not with much enthusiasm; it is a College in transition, or, perhaps, in stagnation.

From the ancient, white-gloved Harvard comparatively little remains. Some truly wonderful institutions survive-morning prayers in Appleton Chapel, for one, and ivy on the walls for another (though these days its grip is perilous). The clubs, they say, are resurgent, but most of the College would have trouble listing half of them by name. And Fox, Fly, Owl, Spee and their kindred are given over now more to fraternity-style carousing and less to gentility (though tuxedos remain de rigger). The preppie movement-the defiant wearing of madras and espadrilles-amounted to not so much in the way of attitudes, and the St. Grottlesex tribe remains easily ignoble. What was once the Harvard culture is now a Harvard subculture, and a vaguely ridiculous one at that.

And from that troubled time immediately before our own, we take the unsettling thought that all is not right in the world. From "the movement's" failure to change the world, there comes the settling, if sorrowful, idea that all will never be right in the world. Some spark of political consciousness remains-every year of our stay has witnessed at least one sizable demonstration. But none of the fever-of the frenzied idea that something must be done, can be done, should be done - lingers. The apathy Times and News week point to stems less from the assured sense that nothing ins wrong than from the hopeless notion that nothing can be made right.

We would seem to borrow most from the middle of Harvard-the placid, academic, somewhat boring postwar years. But our complacency is not the same, stemming from a bleak and not a sunny view of what lies ahead. Not many in the Class of '82 plan to burn around next year, not many are joining the Peace Corps. A job is a job, and not to be sneered at. Less stock is put on accomplishment, and more on getting ahead and getting by. Exuberance, energy, enthusiasm-those words described the Harvard of 1952 or 1962 much better than the Harvard we will leave tomorrow. For the record, Harvard 1982 is too high-pressured, too divorced form any activity save self-advancement, to be much fun for a lot of its students. Those who find niches-clubs, The Crimson sports-remain relatively protected. Those who don't form a larger and nearly invisible population of the board, the scared, the drunk, and the vaginally unhappy.

New traditions may spring up, and a new, classifiable period in Harvard's history may take shape in the years just abused, though it's unclear what the sources of that freshness will be, and the-worry persists that the College could continue down this bloodless, path, deteriorating someday into a UMass for smart people. Which would be a shame, for, despite its worst excesses, Harvard has always been exceedingly special-even in the relatively blast period of my education, the College meant many wonderful things. Enough wonderful things, in fact, that I refuse to go out moping, and instead want to end by singing a few of many hymns that Harvard in my since deserves.

FOREMOST AND FIRST, I want to confess a secret admiration for the most maligned group at this College, true scholars. Though too much of my undergraduate career was spent cutting classes (an activity about which I boasted, for reasons that now escape me). I did see enough lectures to know Harvard's oldest heritage is safe for a good many years to come. Stare around; the glorious supernova that was Walter Jackson Bate in our day, and hot ascendant luminary that in Stephen Jay Gould, to name just two. I didn't have the time to write a thesis (too busy solving world problems), but some of my best friends...And once, before I went to outback West Texas on a research trip, I spelunker into the Widener Clevel stacks on a hunch. It turned out that, there on the shelf, was indeed a history (one of 50 copies printed by a vanity press, 49 of which were probably sent to relatives) of the tiny town that was my destination. Never have I felt happier to be at Harvard. While everything else at this school changes, for some faculty and a few students a commitment to scholarship remains. For the rest of us-who are at college to grow up, to get a job, to do what society demands-the scholars provide the pleasant sense that the University has a real purpose. And at the same time, since most of what they actually accomplish is arcane and esoteric, very little pressure exists to emulate the scholars. You can tell work stories to friends and neighbors ("11 p.m. Friday night, and the Science Center library, it' full"), you can secretly admire them for caring about something for its own sake (sort of the same admiration that everyone accords a young man entering the priesthood), but they're not such a goad to the conscience as to win the rest of us away from the barrooms, the newspaper offices, the klieg lights, or the playing fields. So a huzza for them, and for the sheer candlepower they generate for the rest of us to loll painlessly in.

If Widener LC is the mind of Harvard, and musty Houghton its should, then Massachusetts and University Halls are the leviathan's arms-by contrast, spindly and trembling. I am supposed to be singing praises, and there is one small part of the Harvard administration that deserves nothing but I came here (like all high school students) disliking gays for, as we called them, "homes.") I leave with a profound respect for their courage, because I got to know enough to share their pain and pride. I came here avoiding preppies, and leave firm in the knowledge that there are as many upper crushers worth knowing as not. "Diversity" wins more lip service than any other of the University's selling points; still and all, a lot of people talk about how much they like Steve's Ice Cream, and it tastes good nonetheless. It's not just that the admissions office had more sense than Brown and Stanford when it came to me. They let in a lot of other nifty people too.

Many of you may want to avert your eyes during my final paean. Not only will it be treacle, but it's to an institution-The Harvard Crimson-the meant everything to me, and Doonesbury to you. I came to Harvard because of The Crimson, when they told me freshmen couldn't start coming until the semester was two weeks old, I was miserably. For The Crimson have travailed to 14 states and the Cambridge City Council chambers, which makes no sense on one level (who cares what Harvard's daily has to say about U.S. foreign policy, not to mention rent control) and perfect sense on another (what could be more fun?) I've spent the better part of the last four years, staying up very late at night helping to produce and print the paper, which makes no sense on one level (a career in galley-proofing?) but perfect sense on another (what else should I do? Sleep? And where else is excitement, weariness, brotherhood bound up so tightly as by a clattering press run at 4 a.m.?) And, too, I've devoted more than one dinner to defending the paper against its sizeable horde of detractors. Yes, I agree-it is self-important, And it is a club. And it's also produced eight hundred and eleven editions during my undergraduate career. Multiply that by about ten pages apiece, and you'll see it's a club with a difference, and perhaps you'll even pardon the occasional mistake. At any rate, the pride of the craftsman equals the pride of the scholar, even if it's not as common at Harvard. "We've never missed a morning."-Pat Sorrento. The Crimson's shot foreman, has repeated more than once. For four years I've been proud of that, and I can be proud of it for one day more before it's fair to call me a weepy old grad.

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