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Climbing On Board

Harvard: 1959

By John B. Fox jr.

My recollections of arriving in Cambridge in the Fall of 1955 are of an exquisite blend of excitement and terror. Excitement that I was actually here After all, it was only a few months before that I had discovered, rather to my amazement, that there were several colleges prepared to offer me admission and further, what I had thought only a remote possibility, one of these was Harvard Like many freshmen today, I believed that error, misplaced kindness or perhaps inappropriate weight given to the fact that I was an alumni son must have accounted for my admission.

Terror, therefore, that I would soon be found out. It would be only a matter of time before I tripped so badly that my inadequacies would be revealed to the world, particularly to the deans in University Hall.

Although I tried not to admit it, I was also rather bewildered by my classmates. A few, I sensed, were as terrified as I was, although I was certain that none experienced the pure panic I did when I sat down to take my first hour examination. Others arrived with a worldliness I found unimaginable and a range of experience which persuaded me that the world in which I had grown up, suburban Boston, was very limited indeed. Many coming from outside the Northeast were without any "Eastern" pretensions. Understanding the Harvard admissions process only dimly. I assumed that each of these latter individuals must be truly brilliant.

Surrounded by this assortment of sophisticates and geniuses, with only a few simple souls like myself who feared for their survival. I set off on my College experience.

Looking back I recognize that virtually every one of my classmates shared to some considerable degree my unease on their arrival in Cambridge. Most of us discovered with time that we could manage some kind of workable relationship with the College, whether it be through academic pursuits, comradeship on an athletic team, thorough-going involvement in a House community, an active or overactive social life, or participation in extracurricular activities. Each of us came to terms with some part of Harvard or some assembly of parts of Harvard so that we could feel reasonably secure, and perhaps even useful.

It was, of course, as if we had been placed on board a great sailing ship already underway and, without quite understanding the complex interplay of wind, vessel and water, we had begun to comprehend some part of the ship's arrangements. Little by little, we found that we could turn a useful hand to trimming or mending a sail, doing a bit of navigation, preparing a meal in the galley or singing (if you will pardon a picturesque phrase) a shanty or two on the fo'c's'le. We joined the crew of a great vessel which had already traversed many miles before our arrival. We helped her along, during our four years, and so became a part of her.

With each succeeding year, new crew members arrived, and our own seniority and knowledge of what we were about increased Probably few of us saw the ship whole during those four years Virtually all of us, however, sensed that we were participating in and contributing to a grand spectacle. At the end, when we had learned as much as could be taught of the particular tasks we had chosen to take up we were sent off to fend for ourselves in the wider commerce of the world.

Like my classmates. I have for the past quarter century engaged in that wider commerce, at Harvard and elsewhere. For the past eight years I have had responsibility for the well being of the current generation of undergraduates in the College. As we did, they find at Harvard a wide range of opportunities, successes and disappointments to fill their lives.

The College fills much of my own life today in a similar fashion, and this experience is so pervasive that it may have impaired my own recollections of the College a quarter century ago When asked to compare the College "now" to the College "then." I am uncertain how complete may be my memory of "the College then" More important, however. I wonder about trying to compare the recollected impressions of a twenty year old with the present views of a mid forty year old.

There is a remarkable range in the ways people assess their College experience. Not so long ago having succumbed to a request for a series of "then" and "now" talks, I was speaking to a small group of alumnae and alumni in Palo Alto about changes in the College. I had barely reached the lectern when an elderly member of the audience, whose sixty-fifth reunion must have been history, rose to his feet to wonder whether life in the Yard had changed much since his day.

I set aside my prepared remarks and in my mind, began to collect the salient points, the Yard turned over for freshman use in 1930, the presence of women since 1972. etc. Without waiting for a reply, however, the alumnus went to the heart os his concern. Was it still possible, he wanted to know, to bank the coal fire in one's rooms, and on a cold night take advantage of the current of warm air rising in the chimney? With sufficient skill one could, he explained, feed an entire roll of toilet paper up the flue whence it would drift out on the night air to garland the trees in the Yard.

The rest of the audience and I were convulsed I wondered how to reply. A new list of salient points began to form I recalled my father's tale of a classmate and fellow resident of Massachusetts Hall in 1927-28 who, when irritated by the glare of a bare lightbulb burning over the entrance to Harvard Hall, would extinguish the light with a carefully placed shot from an air gun he kept in his room. Or another parental story of the pandemonium occasioned when someone put Christmas light flashers in all the Yard lanterns. It seems that the "Yard cops" (now University Police) had, in the days before radios, been in the habit of switching these lights on and off to summon assistance When the lights came on that evening in the late 1920s, portly gentlemen in blue could be seen puffing from one corner of the Yard to another, anxiously seeking whichever colleague it was who required their aid.

Further down the list. I could recall events of my own College years. A water fight in Weld Hall which was reaching its supreme moment when a brimming trash container, now water vessel, was emptied from a high floor down the stairwell with such unintended precision of timing that the deluge passed the last floor just as a proctor stepped out into the bottom of the stairwell. There was a direct hit on an upturned face. (My roommate and I were in bed and sound asleep by the time the proctor, moving rapidly, reached our, lower, floor.) And I remember two other events, both sponsored, I believe, by the Lampoon. A distraught "mother," whose baby carriage had inexplicably and suddenly become engulfed in flames in front of Sever at exactly 11 o'clock one morning, and the December mugging in front of the Coop of a Salvation Army "Santa" who subsequently set off in pursuit, bell ringing furiously, of the "thieves" as they ran down Boylston Street with bucket, tripod and all.

And I know, from service as Chairman of the College's Administrative Board of current versions of these events. So, with a brief reference to the installation of central heating. I assured my new friend in Palo Alto that things had not changed much at all in the Yard.

But the fact that such an anecdote epitomized for him "life in the Yard" makes me wonder about comparing a memory seven decades old with the current experiences of students in the College. How valid were my own recollections?

Each of us has particular interests in the College. Some, like my Palo Alto friend, want to know about comparative mischief. Others are interested in what happens in the classroom, in social life, or athletics, or the socio-economic or geographic profiles of the classroom, or students' intended occupations. My own interests, I must admit, are more in the present and the future than the past While I retain a great interest in the arts, which first emerged in college, new topics come along which I find equally rewarding. Athletics, for example, which I experienced minimally twenty-five years ago through the freshman physical training requirement, now consumes a good deal of my time. I suspect the questions most alumnae and alumni ask about the College now are informed as much by their experience since College as their experience in it.

So the past quarter century has made me see things in the College I could not have seen at 20. My present position gives me ample opportunity to see the lure of nostalgia, or at least that unhappy form of nostalgia which leads one to wish one had taken better advantage of the College--"if only I knew then what I know now." But we did not; certainly I did not. Both as a middle-aged alumnus and as a dean. I have come to the conclusion that college is something which happens to us, where we strive to do the best we can with whatever limitations we have; and that we continue to change and grow in each decade which follows college.

Nevertheless, I think there are some things one can say about the College "then and now." Despite all the things that have so clearly changed about Harvard, all the new buildings, the creation of a genuinely coeducational college, a restructured curriculum and an increased selectivity (after all, almost half of those who applied for admission to the Class of '59 were accepted by Harvard, three times the proportion of those accepted today), one comes away with the view that the experience of the College is very little changed. Perhaps one might argue that the experience of going to college changes little, but that Harvard has changed a great deal. In the essentials, however, I do not think that Harvard has changed much. It challenges and rewards students today in ways very similar to those of 25 years ago and. I suspect, those of fifty, 75 and 100 years ago.

In my role as a freshman adviser I now welcome a small group of new arrivals to the College every year. In them I can often see my classmates. The sophisticates and geniuses are there as well as the tremulous. They encounter Harvard as we did. And they gain from it as we did.

I believe, in fact, that one of Harvard's enduring distinctions is the people it attracts and the standards it sets for those of us who have come. Few institutions in American life have set, implicitly and explicitly, such high standards for so long as Harvard has Twenty five years ago, virtually all of us. I think, left the institution with a commitment not only to do well at whatever we undertook, but with an additional sense that personal accomplishment did not account for much unless it contributed to the well being of society as a whole. We knew we had an obligation to society at least as great as the obligation we had to ourselves. Of all of Harvard's lessons that. I believe, is the most enduring.

The author is dean of Harvard College

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