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The Paradox of Tradition

Adams House in the Age of Randomization

By Marshall I. Lewy

Before randomization, the Houses were defined by the students who lived in them. Students cultivated particular communities, and these Houses developed distinctive traditions. Last year's randomization was a rare instance of Harvard's changing itself. After only one year, randomization has already changed the tenor of most Houses.

Adams House, however, has a particularly strong history and tradition. Filling Adams with not particularly "Adams-ian" residents will not stifle its tradition. Whereas Leverett, my house, is nothing more than a dormitory, Adams House is an arts institution. Two years from now, when the rest of the Houses have been completely randomized, Adams will still thrive as a haven for those interested in arts and letters. After all, Harvard has a long tradition of perpetuating tradition--even when it ignores students' needs.

We only need to take a quick walk around the place to remind us of Adams House's tradition. While plenty of other Houses have beautiful hallways, courtyards and Masters' residences, Adams has more meeting rooms, performance spaces and arts facilities than it knows what to do with. It has so many that some are tucked away deep in the labyrinthine corridors and are hardly ever used.

The Lower Common Room boasts an enormous organ and a framed document signed by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. The Adams House Pool The ater is easily the best theater in any House and the Cronauer space, though dank and bug-infested, offers a space for some interesting artistic fare (it is where the Dancing Deviant recently did his thing). On top of these places, Adams provides an active printing press, squash courts recently converted into an art gallery and, of course, the intriguingly decorated tunnels walls. That, as Marty Feldstein would say, is infrastructure.

Adams House also has the people, and I don't mean the undergraduates. Dozens of English and other arts tutors, professors and members of the informal Cambridge arts community are associated with Adams House. A friend was in the Adams Dining Hall the other day having dinner with Lecturer in English Richard C. Marius, the temporary Adams House master. "All these people kept coming over to the table," he said. First, the owner of the Grolier Poetry Book Store stopped by to say hello to the gregarious Master Marius, then a few Fellows, then a few students. Adams House, unlike Leverett, had the feeling of a real community based around some common interest.

That is why the strange, quirky events particular to Adams will survive, no matter who lives there. All Adams residents may not want to participate in these activities. Some may just see it as a place to live, some may even despise it and call it a "freak-zone," but the events will go on. People will still cavort around in drag; they will continue to whip their neighbors on Halloween; they will ballroom dance to the Bach Society Orchestra's drunken waltz music; they will eat chocolate penises.

Students who do not expect to be particularly excited about the arts or the offbeat traditions of Adams House may learn to appreciate them. A student who had considered dressing in drag for a night purely ridiculous might give in and ultimately learn to love the tradition. Even better, a student who has never acted or written in his life might meet a tutor or another student and be inspired to try his or her hand at the world of arts and letters.

Some may object to the strange things that go on at Adams, but like them or not, they distinguish Adams from all other houses. The Leverett Doughnut Bash just doesn't cut it.

If in 10 years Adams House has more or less the same character it does today, then we have reached a bittersweet out-come. On the one hand, the survival of Adams as an institution would be a great thing, since it serves an important function in promoting the arts within the Harvard community. On the other, if the institution lives regardless of the makeup of the students who live there, then this turn of events proves an unfortunate truth that is indicative of a larger problem at Harvard. Often, it seems that the traditions of the many hallowed institutions that make up Harvard are more important than the students who comprise these institutions. A professor of mine told me that he believed whenever anyone at Harvard feels any sort of threat from change, he or she (usually he) hides behind the safeguard of tradition. Students can't stand taking final exams after winter recess? All-male, exclusive Final Clubs are unfair and stupid? Sorry, it's tradition.

To be fair, some sacred cows have been smashed, such as the Freshman Union and, of course, the House system itself. At some point, things did change drastically at this place, for today women are permitted and public school first-year are no longer jammed into Hollis while wealthy kids live large in Grays.

But after two years here, I feel that the Harvard powers that be do often seem more interested in maintaining the facade of traditional institutions--manicuring the lawns of the Yard and serving three-star food at the Faculty club--than they do about fulfilling the needs of the students.

In some ways, this attention to tradition is positive; with the survival of Adams House's character, for example, a good institution thrives and many students benefit. Furthermore, Harvard University, by perpetuating its traditions, continues to be an institution that contributes to world progress. However, there are trade-offs, and Harvard institutions do not always respect that they are the sum of their parts; that is, the students who make up the institution are the important thing, not simply the viability of the institution itself.

Future Adams House residents who have no interest in the arts will never care for an institution that does not cater to their needs. And among all Harvard undergraduates, some students will feel neglected by a university that rumbles on and seems to care little about them.

Marshall Lewy '99 is a Crimson editor who lives in Leverett House.

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