My Four Years At Harvard

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend 1973

For many people, the most emblematic college memory is talking philosophy with friends late into the night. For me, it was being tear-gassed in Harvard Square.

My class, the class of 1973, saw some of the most turbulent and troublesome times in the long history of Harvard University. We arrived in Cambridge in 1969, in the wake of the assassinations of my father, Robert F. Kennedy '48, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Riots tore apart American cities, and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam took on a fierce new urgency. The country was horribly divided, and Harvard offered a unique perspective on the most critical breaches.

There was little romance to it, little about which to be nostalgic today. The evils our nation faced were real and powerful. We saw injustice in the Vietnam War, in poverty, in hunger, in the inequities faced by African-Americans. Each of us responded in different ways. Some chose to be conscientious objectors. One friend spent a semester organizing mine workers. Still others joined the Students for a Democratic Society. Many more of us joined the protests around the country. We marched against the Vietnam War in Boston, New York and Washington. In the spring of 1970, our protests against the bombing of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State University forced the University to cancel exams for the first time in its history. Harvard was changing as well. My first year at Harvard, my dorm, Eliot House, was the first dormitory to go co-ed, and men and women students shared bathrooms. It was a far cry from two years earlier when there were parietals, and a woman had to leave a man's room by 7 p.m. There was still far to go. In my four years at Radcliffe, I never had a woman professor. Harvard was supposed to exemplify what was best in our society, and yet even it seemed afflicted by some of the prejudices it was teaching us to fight against.

Nevertheless, Harvard offered us a tremendous vantage point on the world that was changing around us. History, literature, philosophy, economics, sociology--everything seemed so relevant, so critical. The courses enriched our perspectives on the country's struggle and perhaps even gave us clues as to how we could achieve justice. If we truly were to meet the challenges that the world threw at us, we needed to understand the great minds we were studying. We needed to read and learn with an extra-close eye.

At a time when the country seemed in the midst of a revolution, Samuel Beer's class on revolutions taught us what it meant for a society to be turned upside-down--and what worked to turn it back right-side-up again on a just foundation. In Henry Aaron's class on the 1930s, we read James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and John Dos Passos' U.S.A. and studied the parallels to another time of great unrest, protest and poverty, when people believed they could change the social conditions of America.

In John Finley's humanities class, we learnedabout ancient Athens and the promise and perils ofdemocracy. We looked at ancient Greece and saw thechoice facing America: Will we be land-locked,walled, authoritarian Sparta, or theoutward-looking, democratic Athens? Can we havethe courage to be an open society, challenged andstrengthened by other cultures? Can we be daringand venture out to meet the future, rather thanlet it come to us?


The questions our studies raised were notabstractions to be pondered leisurely. It felt asthough the heart of our nation was staked in ouranswers. We were Harvard students and were toldfrom our first days that the privilege of aHarvard education came at a cost. That cost wasthe responsibility of leadership. When we came toHarvard, we were presented with the greatestopportunity any 18-year-old ever had.

We knew that we couldn't lean back on our heelsand think the fight was over. "I got to Harvard, Iwon." Harvard is where the fight just began, andwhat distinguished us from the people around uswas how willing we were to work and sweat andstruggle to do better. To be better. Not merelyfor our own sake, but for the sake of the countrythat had given us such a privilege. To whom muchis given, much is expected in return, and few wereever given as much as my classmates and I.

Much has changed in 25 years, of course. Today,my daughter Meagan is a Harvard student, and manyof her professors are women. Our country is nolonger at war, either with another country or withitself. Yet, the responsibility of a Harvardstudent remains to give something back to ourcountry. But the times are changing breathlessly,and we need educated, committed leaders to makesure it stays true to its founding principles ofjustice, equality and liberty. Youth inspires agewith its own sense of mission and high purpose,and youth has the courage to work together tobuild a stronger nation

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