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Establishment and Revolution

By Jenny E. Heller

So often on these pages we read criticism—of College advising, of University stinginess, of the president and the provost and the deans, of Harvard’s living wage policy. I could fill my entire column just listing everything students find to complain about—some of it, in my opinion, warranted, but most of it not. These critical checks are certainly important—the essence, you might say, of our free market society.

But somewhere in the excitement of criticism and cynicism, we lose perspective. We forget why we came here—the skipped heartbeat of that second before we heard or read, “Congratulations. Welcome to the Class of 2001.” We forget those moments each of us has experienced—you’re walking through the Yard or the Square (the sun is shining, the pseudo-Beatles are playing “Here Comes the Sun”) and you just smile to yourself and think, I’m here. We forget the serene beauty of the Lowell courtyard in the spring, when the trees blossom and students chat lazily on the grass. We forget, in the stress of papers and exams, the thrill of shopping period when you realize that even if you attended Harvard five times you could never exhaust the possibilities. Perhaps most we forget that, yes, administrators are fallible; they make mistakes, but we shouldn’t continue to beat our heads and theirs against the wall berating them for these occasional missteps to the detriment of the positive. Let’s move on.

Harvard has done something very right. It’s not the name, the prestige, the elite atmosphere that those on the outside imagine. (None of you considered transferring to that other top-ranked school in New Haven, did you? I didn’t think so.) What does that matter anyway once you have gotten over the initial thrill? It’s not the brilliant faculty, the intellectual renown, the access to limitless academic resources. That wouldn’t draw me here over any other college with Nobel Prize-winning professors. After all, how many of us have actually made contact with more than a few, if that, of these top thinkers?

It is instead Harvard’s unique mixture of tradition and iconoclasm, of establishment and revolution, nurtured by the University’s commitment to its history even in the face of sometimes-destabilizing intellectual progress, that puts our College at the top. Harvard shows no fear of moving beyond its past, embracing the theories of modernism and postmodernism in its curriculum, hiring professors who study any number of new disciplines and working each year to welcome into the student community greater numbers of those who were once shunned.

It also, however, refuses to let us forget our past, immersing us in a tradition that situates us and prevents us from getting lost in the maze of modern cynicism and apathy. On the walls of the Barker Center, of Annenberg and of most of the dining halls hang the faces of those men, and few women, who are our collective ancestors, who remind us that we have a duty to put our education from this august institution to good use. While many schools have abandoned requirements that students read the seminal works of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and other dead white males, Harvard requires one Shakespeare course and two pre-18th century classes of its English concentrators. The weekly Lowell House teas where students sip hot cider and tea and munch on scones, the formal dinners with professors and members of senior common rooms—remnant of an older Harvard—compel us to take time from our busy schedules and private intellectual musings to chat, to remember what it’s like to be civil. Or not so civil—as in relations between The Crimson and a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. Either way, tradition ensures there’s a secure foundation under our feet as we go about questioning, criticizing and, on occasion, provoking change.

We sometimes forget that this tradition comes not from some authority on high but, instead, from those who lived, studied and taught here before us. It’s not always right (who can defend male-only final clubs?) yet much of it is because our predecessors, for the most part, sought to do what they saw as right, just as we do now. It underscores that one thing is unquestionably right with Harvard—its students. Year in and year out, our College attracts students who bring new life to the College, reinvigorating its intellectual fervor and debate, its social diversity, its eclectic personality and, yes, even its traditions.

The night of my last exam here at the College I celebrated with a late-night run by the Charles—several laps around the asphalt pathways I think of as the racetrack. I spent most of the time absorbed in my own thoughts of senior week, my new job, spending the summer with my family and all those other details that fly through your mind as you pound the pavement. As I rounded the bend near the JFK Park to head home, I looked up. The river glittered in the light of the full moon, cooing and rippling ever so softly. Up ahead, the boughs of the overhanging trees framed the towers of Dunster, Lowell and Eliot. Their domes formed a triangle of blue, green and red in the night, guiding me home. Now it’s time to leave our home, and each of us, as those before us, will leave something of ourselves behind. On Thursday, the Class of 2001 will become part of the Harvard tradition, and of that I am proud.

Jenny E. Heller ’01, an English and French literature concentrator in Lowell House, was associate managing editor of The Crimson in 2000.

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