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The Ghosts in The Walls

By Adam A. Sofen

As colleges confront a new century, many of their leaders have proclaimed distance learning the wave of the future. Last year, for instance, a high-tech entrepreneur pledged $100 million to begin an “Ivy League-quality” university on the Internet, free of charge. Harvard is not immune to the trend: this year the business school decided to offer online courses, and the College may eventually follow suit.

Right now, “distance learning” is largely a trendy buzzword, the higher education counterpart of America’s fascination with everything e-. But it reflects a mindset that becomes increasingly deep-seated with each year: the idea that education is a commodity, a quantity that can be transferred, like bank accounts or stock quotes, over fiber-optic wires or DSL lines. The University’s newfound emphasis on globalization suggests that the administration is coming to see “Harvard” as a brand name rather than a place.

As I prepare to leave Cambridge after four years, in possession of an official Harvard education, I can attest that nothing could be more wrongheaded. By now it is a cliche to say that Harvard students learn as much from their extraordinary peers as from lectures and sections. Undoubtedly this is true, and impossible to replicate. But the value of Harvard goes even beyond its people, talented though they may be: this spot, these buildings and lawns and gates, the beauty that suffuses them and the spirits that live among them, are the subtlest teachers, and sometimes the most poetic and profound.

In short, where you learn is as meaningful as what you learn or from whom you learn. I first realized this when I noticed the lasting link in my memory between the books I have read and the places I read them. Foolhardily, I often try to read and walk at the same time. (My comprehension and my walking speed both diminish, but there are more distractions in my room than on a sidewalk in Waltham.) An unexpected consequence of this habit is that books and places become inextricably connected, each evoking the other as surely as the smell of Christmas trees means family and childhood.

One October I walked to Belmont Center while reading Moby Dick; passing the town’s high school on a jaunt two years later, I realized with a start that the sight of it conjured up a passage from Melville I had long since forgotten. I cannot walk to Porter Square on certain fall afternoons without feeling the golden antique light of Fitzgerald’s Princeton, because one sophomore-year Saturday I read This Side of Paradise on the median strip of Mass. Ave.

This phenomenon showed me a larger truth about the importance of place in college life. To be sure, most Harvard students probably do their reading in the Quincy House library or their suites in Mather, if they do their reading at all. But all of us take our classes amid red brick buildings with crisp white trim, fountains, statues and lavish green lawns. This grandeur is not solely designed to impress potential donors. Rather, the loveliness of the campus mingles with and enhances learning—the reason that critic David Denby has argued that beautiful surroundings are vitally important for education. The columns of Widener bespeak a reverence for the books within; the gleaming tower of Memorial Hall is as eloquent a statement of the University’s values as any Commencement address (one reason undergraduates were short-sighted to complain about the tower’s renovation). Stripped of its campus, conducted in an office park or a strip mall—or over the Internet, say—Harvard, and the education it provides, would lose part of its soul.

The idea of a university’s soul is difficult to quantify or pin down, and it cannot be itemized for a balance sheet. But soul is more fundamental than prestige or endowment. And just as a person’s soul lives in the body, a college’s soul is contained on its campus. It is the reason an “Ivy League-quality” university on the Web is difficult to picture.

Harvard’s soul is in the Yard, where ghosts walk. To sleep where your heroes slept—Thoreau, Emerson, Gertrude Stein, Franklin Roosevelt—to follow the paths they walked on, is a rare privilege in a young country. I come from Los Angeles, a city famous for obliterating all traces of its past. In the Yard, the trees are saturated with the spirits of great women and men, as well as the thousands of mere mortals who occupied this ground in an unbroken line that extends far past the founding of the republic itself. The walls have absorbed their presence.

That presence, invisible but real, is my best argument for why place matters. Online learning may someday enhance the lives of millions of people who might not otherwise have access to education. This is an unquestionable good, but it is no substitute for the real thing. The distance deprives the learning of part of its intangible essence: history, beauty, continuity, the reassuring fastness of centuries-old bricks. “Distance learning” may be an inevitable part of the future, but the keepers of this great old college must safeguard our ties to the past, our beautiful walls of ghosts.

Adam A. Sofen ’01, a history and literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2000.

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