News

Mass. State Rep. Calls on University VP to Increase Transparency for Allston Multimodal Project

News

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow Made $1.1 Million in 2020, Financial Disclosures Show

News

Harvard Executive Vice President Katie Lapp To Step Down

News

81 Republican Lawmakers File Amicus Brief Supporting SFFA in Harvard Affirmative Action Lawsuit

News

Duke Senior’s Commencement Speech Appears to Plagiarize 2014 Address by Harvard Student

Columns

A Tale of Two Cambridges

Humanities

By Sue Meng

Last semester I was on hiatus over at the other Cambridge, the one where pants are referred to as trousers and if you ever do comment on someone’s pants you either know that person very well or have just committed a blundering faux pas. Most people were curious about Harvard, or as they called it, “McCambridge,” and wanted to know how successful we’ve been in exporting a Cambridge education. Insults aside (and we were taught to expect them, cautioned by the study abroad program sponsors that the English were a “depressed, repressed, oppressed and suppressed” people), spring in Cambridge meant drinking up (no pun intended) all the traditions we’ve kept and those we’ve lost from our illustrious forebear.

The funny thing about going from Harvard to Cambridge is that in some ways it is like having gone nowhere at all, aside from having to adopt a different vocabulary. Houses are Colleges, grills are butteries, bars are pubs, professors are doctors, tutorials are supervisions, and of course, pants are trousers. To top it off, even the same seventies-inspired riot-proof architecture makes an appearance.

The differences don’t become really apparent until dinnertime, when the streets start filling with (in Britspeak) beautiful young things in flowing academic gowns on the way to formal hall (translation: fancy dinner), where the fellows of the College file out to High Table and give grace in Latin, presumably in gratitude for not having to eat the potato concoction served earlier at regular dinner. My own defining Cambridge moment took place at a private tutorial dinner at Corpus Christi College, when I was asked by the head tutor what I was reading in supervision. When I replied that I was in the middle of Dr. Faustus, she gestured to a portrait behind me, casually remarking, “Marlowe was a Corpus man, you know.” Awestruck, I turned around to look as I tried to extract my knife from difficult piece of turkey, which proceeded to fly across the table and land squarely on the plate of the Master of the College. Although I did nothing to further American-British cultural understanding that evening, my wonder for my surroundings deepened, as I found myself part of the history I was supposed to be studying, practicing the traditions set hundreds of years before.

Maybe it’s because it is my last year, and maybe because the brightness of seeing everything new hasn’t yet faded, but it has struck me that although here we are not so much defined by acts of tradition (and images of wood paneled rooms and cigars convince me this may be a good thing) and although we often write on what is wrong about Harvard (the Core, the lack of community, the Core), the same sense of history and abundance of lore that made the other Cambridge so distinctive also infuses this one. I have come back to notice the little things: the Sargent murals in Widener, the way the afternoon light slants across the whiteness of the Memorial Church steeple, the words on Dexter Gate. These quiet moments, outside of the regular busyness of our lives, make Harvard quite a different place from the imperfect institution we talk idealistically and passionately about. And although I don’t think academic robes will be required for dinner anytime soon, I have never appreciated the beauty of the campus at dusk on a Sunday afternoon in September as much as I do now.

Theodore Roethke said that going away makes you see more clearly where you are. In many ways, this has been the lesson I have gone across the world to learn. And although our debates over student space and study abroad will continue to sustain efforts for change, it is equally important to look up at the massiveness of Widener and appreciate what hasn’t.

Sue Meng ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears regularly.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Columns