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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
One enters senior year at Harvard with a great deal of trepidation, a feeling that first-years who might be reading this newspaper for the second or third time no doubt share. It is a feeling of excitement at how far we have come, tinged with sadness about how little we have left before we go.
The music of growing up is reaching its denouement now for seniors and its crescendo for Cambridge’s newest arrivals. But in each season of our lives, we find ourselves reflective about where we have been. What is the meaning of the journey? What is the meaning of this place where we all take our first independent steps?
Before matriculation, Harvard loomed for most of us as an Olympian institution whose intellectual demigods occasionally mingled with us mortals in our high-school reading assignments or our newspapers at breakfast. For foreign students, Harvard was probably considered the best of America, the reservoir of both its genius and, especially in a time of international conflict, its compassion. So when we first arrived in Cambridge, most of us felt the enormity of the institution as something overwhelming—and our unworthiness and alienation from it, something profound.
I participated in intercollegiate athletics as a first-year and remember how odd it felt to represent Harvard—how the ‘H’ on the back of my uniform felt like it was weighing down the shoulders on which it rested. Who was I to represent something so breathtakingly huge?
But take heart. After four years here you will not own Harvard, and you should not want to, but you will become a part of it. You will project who you are onto what Harvard will be, and with an open heart and an open mind, Harvard will project what it has been upon who you are.
Learn Harvard, inhale Harvard, and love Harvard.
And in the process, try to keep in mind what this place has seen, for it has witnessed both great victory and tragic loss. Harvard was here during the birth of this nation, nursed many of its founding fathers, then sacrificed some of its sons to their cause. Harvard was here during what could have been this nation’s death throes, helped restore America’s vitality, and saw its sons die on battlefields across the Union. Harvard was here during this nation’s finest hour, when freedom held tyranny in check, and mourned a shattering number of its sons.
Consider that if such a toll needs be exacted once more, this place will willingly offer up its sons and now its daughters upon the altar of freedom; and our memorial too could be the melancholy statue in Memorial Church, a dead soldier with hands wrapped upon his chest and veritas at his feet.
Remember the beauty and the wisdom that have emerged from these ivy walls. Adams, DuBois, Emerson, Kennedy, James, Roosevelt and other shapers of what we have become made this place their home and left a legacy that deserves our honor, respect and humble emulation.
I have had the pleasure of making two visits during college to the United States Military Academy at West Point, perhaps the only other school in the U.S. that rivals Harvard’s impact on our national history. It is not, of course, my place to compare the relative legacies of these two great institutions, but I was struck during my visits to West Point by an image impressed on the minds of its cadets. At West Point, they call their graduates the long gray line, the queue of soldiers who have put their bodies in front of bullets for the ideals and well-being of their country. When each cadet graduates, he earns his commission as an officer in the U.S. Army and takes his rightful place among the honored group of men who have earned the like distinction for 200 years and who, year by year, represent the best the country has had to offer.
I fancy, and I am not alone in this, that a similar concept is applicable here. In the inscription on the Science Center gate to Harvard Yard, Emerson writes of “the long winding train reaching back into eternity,” the ghosts of each class that fill the empty spaces of the Yard during Commencement and reside always in Harvard’s buildings.
Welcome, first-years, to the long crimson line; it stretches far back into the past and hopefully, with our efforts, forward into a better future.
Andrew P. Winerman ’04, a Crimson editor, is an applied math concentrator in Cabot House.
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