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The Lamont Education

By Elizabeth W. Green

Senior week enforces a discriminatory nostalgia. The more we party, the more we miss partying, and the more we miss partying, the more we believe it was something substantial to be missed. It’s like we’re looking back on the last four years through beer goggles: as we get drunker, the past starts to look drunker, too.

This selective memory seems to be a choice made because we believe, as the oft-repeated mantra goes, that the best part about Harvard is not Harvard itself but the people you meet here. If that’s true, the best way to memorialize our four years must be to make out with as many of those people as we can before we graduate.

I love the friends I’ve made here, and I loved taking advantage of them at the Last Chance Dance, too. But my friends are not the only things I will miss when I leave this week. They are also, of all the elements of my Harvard experience, probably the least in need of memorializing, because they are the least likely to disappear. What we should really be commemorating this week is the parts of this institution that the Facebook cannot preserve—the parts that, much worse, even Harvard itself might not keep.

I believe one of these parts is Lamont Library.

I first visited Lamont as a freshman, but like most things I only appreciated it when it was about to be taken away from me. My access to information was only limited by the degree to which that information had been catalogued; if anyone had ever written it down, or even videotaped or recorded it, the Lamont librarians could help me find it.

I recently learned that access to the Harvard server disappears with graduation. That means no more JSTOR, no more Lexis-Nexis, and definitely no more 24-5 swipe access. I won’t have a huge sunny room of comfortable chairs and familiar faces in which to exercise that access. Nor will I have a basement full of Xerox machines, a reference room full of printers, and a whole room devoted to pleasure reading—in which no laptops are allowed.

According to its website, Lamont Library is the brainchild of Keyes D. Metcalf, Harvard’s top librarian until 1955. But Lamont also owes credit to the educational philosophy of Metcalf’s time, embodied by the famous “Red Book” of 1943. Written by a group of faculty led by Provost Paul H. Buck and President James B. Conant ’13, the “Red Book” declared the high purpose of a 20th Century undergraduate education: Harvard must not just teach skills but also civic character, moral temerity, and—above all—an undying commitment to finding truth and supporting fellow men.

Six years later, Buck spoke at Lamont’s grand opening. “Harvard, like the world at large,” Buck said, “has been a battle-ground between good and evil. Our better selves have cherished freedom...and have sought its advancement.” Lamont Library was not just one arm of a research institution, it was one arm of a greater mission: the search for truth, and the commitment to building a better world.

I have been an inheritor of this vision, though I did not initially want to be. When I was forced by my concentration to endure a session with a reference librarian, I grumbled, but I could not protest.

I worry that future students might not undergo the same pressure.

“We must distinguish,” reads the Red Book, “between liberalism in education and education in liberalism.” Conant favored the second; before they could fully exercise their freedom, he reasoned, students needed to be taught how to be free.

Today’s Harvard emphasizes the former; just as the curricular review aims to “open new opportunities for student choice” in the courses they take, the administration overseeing student life seems motivated mostly by a desire to satisfy student demands, not by a desire to fulfill one vision of what a college should be.

Thus curricula and libraries alike are built not to satisfy a broad philosophy or purpose, but to meet specific student demands. Sometimes the strategy has worked; student and faculty activists often do want what is best for them, The renovation of Lamont, unfortunately, might reveal the strategy’s flaws.

The café that will be built in the library this summer certainly has made students happy—who doesn’t want access to cheap coffee after Dunkin’ Donuts closes?—but will it really make them stronger? Will it really contribute to Lamont’s mission?

In its ideal form, the café would. It would provide nourishment, and it would also provide a place for discussion, a place to find truth. But the café as it is being implemented seems only to serve an immediate demand.

For one thing, the café will be built in the same place that first brought me into contact with all the best parts of Lamont: the reference room, replacing the people who are the very core of Lamont’s resources. Moreover, reports of the Lamont renovation committee suggest that the reference desk will move to the third-floor stacks. Where, then, will we put the students who study there? And how will the main reading room preserve any quiet?

Social space is important, but so is learning. Put the Undergraduate Council in full control of the direction of Harvard College, and we risk getting an education that is like one extended senior week—an education that forgets that if one’s peers really are the best part of a Harvard experience, that is as much a result of the qualities Harvard has brought out in them as it is a result of their inner strengths.

Three years ago, I did not want to pick the reference room over a nice long nap, or a nice long chat over coffee. But three years later, I am glad somebody forced me to do it. And I can’t be sure, but I bet I am a more interesting friend—and maybe even a better dance partner—because of it.

Elizabeth W. Green ’06, who was a Crimson magazine chair in 2005, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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