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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
The British author Aldous Huxley forever canonized a phrase that became the title of his most famous novel: a “brave new world.” Though originally from Shakespeare, it is employed by Huxley with a bitter sense of irony, referring to the novel’s dystopian and unrecognizable world of the future.
It’s hard not to apply the allegory to our current predicament, as we start the “first inning” of what may be many months of wearing face masks, keeping six-foot distancing, and avoiding gatherings in public places. As we settle into this routine, it’s also difficult not to feel some acute sense of loss, particularly within our own College community; in some ways, the transitions that we have made — and will continue to make — as a College may be more abrupt than even a Huxley novel could have imagined.
In March, the whole situation seemed most cruel to seniors, who lost their last two months of college and their Commencement. As the projections for this virus lengthened, however, it turned out that juniors were hit pretty hard as well. Their final year of college will look vastly different from the junior year that they left behind, and it’s possible that much of their senior year could be online. Many lost summer internships — either canceled altogether or vastly reduced in length — that they had originally lined up, often a year in advance. Others could be looking for a post-graduate job when unemployment levels are at their highest since the Great Depression.
We could say the same, though, for sophomores and freshmen. Sophomores will see significant disruptions — in areas ranging from athletics to student organizations — after investing a great deal of time in these groups during their underclassman years. Freshmen have been put into Houses that they may not step foot into for a long time, and they have left campus without even declaring a concentration.
Not to mention newly admitted students, who simply won’t know Harvard like we do for quite some time. They won’t know what it’s like to see sunsets over the Charles, make a midnight run to Jefe’s, or wake up on winter mornings to see the Yard blanketed in snow. And even upon return, it’s very possible that their Harvard experience won’t look the same. They might not even have freshman roommates, eat together as a class in Annenberg, or come to know a group of blockmates in the same way that most of us did. By comparison, the seniors that got 3.75 normal years of Harvard seem rather lucky.
So, the point in saying all of this? We can make the argument that one class is worse off than the next. Which is probably true, but also a little irrelevant.
There’s a saying in golf that you have to play the ball where it lies. In other words, you can’t shift the ball from where it landed on your previous shot. The bigger lesson of this, however, is that the position is already set. It’s a given. Whatever time we dedicate to thinking about the ball’s lie takes away from our focus for the next shot. To borrow an economic term, we are dealing with something that is similar to a sunk cost; what’s already happened can’t be recovered, and our decision-making from this point forward shouldn’t take that spilled milk into account.
And while 2020 may bring the beginning of a brave new world, let us offer up a different interpretation than Huxley’s. We should define a world that is brave because it is courageous. One that — despite being “made weak by time and fate,” as Alfred Tennyson wrote — continues to push forward with “one equal temper of heroic hearts,” synchronized to the singular goal of making the best of what is to come.
There are stories of experiences, unique in the centuries-old history of Harvard College, to be written in the coming semesters. They will be about new and continued friendships, the constancy of a world-class education that will resume in the fall, and a community that has shared a common challenge unknown to almost all students in Harvard’s past. So while we have lost quite a bit, the Classes of 2021 through 2024 will also be the ones to shape these moments. We ought not to miss them by looking in the rearview mirror.
Andrew W. Liang ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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