Visiting Harvard

I graduated from Harvard College in 1950, and can probably say that if it weren’t for the buildings, an old grad of my vintage would not recognize the place today. To start with, in the ’40s, when I was there, the students were male, and almost all Anglo-Saxon. Today they are half female, and the Anglo-Saxons seem greatly outnumbered by Asians. Of the ten-odd tutors in my old house, only two had Anglo-Saxon names. The Asian students have not necessarily just arrived in America, but often are descendants of recent arrivals, who have brought over a tradition of diligent work, which in a merit-based selective process gets them to the top.  (Admission is means-blind: after you’re accepted, only then do they talk about money.)

In my day, Elliott House was more preppy, Lowell House more old world, Adams more artsy, and so forth. Today, the house assignments are randomized, so that these characteristics have disappeared.  Thus, the look of things at Lowell House, which I attended, must be representative.

Lost Elegance

Actually, I stayed on an extra year at Harvard, in the same house, to receive an M.A.  As a member of the senior common room I also ran the Library there, which had many thousands of volumes. One of the remarkable things I noticed on this visit was the volume of books taken out of the library by readers. Try and guess, reader, how many books a day are withdrawn from the House library. To give you time to think, I will offer the answer later on.

Another difference is how the students look.  In my day there was a standard uniform of khakis or grey flannels and a tweed jacket. The dandies wore pink button-down shirts with club ties.  Nifty Elliott House undergraduates sometimes wore white buckskin shoes, and thus were called the “white shoe crowd.” The rest of us wore conventional leather shoes or moccasins. Today, however, that uniform would be extremely outré; not worn, except by me, by a single person in the House dining room. The turnout is what you would expect to see watching a volleyball game at a beach: sandals or flip-flops, with tee shirts. (My visit was in May; in winter it would doubtless be different.)

Anyway, elegance has today in most matters disappeared. Not only clothing, but speech, the look of the public spaces, pretty much everything. In this Harvard stands in contrast to its counterparts in England, say, where the extraordinary beauty of the surroundings has an uplifting effect on the student.

Courtyard Osculation

People still tell stories about the magisterial Elliott Perkins, the housemaster in my day. To give an idea of the flavor, he used to disseminate little chits to give news or instructions (emails not yet existing). He did not like seeing a lot of kissing in the courtyard as the girls departed to Radcliffe for the night, so one of his missives said “Osculation in the courtyard is vulgar.” Another time he and I were caught in the middle of the main drag, Massachusetts Avenue, with cars going in both directions around us. Perk proclaimed, “We should banish these wretched automobiles from the streets!” Don’t get me wrong: He was a wonderful man who is still affectionately remembered.

Departing from the immediate look of things, a symptom is the lack of style in language. A faculty friend of mine says that he is surprised to find that applications from classics scholars for grants or positions are often written ungrammatically – this being the one thing that you absolutely have to learn to make sense of Greek and Latin. I suppose the loss of style in speech and writing is to some extent a function of the mixed background of the students: How you talk is something you learn from your parents, and if your parents have arrived fairly recently in America, that influence is attenuated.  On the other hand, you have probably learned to work hard and be serious.

Actually, I thought then and think now that classics is one of the best subjects to study: far superior to trying to getting a head start in business. Perhaps the biggest single point in education is to develop the mind as a powerful and flexible instrument, and the rigor of the classics makes this likely. In the process, you are exposed to a vast sweep of human history and what some great minds thought about it all. Fortunately, Harvard is experiencing a revival of that subject.  (I am particularly negative on studying economics as a background for finance or business.  Economics is a sort of numerical theology.  How Wall Street or the larger economy will develop in the future is closer to sociology than economics.)

One Book per Week

Getting back to my Library, the answer to the question as to how many books are withdrawn is about one a week. In fact, incoming books are no longer catalogued, and older books can often not be found. Remarkable! It seems that the students frequently prefer to buy their books rather than take them out, or get them from the central university library, or read them on a computer screen, which for myself I find less agreeable than holding them in hand. The students do withdraw DVDs, incidentally.

The physical neighborhood of Harvard has changed drastically. While before in the streets surrounding Harvard Square one saw little stores of all descriptions and modest bars and eating places, these have almost all been gobbled up into modern sophisticated establishments, without, alas, particular character. Much more of life has moved outdoors including chairs and tables everywhere on the sidewalks and plazas; a most agreeable change.

Near Harvard Square is an area of stone tables with chessboards marked on them, constantly in use. I learned quite a lot about present-day chess while watching the players. I played on the Harvard chess team myself as a freshman, before being outclassed, but the modern Harvard Square game is quite different: limited to a few minutes, instead of a couple of hours, meaning that you move with lightning speed. You have to have the basic opening moves in your head when you start: There’s no time to work them out. Unlike the old days, the winning players aren’t intellectual types. They can be all sorts, including what look like street people. In other words, the criterion for winning is not subtlety, but quickness of thought.

Arts First Celebration 

One fixture that took place during my visit would have been utterly inconceivable when I was a student myself: the Arts First celebration. In some dozens of locations there were over several days a hundred presentations of music, theatre, art, film, and other such demonstrations, of every possible national origin.  An astonishing affair!

I spoke to many undergraduates, and found them invariably lively, interested and clever. They can quite easily get grants for foreign travel.  None of them seemed to know accurately what they intended to make of their education, any more than I had. I pointed out to those that I spoke to, and now offer as general wisdom, that you can get an excellent view of where you rank against your peers from the Johnson O’Connor Foundation, which has branches in major cities. It offers a series of tests that lasts several days, at the end of which you know very accurately where you stand in such matters as verbal and numerical fluency, idea manipulation, depth perception, tone recognition, digital skill and many, many other things. Then they match up your profile with many professions. It will give you an insight as to your possibilities that you could not possibly have had before.

According to faculty members, the University’s own style has changed profoundly as it continues to grow. Instead of quite a simple, cheerful, open place, it has evolved like the rest of America. When discussing a possible faculty position or promotion, the candidate will now sometimes arrive with an agent, and start bargaining. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he is likely to let it be known that he will be looking elsewhere.  In the old days, faculty appointments were by and large understood to be for life. Once you signed on, you rose in step with your peers and certainly did not threaten to leave.  Today, each section of the University is a profit center with its own “yield” – fees, fundraising, etc. – which should be 2 ½ times salaries.

Furor over President Summers

There has, of course, been a tremendous furor over the departure of President Summers. He seems to have an affliction called Asperger’s Syndrome(1), which makes it impossible for the sufferer not to be abrasive, indeed offensive. I would have called it the Cyrano symptom. That hero said, “When I pass through a crowd, true sayings ring like spurs.”  What he meant was that he insulted everybody as he went along, and was thus constantly fighting duels, fortunately with success. Anyway, although most of his ideas were objectively correct, Summers annoyed a great many of the Arts and Sciences professors, many of whom were 1960s or 1970s eccentrics who got tenure, and are in a position to bite back.

The undergrads generally liked him, and of course professors in some of the other schools. However, one of his important ideas, to develop the science side of the University, calls for a huge capital campaign for a whole new campus. Alas, there was a scandal in Harvard’s advice to Russia on privatization, over which the University was fined $26.5 million, and Professor Andrei Schleifer a couple of million, for a “conspiracy to defraud the government.”  Summers, Schleifer’s very close friend, urged his retention, which looks terrible. Since there will have to be appeals to the very rich alumni, and since this most unsavory situation was not fully resolved, it helped render Summers’ position untenable. ■

(1) Two physical symptoms of Asperger’s are a) a reluctance to look people in the eye (the gaze wanders around instead) and b) a fondness for irrelevant repetitious physical movement.  Once, seated just next to him, I saw Summers bounce on his heels for half an hour while talking to a group.