Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Happy Housing Day!

(In which the author, through timely blogging, attempts to rekindle a fading feeling of connection to his alma mater.)

On a Thursday morning four years ago, upperclassmen pounded on the door of my friends' suite where I had slept over (again), and when we let them in, they popped a (well-shaken) bottle of champagne to welcome us to Eliot House. Over the next three years, I'd spend some of the best afternoons (and the most miserable all-nighters) in Eliot, and though I'd be stretching the truth to say that I became close with everyone in the house, I had a place that was home to come bck to, year after year. Of course, I had the best friends I could possibly have asked for, but for that I owe more thanks to the Freshman Dean's Office for throwing us all into Canaday than the housing lottery for giving us the best of all houses.

(My dad puts his arm around my shoulders and gestures at the courtyard, where the commencement canopies have already been taken away. He repeats words that his father spoke to him thirty years before, a few blocks from here. "This is Eliot House, that has been your home. Look, and fix it in your memory. Remember the time you've spent here.")

Because yes, with a lucky roll of the metaphorical (but quite literally random) dice, we landed in the house that was near (if not at) the top of almost every freshman's list. The house with the largest endowment (grandfathered from the days when houses still had endowments!). The house with the best formals (in both quality and quantity!). A plurality of three years of former Math 55 students. River gate access.

And it was my mom's house, which is exactly the sort of thing that I'm a sucker for.

(A moment passes. I see the trees in bloom -- they don't usually look like this; more often they're laced with ice -- the familiar, triangular courtyard, the tall brick walls with white-trimmed green doors, the vestigal chimneys rising over the roofline. I look across the courtyard to the windows of the Cockpit suite, recently vacated. My father, arm on my shoulders, turns me to the breezeway. "It's your home no longer. You'll be back, but only as a visitor.")

On the recent news that Yale would rename Calhoun College as Hopper College, after Admiral Grace Hopper, Leah Libresco wrote:

Other than the physical presence of the name, there’s little else to erase about Calhoun. The drawn-out fights (and serial committees) questioning the appropriateness of Calhoun’s name miss how little tradition exists to be expunged—in Calhoun’s namesake college, or in any of the other Yale colleges...

Why have a namesake at all, if the college is not to be colored by his or her character? In my own college, Jonathan Edwards, there was never a mention of the Puritan preacher’s theology—except that our intramural team was called the Spiders, a reference to his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon. Jonathan Edwards’s theology exists for J.E. students only as a quaint, even comical, historical artifact. Why give a man the trappings of honor without ceding him any respect?

John C. Calhoun, in being removed, was awarded an odd sort of honor: His ideas were treated as relevant and dangerous. It’s good for a university to have a strong enough identity that not all statesmen are appropriate recipients of institutional honors. I have no problem with Yale’s choice to remove Calhoun on that basis. But it’s a shame for a school to treat its dead white male namesakes as truly dead, even to the students who sleep within the colleges’ walls. (...)

And perhaps a bit of that critique bites at Harvard as well -- just not wholly at Eliot House. Because the other thing about the house that I absolutely fell for when I got around to doing my research is the legacy of its namesake, Harvard's longest-serving president, William Charles Eliot. His inaugural address is one of my favorite pieces of oratory:

The endless controversies whether language, philosophy, mathematics, or science supply the best mental training, whether general education should be chiefly literary or chiefly scientific, have no practical lessons for us today. This University recognizes no real antagonism between literature and science, and consents to no such narrow alternatives as "mathematics or classics", "science or metaphysics". We would have them all, and at their best.

To observe keenly, to reason soundly, and to imagine vividly are operations as essential as that of clear and forcible expression; and to develop one of these faculties it is not necessary to repress and dwarf the others... [but r]ecent discussions have added pitifully little to the world's stock of wisdom about the staple of education. Who blows today such a ringing trumpet-call ... as Luther blew?

Not nature, but an unintelligent system of instruction from the primary school through the college is responsible for the fact that many college graduates have so inadequate a conception of what is meant by scientific observation, reasoning, and proof... There is a method of thought in language, and a method in mathematics, and another of natural and physical science, and another of faith. With wise discretion even a child would drink at all these springs.

The actual problem to be solved is not what to teach, but how to teach. The revolutions accomplished in other fields of labor have a lesson for teachers. ... When millions are to be fed where formerly there were but scores, the fish-line must be replaced by seines, ... the human shoulders by steam elevators, and the wooden-axled ox-cart ... by the smooth-running freight train.

In education there is a great hungry multitude to be fed. ... To think this impossible is to despair of mankind; for unless a general acquaintance with many branches of knowledge -- good as far as it goes -- be attainable by great numbers of [people], there can be no such thing as an intelligent public opinion; and in the modern world the intelligence of public opinion is the one condition of social progress. (...)

Eliot is a man whose name I was proud my house bore, and I was fond of finding opportunities to quote him ("When millions are to be fed where formerly there were but scores, the fish-line must be replaced by seines...[i]n education there is a great hungry multitude to be fed!") whenever I could.

Though, to concede most of Leah's point, my enthusiasm was not common among even my housemates, and Eliot's legacy was generally only brought up once a year, at the annual Charles Eliot dinner.

(Three of my blockmates and I take a walk by the river. We've folded paper boats with the names of the houses we're hoping for -- mine reads Leverett, Eliot, and Lowell; one of my friend's has all but two names. We find a riverbank where we're out of sight of any campus police on patrol, and have a surprising amount of trouble getting our boats to catch fire from the Bic lighters we bought at CVS. Then it turns out there isn't much current by the edges of the river, so we leave our boats slowly burning while sitting in still water, and walk back to the Yard, wondering what the morning will bring.)

Housing day itself is one of the best days of the Harvard year. It's a day when the house (or at least, my house) gets up early for doughnuts and mimosas and tee-shirts and hats and an early-morning stampede to-and-fro across the yard to pop bottles of champagne and welcome freshmen to our house with yelling and chants and spirited cheers. It's a day of blowing off class to hand out house swag to freshmen in Annenberg for hours. It's a day of showing up to Operating Systems proud to be sporting facepaint of red slashes and blue squiggles.

(I'm at an information session as a high school junior. "You're allowed to move off-campus after your freshman year," one student on stage says, "but very few people do. The house system is one of the things that really makes Harvard special...")

My brother and his blockmates won't live in Eliot, which makes me the tiniest bit sad. It is, after all, a really nice house. But I have fond memories of Currier, too -- late nights in the dining hall, spent with my freshman-year friends, long after we'd stopped taking all the same classes, but when we'd still come together for moral support week after week.

I hear that being so far from civilization everything good in the world the rest of campus breeds a strong sense of community, and it can't be for nothing that quadlings report some of the highest rates of satisfaction with their housing experiences. And while I'll maintain that nothing matches Eliot Fête, Quad Formal certainly has raw size going for it, so there's that.

And so, dear brother, I hope you've enjoyed your first Housing Day, and I hope you find as much happiness in your coming years in Currier as I did in Eliot. Though I'm sorry in advance if you make a freshman cry a year from now with the news that you bring. I can't give you any advice on that score, since in my three years of dorm-storming, it didn't happen to me once.

Floreat domus de Eliot -- and timete arborem, too, I suppose.