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Monday, February 24, 2003
By Paul Ford
The ivy league and elsewhere.
Because my girlfriend co-directs a student opera at Harvard, I have been enlisted, Good-Will-Hunting style, to occasionally lift things, nail them, or paint them at Harvard's Lowell House. Yesterday I was asked to shellac a loaf of challah bread so that it would last through the opera as a prop. I gave it 6 coats.
Harvard reminds me of Jerusalem: one of those places where everything resonates and hums with historical meaning. Many of the rooms I've seen are watched over by time-darkened oil paintings of frowning men. Their glance reminds you, history is being made here. At any moment Teddy or Franklin Delano might walk through in a tight sweater, smiling and laughing.
Whenever I'm there, I compare the place to my own alma mater, Alfred University, a well-intentioned college 70 miles south of Rochester, New York. Alfred is best known for the student it killed, Chuck Stenzel, and our sole celebrity was Robert Kline, star of The Last Unicorn , among other films. Other notables include Melvil Dewey (of the Decimal System), who stopped by in 1870, and Ella Kellogg, the co-inventor of corn flakes.
The entire campus is a comedy: it's built on a steep hill, which meant that half of the winter, which lasted from September to May, was spent on your ass. The architectural features varied between campus-bland to the very strange. At the top of the hill was a tall steel carrillion, out of which dissonant hymns would drift down into the valley, featuring the “oldest bells in the western hemisphere”. The Steinheim, a small castle totally out of place, stands near the bells; while I was there it was in disrepair, and housed the radio station, since then it's been turned into a career center.
The origins of the place are equally comic. The school was founded in 1836 by 7th Day Baptists , one of America's smallest and least known religious sects. And while, at the center of a quad, a 3/4-size (all they could afford) statue of our “founder,” King Alfred the Great, stands on a cracked concrete pedestal, begging to be dressed and decorated, no one is sure if the school is named after him or not. One history of the school includes the line “Ironically, historians tell us that it was a mistake on the part of the postal service that gave birth to Alfred University.”
The boring silence of the surrounding town led to more comedy, some of it dark: drinking to collapse, camping in the snow, poetry writing, cafeteria-tray sledding, or such activities as shaving stripes into your leg hair, or making a shirt from a pair of pants and wearing it for a week. Isolated from anything non-academic, the professors were the stars of our show. We gossipped about them, dividing them into the lecherous, the narcotics-abusing, the dandies, the homosexual, the nervous, the awful, the excellent, the pretentious, the comic, the handicapped, the toupeed, the adjunct, and the begoitered. The students, most of us between 18 and 22, were almost uniformly self-important, spoiled shitheads, myself included. While at Harvard, even the process of lifting stage platforms envelops me in a sense of tradition, and makes me think of dark-suited young music tutors with pencil moustaches (the Lowell House opera has been going on for 80 years). But amongst the professors and the cowfields, I never had the sense that I was making history at Alfred.
Looking back, AU implemented a total history-destruction process while I attended. Old brick buildings with flaking corners, redolent of varnish, were knocked down between 1992-1995 and replaced by angular cinder block-and-drywall structures. The goal, I guess, was to replace the moldy past and smell of exam-book paper with natural light and ethernet jacks. But the destruction of the worn buildings took away the sense that it was okay to spill something, turning every surface into something clean, unmarked, neutral. The campus began to look like a mall of learning, as if it believed its own brochures. It was no longer a place to take risks, which is sad, because even if the place was comic, it was always independent, the second college in the U.S. to educate women, a place for Seneca Indians and freed slaves alike to be educated in the 1850s, a place for stupidity to reign in the interest of learning. It took Harvard until 1943 to let in women, 100 years later.
My education was nebulous, free of doctrine and theory; mostly we just talked in a circle and worked things out, and while it's taking me a while to catch up with my better-educated peers, I think I've had more fun than most of them. I do at times envy the clubbishness, the sense of innate privilege that almost all of the students who graduate from the ivies possess (and I've met at least 50 Harvard grads; they gravitate to New York and New Media, still talking about their residence houses, hoping to find their way into history books, or at least the Times, viciously jealous of Matt Damon, and they almost to a soul have the most remarkable and swollen sense of entitlement of any human beings I've met, part of which might stem from having dining halls with chandeliers). All of this leads me to believe that the weight of history might be better shrugged off than shouldered.
This essay was funded by the excellent Estree.