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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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On the Virtues of the Harvard House System

— A wonderful reflection on the value of the Harvard University house system appears in today’s edition of The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper. “Read the whole thing,” as blogger Glenn Reynolds famously says. Established in the 1930s by Abbott Lawrence Lowell with support from philanthropist Edward Harkness, the Harvard houses are the oldest residential college system in the United States.

Recollections of the Good

Published on 6/6/2007 1:15:54 AM

At the conclusion of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Alyosha Karamazov urges the group of young boys gathered at their schoolmate’s graveside not only to love one another, but also to preserve the memory of their love: to remember the day they were honest and brave and good, for one day such memory might save them from evil. “Even if only one good memory remains within our hearts,” he says to the children, “then even it may serve some day for our salvation.”

That our memories have tremendous power to determine what we will become is a frequently recurring theme in “The Brothers Karamazov.” The memory of some small kindness done to us, or of a moment when we forgot ourselves in love for another, can set us on the path towards happiness and fulfillment that might otherwise be closed to us. Even one loving memory—one pure and true connection to another person—might serve to keep us from evil and violence, and open us to the good.

At this time of commencement and recollection, I feel grateful to have had so many different ways of gathering memories at Harvard. As a student at Harvard Law School (HLS), a Teaching Fellow for several courses at Harvard College, and a resident tutor of the beautiful and vibrant Eliot House, I have had the opportunity to observe and take part in many of the connections that Harvard offers from many different perspectives. It has been a tremendous privilege not only to be able to study at one of Harvard’s graduate schools, but also to play the role of educator and advisor (and sometimes friend) to Harvard undergraduates.

It is especially the experience as a resident tutor in Eliot that has most richly informed and shaped my other roles at Harvard. Despite having attended graduate school in England, I did not truly encounter the sense of intellectual, social, and cultural community so prized by Oxbridge until I took up my position at Harvard’s Eliot House. There I experienced formal dinners celebrating everything from new sophomores to illustrious past House residents, apple pickings and barbecues, and dining hall conversations about politics and philosophy that went on late into the night.

I experienced how the masters set the tone and character for the House, throwing open their doors to host elaborate teas, dessert parties, and fireplace meetings, and infused the community with their warmth, good humor, and erudition. And the Harvard students I have come to know are extraordinary. I mean this not simply in academic terms, but in how creative, passionate, and generous the best of them are, how they manage overwhelming class schedules and long lists of extracurricular activities and still find the time to pursue—and to share with tutors like me—their passion for music, poetry, politics, and art.

What has always struck me about these extraordinary Harvard students is how open they remain to the world despite numerous obligations and demanding expectations—open to being influenced by the world, taken over by it, engaged with its beauty, and vulnerable to its surprises.

I believe this openness is tied to the cultivation of good memories and connections to others within the House and the College community, and that this is not to be taken for granted. For even a few yards away, on the law school’s campus, the environment can be quite different.

HLS is, for many good reasons, a revered institution. It has nonetheless not always proved to be a place where passion and camaraderie and creativity can flourish. The sometimes perilous combination of a high-stress environment with a large, competitive student body is certainly not peculiar to HLS. However, HLS often seems somewhat lacking in the encouragement of non-competitive, meaningful connections among its student, and this can make for a volatile environment. HLS is a place where memory is easily lost.

I don’t mean this merely literally—three years of studying case law could make anyone lose their memory, if not their mind—but in the sense of forgetting passions and interests not strictly related to legal training. The HLS experience induces a kind of “perpetual deferral” state, in which students are always forced to think at least one step ahead for their career, so much so that it is not unusual for us to find ourselves at the end of three years wondering when, exactly, we would have time for our real passions and interests, if indeed we still remember what those are.

If our good memories encourage our generosity and passion, losing such memories can make us cruel and spiteful. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that students with few remembered joys or warm feelings of acceptance are tempted to unleash malice upon those around them. The cowardly methods of attack that such law school students have chosen—crude and anonymous—suggest the fumblings of an amnesiac to fill the void memory has left.

Of course many people at HLS are kind, generous, and passionate about the world, and there are individuals within the administration who make truly admirable efforts to cultivate a sense of community and respect among the students. But it is a seemingly perpetual struggle.

I think that there is something about House life that helps ward off the dangers of “perpetual deferral” and hostile isolation, something about the habits and connections that are formed within the Houses that makes it easier to remember joys and passions and harder to attack and impugn others.

This is why it pains me to see rifts and cracks opening up within the College as well, brought on perhaps by the aggressive pre-professionalization of the College and the depletion of House life in favor of more “productive” pursuits. The good memories of openness and kindness that the House system encourages are in danger of disappearing and with them the protection and the influence they offer against less generous tendencies.

Plato believed that education was not a process of acquiring new knowledge, but of the soul remembering and recollecting the Good that it once knew. The task of education was, as he put it, to give the soul “the right surrounding” of love to re-approach the Good. The House system has the potential to provide the surrounding in which the soul can flourish at Harvard, and I will always be grateful for the memories with which it has provided and armed mine.

¶ Mary Anne Franks is a resident tutor in Eliot House and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2007. She previously received her D.Phil from Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.

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