Hi J and E,
Happy September! A few days ago, I sang at Freshman Convocation with the Harvard Choruses. The freshman class was assembled under a pillowy grey sky which quieted the normally piercing brilliance of the summer sun. A few years ago, it was so stiflingly humid that one of the ushers fainted and the ceremony had to be cut short, but there was little chance of that happening this time.
The church bells rang at 2, which cued the pep band’s drum line, which cued the freshman dorms to process into Tercentenary Theatre: Canaday, then Thayer, and Matthews, while Straus and Grays and Greenough enter along the sides of Widener Library. There’s an incongruous relationship between the formality of the fashion and the tone of the music at Convocation; raucous fight songs highlighted by brash brass and imprecise dance moves comprise the walking music for the President of the University and her attendant dignitaries. This also occurs on a much grander scale during Commencement, but the inherent lack of sophistication of graduation robes somehow makes that event more coherent.
Many of the same speakers I heard at my Freshman Convocation gave slight variations on the speeches they have been giving for the past three years – to seek a transformative, rather than transactional education, to learn from each other, to remember the legitimacy of individual idiosyncrasies when planning for the future. The picture they painted of a college education was one unfettered by the tiresome, mundane constraints of forms, placement tests, degree requirements, auditions and comprehensive applications, or any semblance of status, save that of intellectual rigor.
Convocation could be rightly criticized for painting a rose-tinted picture of the life and mindset of a college student. However, convocation is also an aspirational moment, in which the people who are in charge of the vast bureaucratic apparatus of the University can express their wishes for their school. It is easy to be cynical about the bureaucrats when their day to day jobs often require pushing practical concerns and compromises ahead of an idealized vision for education. Convocation is a strange event, but it offers us the chance to consider the ideals and virtues of education, and hope that they might take an incrementally larger role in the way we go about our studies.
I look forward to hearing more about your first years at a new school!