Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Harvard Amateur

by alex pasternack

(I am told that I delivered this to the class of 2005 and others in Tercentary Theater on the 8th of July 2005, the day before graduation.)

Family, friends, teachers, and all those people who asked me to mention them—good afternoon.

Soon-to-be graduates of the Class of 2005—you’re all a bunch of amateurs.

That doesn’t sound right I know. Something about the word amateur doesn’t really seem to describe what happens every day in seminars, or on Soldiers Field, at model UNs, or on the pages of thousands of essays.

It’s not a professional school, but our college is made up of some of the most professional people anywhere. Unlike some of our class, you may not be headed for the NFL, or for a dance company, or medical school, you may have never started your own company, and you may have never even been in a boy band, but you’re among the brightest, most responsible, and most industrious people I’ve ever met. We are professional students now facing a professional life.

But professionalism and expertise, as important as these things seem at Harvard, ought not to be the only qualities we carry with us into the world, any more than they have marked our time at college.

As we leave, we will be fortunate if we can remember everything we’ve gained in these four years. Not just the classes or the awards, the performances or the games, the projects that we thought would never end. I don’t even mean the other stuff, the crazy parties and the conversations and the friends. I mean everything.

We’ll be better off if we can remember that at Harvard we weren’t professionals at all: we were amateurs. We are amateurs.

Now I’m no etymologist, so I googled it. Before it was a French word, amateur, or amateur originally came from Latin where it meant “lover, devoted friend, enthusiastic pursuer of an objective.” Today, being an amateur is seen as a bad thing—a novice, a dabbler—but a few centuries ago, it meant someone who did something for no reason but love, and as a result often did it better than the pros.

Can there be a better description of those of us who wake in the morning cold while others are asleep, to train, or compete, or put up posters in the Yard. We who in recent years have helped campaign for campus workers or political leaders, for fair trade foods in our dining halls, for renewable energy, for cheaper AIDS medicines or divestment from the Sudanese government. Those of us who can’t pull themselves away from our friends or our work, whether it be at a homeless shelter or in a text book, because that’s where our love lies. I think we all know what it’s like to stay up late to do something for no good reason.
You don’t need a reason when you’re in love.

Of course, as students here, we’ve learned that careful reasoning is the key to good grades or good jobs. Love isn’t necessarily something that can be communicated on a resume. So sometimes we sacrifice our passions in the name of achievement. Sometimes we’ll miss a good opportunity because we were so absorbed in a passionate pursuit. At times, each of us fails.

But our greatest successes only come when we’re doing what we care about. Earlier this year, a math professor wrote a particularly urgent email to my roommate and other concentrators that struck a chord with me. It didn’t say much, but it did say this: “THE ONLY PREREQUISITE FOR SUCCESS IN MATHEMATICS IS LOVING TO DO MATHEMATICS.”

He’s so right. In fact, his statement may even be read as circular. Success isn’t just about grades, or money or tangible achievements. Ultimately, we succeed as soon as we do what we love and love what we do.

If we don’t have them already, we’ll seek jobs and schools, we’ll seek places to live, just as we sought grades and accolades. But it’s that quest to discover what we love that makes us who we are. It’s the truth about us, our very own veritas.

And this is the greatest part about college. It’s shown all of us that inspiration, new love, can arise at any moment. It’s taught us to be on the look out for it.

It occurs to me that at college we aren’t just amateurs but amateurs, we aren’t just passionate but non-professional too. Amateur: “One who engages in an activity as a pastime, rather than as a profession.” A dabbler, an experimenter.

As a place of unending discovery where we’ve all branched out, put ourselves out on those limbs, Harvard has allowed us to be amateurs. Even if we fancy ourselves economists, or literary critics, rowers or future doctors, even if we’re attached to a particular cultural background, we’ve dipped into new languages, into the other side of the course catalog, the other side of the dining hall, the other side of campus. Sometimes we’ve come out scathed, sometimes absolutely delighted—but in the end, we always benefited, learning more about ourselves and others.

Being an amateur then isn't just about doing WHAT YOU KNOW and LOVE. It’s about DOING WHAT YOU DON'T YET KNOW YOU LOVE. It’s about not knowing where you’re going, and once there, rising to great heights. It’s about dabbling out of pure interest, playing around, failing and succeeding in spectacular fashion, and always searching for value in the new.

Let’s not forsake all that we’ve done here by letting graduation be the end of college—by letting our first dance concerts and IM games, our first protests and poems, our first videos and volunteer work, our first late-night bull sessions, be our lasts. Like every great moment in college, tomorrow, Commencement, is another new beginning.

We’re going to go soon and some of us will go very far away from this place. We may specialize, we may go into careers. But the trick is to find ways to live in the world that can make us new and make it new; to forget about straight paths, but think of our life as an ever expanding circle. As another graduate and another amateur, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about 150 years ago, the “one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety…to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle.”

One amateur known for drawing new circles was Nick Copernicus. He studied law and mathematics, worked for the church, took up medicine, was a famous translator and a policy wonk and a governor in Poland, and after hearing some lectures at his university, started teaching astronomy on the side. Perhaps it was a combination of his curiosity and his search for new perspectives that led him to the revolutionary theory that the earth was after all not the center of the universe. Copernicus did not go to Harvard—and he probably wouldn’t have wanted to, if only because sometimes we tend to think that we’re the center of the universe.

Recognizing that that there is no center, that there’s so much to learn and know and fall in love with, is what College has been about. Our curiosities, our desires to find new loves, is what makes college and life exciting and what makes the amateur the catalyst of real change.

Let’s change how we think of what it means to be amateur, what it means to be a professional, let’s keep questioning how we think of everything. Let’s make big circles. Let’s go out there with care but abandonment, with attention to others and the world, humble but passionate.

Let’s be graduates of Harvard but freshmen in the world.

We can be professional. I hope we’ll remain amateurs too.

Thank you.

Open Spaces

June 8, 2005 edition of the Harvard Crimson

“This place is so much nicer without those banners,” a friend said the other day as we walked through the Law School yard, articulating something simple but insightful about Harvard. When graduation rolls around, every yard around campus undergoes a sudden makeover. Tailored by teams of landscapers and decked out in tents and stages and banners, they become the centerpieces of the school’s famed pomp and circumstance, the sacrosanct, stately grounds of the old academy where Latinate phrases and laminate cards, heartfelt hugs and Kleenex, and clicking cameras abound. Of course, the glut of decoration aside, the scenes those cameras capture seem more real, painfully, bittersweetly real, than anything else that happens at Harvard. But what those graduation photos miss is a piece of reality underneath it all, the beautiful truth of Harvard beneath all the chairs and the caps and gowns and the crimson: the open spaces themselves.

Like anyone else who’s ever come to Harvard, the Yard was firmly planted in my brain as the sole symbol of the school long before I had even stepped foot in Memorial Hall, or knew about The Crimson, or what HUPD stood for, or how to get inside Widener, or where Hollis was (still not sure of that). My earliest memories of the Yard jibe with the way I sometimes see it in old woodcuts: quiet, orderly, stately in its serenity—with the modern addition of the tourists who come to admire the red brick and gather around John Harvard’s foot. I bet this official version of the Yard is the one that sticks in the minds of most visitors. But it’s not the version of the Yard I’ll remember.

I prefer the Yard where one night freshman year some friends and I began a makeshift Primal Scream, half-naked, more drunk on life than on someone’s moonshine, gleefully befriending everyone we traipsed past; the one where earlier this year I and others made fruit juice atop a wooden press that my friend had constructed beneath the oak trees; the Yard where one night this year a dance party paraded, fueled by hundreds of portable radios; or the Yard through which a ragtag bunch marched with a bizarre, colorful, 10-foot fabric cube in the first snowfall of the year—for no good reason, but for every great reason.

So it went for most open spaces at the college. Any time the weather would allow, and even sometimes not, we transformed our yards. Whether it was sharing poems and bread under the crabapple trees near Houghton library or having a picnic in Quincy courtyard or stretching out at the Business School or gathering in the Sunken Garden at Radcliffe, 50 strong, armed with makeshift instruments, art supplies and bottles of wine, reveling in the spring grass and the serendipitous sprinklers, my friends and I managed to forge our own little commencement events where frivolity replaced ceremony. These yards, where we’ve lounged or played ball, or caught a precious glimpse of nature, are just as much, if not more, a part of Harvard than the libraries, the dorms, and the classrooms.

I’m not sure exactly what draws us to the Yard—by which I mean all yards: perhaps it’s a craving for our own temporary Waldens, or perhaps it’s just our need for communal space (something the College otherwise sorely lacks). Whatever it is, I’ve come to appreciate the place of the Yard in Harvard’s mythos. Combining secluded tranquility with a sense of openness and accessibility, the Yard aptly signifies the central paradox of the public-minded university. If ivy-covered walls forbid the curious from peeking in on the cloistered life of the academy, open gates and sumptuous lawns beckon with a spirit of public generosity.

Meandering between the undeniable exclusivity of our Harvard experience and our necessary places in the outside world, we stand at this divide whether we like it or not. As we prepare to make the leap from one side of the gates to the other, the message left for us on one of those gates by a much older class of Harvard sharpens the difference between where we are and where we’re going: “Enter to Grow in Wisdom,” commands the entrance, and “Depart to Serve Better Thy Country and Thy Kind,” says the exit. But don’t we already strive to do both at once? Aren’t the boundaries of the Yard—the space and the College itself—more porous than ever before? Indeed, is that old motto, explicating the separation between Harvard and the world, any more necessary nowadays than the old gate and the wall on which it’s written?

Despite Harvard’s emphasis on open space—arguably the signature element of the campus—walls tend to crop up around here, not only outside the College but within it as well. If they aren’t made of brick, the walls are more insidious, held up by elitism, prejudice, or just plain reluctance. While most groups are open to anyone on campus, sometimes they can become overly self-selective. The sad result can be a set of firm boundaries with little interaction between people that might have interests in common. Meanwhile, final clubs and art groups tend to restrict their membership along lines that often seem arbitrary, turning community- and art-making into a competitive social sport. But campus groups and Harvard itself need not give up their high standards to give up elitism or unnecessary selectivity. All we need to do is consider how high our standards can go without a good dose of openness—open-mindedness, accessibility, and inclusion of others not like us.

We need even more healthy open spaces, literally and figuratively. The former may be coming in the form of Harvard’s Allston campus, for which planners have promised to turn unused asphalt lots into green spaces, while ensuring that new buildings are environmentally friendly. But keeping Harvard’s figurative spaces open requires attention too. Some years back the real estate office published an obsessively researched tome called “Harvard Patterns,” which refers to the Yard’s “loose geometrical rigor,” and deduces that the “movement between spaces rarely occurs on-axis, but instead requires a shift onto a sub-axis, which itself usually organizes a subsidiary space in the composition.” In other words, moving through Harvard’s fluid open spaces leads to even more open spaces. We don’t need geometry to know that this is the way the Yard was designed and the way that Harvard and the world on the whole operates best: open to new ideas, people, places, and new ways of seeing the same old thing. The spaces we pass through in our caps and gowns have been transformed, but not for good. Only Harvard students can really transform them.