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Harvard isn't exactly an unfriendly place, but most people here go their separate ways, preoccupied as they are with the play of their own minds. At West Point, where I spent more than 14 years as a soldier and professor of English, we had a different preoccupation. We shared a joint responsibility for educating and training cadets to become officers in the U.S. Army. That mission drew us together in a partnership committed to service.
Retired from the army now, I teach writing at Harvard and serve as the senior tutor of Mather House. Our common mission is education, but there is certainly no common understanding about just how we ought to be educating. Nor should there be. Nevertheless, I miss the fellowship afforded by teamwork and can't help wondering what might happen if we tried to harness all that intellectual power and turn it toward the common good-assuming, of course, that we could reach some consensus about the common good. I realize that harnessing interferes with freedom, but at Harvard, where I see so few signs of restraint, I'm yearning for the gifts of community. At West Point I had yearned for freedom and solitude.
West Point breeds restraint deep into a man's soul. A senior cadet can stand behind a plebe and put his face up close to that man's neck and tell him to stand straighter, or to recite "Schofield's Definition of Discipline," or to lead his squad mates in a rousing cheer-or he can give that plebe a series of tasks rapid fire, tasks that would lead most anyone else to frustration; and the plebe will stand there cool as Napoleon's seventy-fifth maxim demands that he be, and he will take up the tasks one at a time until he gets them right-or he will suffer the wrath of the upperclassman. Take that same plebe to the bayonet course down by the river and tell him to execute the vertical butt stroke series with his bayonetted rifle, and he will rip the sawdust-filled dummy to shreds. A casual observer, on the sidelines of these military spectacles, might think he's watching homicidal maniacs at work. But he would be wrong. The cadet is no less human than he, and probably much less prone to random acts of violence. The cadet just happens to be trained in the art of war. He understands the merits of restraint as well as the application of force.
While I was still in the Army, I came to Harvard for a semester to learn as much as I could about the writing program. During that fall term, I measured everything I saw against West Point, looking always for what I could take back with me to improve our department's work. At the end of the experience, I was surprised at what I had learned. I left with more than I bargained for.
Almost 30 years before, on a weekend trip away from the military academy during the late spring of my junior year, I had accompanied the varsity swimming team to Williams College and to Harvard. Memory preserved only the extraordinary beauty of the Williams campus and an unusual greeting we got in a Harvard dining hall.
As we entered the hall in our high-collared dress gray uniforms, a hush fell over the place. After we took our place in the cafeteria line, the chatter resumed, but only a moment later, a Harvard man scurried through the hall, tray held rigidly in front of him as he moved briskly at attention. He had turned his sport coat around backward, giving it the appearance of a dress gray coat. His exaggerated performance drew a laugh from those in the dining hall. We ignored the insult, but I never forgot it. For almost 30 years it defined for me what it meant to be a Harvard man-arrogant, disdainful, smug.
Harvard still preys on cadets' imaginations. Harvard-so the legend at West Point says-is a place where cadets might have gone. But when they measure their own daily struggles against what they imagine their peers to be doing at Harvard, cadets seem pretty certain they will come in first on Judgment Day because Harvard demands less, permits more fun and frivolity, and knows far too little about sacrifice. In their imaginings, cadets miss the real differences between the two worlds, and their judgments are as superficial as those of the mock cadet in that Harvard dining hall 30 years ago.
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