By Chimdi Maduagwu
Harvard University is in New England, Cambridge Massachusetts. It sits at the centre of the brawling Massachusetts Bay, undoubtedly, the very first place of settlement of the Pilgrim Fathers – the founders of the modern United States of America. Harvard University’s “next door neighbours” are Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of Massachusetts (UMASS).
These are great institutions but everyone who has an idea of what good education should either sound or look like, proposes the Harvard experience. Harvard thus has assumed the status of a landmark in terms of assessing institutional education. Suffice it to mean that Harvard has become the idea concept of good, oh sorry, excellent education. It has created a kind of standard against which all other standards are judged. My American colleagues refer to it as the Ivy of the Ivies.
Harvard University means different things to different people; of course, that is natural.
But there appears to be a consensus of opinion – sorry, the postmodern consciousness is very uncomfortable with the word “consensus.” There is a problem with agree – ability in the new affairs. There is, however, a room for “coincidence” of ideas or opinions. In other words, for the postmodern, no two opinions are likely to be agreeable. I think I am catching the Harvard disease.
Back to track, I mean there seems to be a thread that runs through several opinions about Harvard University. That is GREATNESS. Harvard is a great institution. This institution has maintained an appreciably high level of intellectual performance since 1636. Greatness can best be defined in terms of a description of Harvard experience.
I wonder if there is a spiritual link between the Institution and the name of the State in which it is located, the state of Massachusetts, of course, MASS and I mean the short form, MASS. Let me first relate the institution to MASS, in other word, either as bulk, quantity, shape/form or even corpus; Harvard University is a mass. It is huge, brawling, imposing and above all, intimidating. It stands shoulder above, no, towering higher than, very many other institutions. Other institutions tremble, merely at the sound of the name. The question now is: why is it so?
I shall address this question from just two perspectives. These views may not supply sufficient answers to the questions, but they will set the mind thinking of possibilities and help institutions that are aspiring for such an experience to brace up and move on.
The first is that there is undoubtedly a controlling spirit in Harvard University. I am a Nigerian and of course one should not rule out the fact that I am going to drift into spiritual analysis. Moreover, I am interested in studies in Spiritualties, so what I mean by “spirit” may not be exactly what the ordinary reader may be thinking of. The second is like the first, that is, that this controlling spirit rebirths or rather achieves a comprehensive harnessing of creation’s most powerful virtue, LOVE. Now, may I explain what I mean? The controlling spirit in Harvard University is the spirit of excellence. This spirit is created. It did not create the institution.
However, it has become extraordinarily powerful. It falls like dew on everyone who steps into the institution. Once one makes an appearance, whether from a drive in, through the roads; or a walk in, through the underground rail, into Harvard Square, there is that unique indescribable experience that grips the consciousness of the visitor. I probably should not have said indescribable because it can be described in simple terms as … oh yes, this is Harvard! The unusual fusion of serene demeanor and bustling temperament bushes the atmosphere to a busting point. That is why I say it is brawling!
This is part of the energy of Harvard. No wonder, Harvard University is ever bursting its seams. There are no restrictions as to who comes in; everyone is received by the large womb of Harvard. For this reason, the institution is replete with people of sundry characters and temperaments. They are all going to pass through a mandatory processing or refining by the well-established canons of HARVARD, or join me and call it “the spirit of excellence.” But one important point is that this spirit of excellence extends its colonizing hands to all. For this reason, everybody is wired towards operating at the superlative level.
While a large number, those we get to hear about excel in the positive eandeavours, there are teeming others who excel in the negative endeavours. Harvard is the seat of innovative academic output across virtually all disciplines, from Medical Sciences, through Business Studies to the Humanities and Arts. Its academy and her research output are unprecedented. Inventions and discoveries are normal day to day aspects of Harvard. Monuments erected in different areas within the institution attest to this. It is important to note that Harvard does not only provide the atmosphere for excellence, it celebrates it. The campus appears to wear the garment of celebration all the time. Tourists and inquisitive persons pour in all the time and members of the University community volunteer to provide help to any in need of such.
On the other hand, those who ordinarily should be regarded as “the undesirables” are also present. Professional beggars, unsolicited roadside entertainers, the mentally deranged, tramps, drifters, hobos and other vagabonds also “adorn” the ever vibrant and ebullient “Harvard Square.” One surprising issue is that they also excel in what they do.
That reminds us of the famous comment by the African American civil rights activist, Martin LutherKing Jr. that if one is a street sweeper, one should sweep it so well that it will be recalled that there was once a street sweeper (paraphrased). In Harvard University, the spirit of excellence nudges all towards the principle of Ralph Waldo Emerson “know thyself.” Self-knowledge is the beginning of excellence. If one knows oneself, one should be able to challenge oneself and insist on improving on the existing standards, as perceived by one, until one reaches the peak (of one’s own abilities). For many, who are guided by the spirit of excellence, there is no limit.
The second proposed answer, which I said is like the first still remains love. Harvard and all other great and phenomenal institutions are powered by love. I know a lot of reader may begin to wonder what I mean. Of course I would do same if I were in their shoes.
After all, love is too abstract, in fact, too emotional to be that prominent in an analysis that should thrive on concrete evidence. Well, I propose to reassess that. In simple terms, let me choose four dynamic components of love and attempt to use them in giving shape to my argument. These are beauty, adoration, affection and friendship.
The spirit of excellence in Harvard exudes beauty and its splendor attracts and sustains all who encounter it. The natural result is the provocation of adoration.
For every job well done, something indescribable wells up in us and we are overwhelmed by joy. It draws us to the object of beauty with warm fondness. This is affection and for that reason we want a rather permanent or sustainable relationship. We propose friendship.
This is what any well thought out; well-presented and excellent concept does to us. We join the exponents and defenders of such concepts. We insist that standards remain and from time to time, we know that the most obvious way to identify with such great traditions is to contribute to it. Even when we are unable to contribute, we insist that standards do not go down. It is as if, all other traditions can be destroyed but not the one we admire. If it is destroyed, there is no other one to fall back on. This is why great concepts like Harvard will ever remain great.
I am currently at the English Institute in Harvard. I am told that the President of the Institution has generously funded the Institute for an unbroken period of 40 years or even over. This has enabled the Institute to attract the best thinkers in Theories and Practices in Language and Media. One could only imagine what that Institute has achieved over time, in relation to new concepts and theories in Humanistic Studies.
This is made possible by the deliberate funding by the College President. The beauty, splendor and excellence of Harvard result from a combination of great ideas, commensurate funding and prudent management of funds. I am sure to be supported when I say that even when anybody has great ideas that will eliminate night or turn darkness to daylight or abolish death, and does not have the commensurate funding to bring the ideas to fruition, the ideas will become “stillbirth.”
Let me dream. I have a dream that soon, one institution in this country will grow to the status of Harvard. I have a dream that funding will come in more ways that the human mind can articulate for that institution. That the four hundred billion naira, set aside in a dedicated account for all public universities in Nigeria will be a fraction of such yet to come funding for this university.
I have a dream that teaching, research and community development will improve in that university with sustained Quality Enhancement Programmes (QLP). I have a dream that a valley (no, not Silicon Valley); a mountain (no, not mount Holyoke), a lagoon (no, not Charles River) will emerge with tremendous explosion and a new phase of intellectual excellence will be birthed in this country and continent.