Back To Harvard

Written by David Frum on Monday May 19, 1997

It's been a long, long time since I was last in Cambridge, Massachusetts. How long? Well, let's put it this way: As I drove along Mt. Auburn Street, I passed the battered old sign of the University Typewriter Repair Shop and realized that the first time I had seen it, I was actually taking a typewriter in to be repaired.

The shop's windows are now filled with broken-down personal computers. Cambridge has kept up with changes in technology. But not much else. Cambridge is a sort of academic Brigadoon, the Scottish village frozen forever in the habits and ways of an ancient past. The people here remain devoted to a quaint liberalism that has quite vanished almost everywhere else. It's an especially nice touch that the phone number of the fax line at the Kennedy School is (617) 495 1972.

I graduated from law school here in June 1987, and in the ten years since, I've spent precisely one day in Cambridge. That was in June 1988, when my wife and I were routed through Boston on our way to a Maine honeymoon and used the layover for a quick tour of the Harvard campus. As we walked about, we spotted a classmate of mine. I asked him what he was doing in the old place. He said that he was working in the Boston office of Gov. Dukakis's presidential campaign. But only for a few months more. After that, he confidently informed us, he was White House bound.

As he pedaled off on his bicycle, my wife asked me incredulously whether my friend really believed that America would elect a short liberal from Brookline its president. Yes, I had to say, yes he really does believe it. They all do.

It's only by happenstance that I'm here on the tenth anniversary of my escape from Cambridge. I'm missing my actual reunion by just a few weeks: Yellow-and-white striped tents are already being raised all over Harvard. The last time I saw them, Harvard was disgorging 550 more eager young lawyers, me included, on an already overburdened world.

I've lost track of almost all of them. They were, for the most part, just what you'd expect them to be: highly intelligent, conscientious people, already showing the early signs of the bitter dissatisfaction with life that afflicts so many of those who earn their living in the law. Unlike their often crazy professors, they gravitated naturally toward the political middle, their instinctive moderation curbed only by their timidity in the face of the commissars of political correctness who dominated Harvard then as now.

The great 19th-century English jurist A. V. Dicey observed that the opinions of the bar are always those of the previous generation, and those of the bench belong to the generation before that. Thus, the man who taught us antitrust law in the mid-1980s tried to imbue us with fears of predatory pricing and attempted monopolization -- almost twenty years after these terrors had been definitively shown to be as real as dragons and two-headed men.

Curiously, the most radical of the faculty were the most severely out-of- date. Until I got to law school, I had never been taught Marx as anything other than a historical text. But one of my funkier law school professors offered us Marx's notorious "On the Jewish Question" as a penetrating analysis of the evils of capitalism. (The sections in which Marx argued that Judaism was nothing but an excuse for exploitive money-grubbing and that socialist revolution was the only way to rid Europe of Jews for good were tactfully excised in the photocopying process.)

At the time, I could not understand why the university put up with such charlatans. I can't understand it even now. But now that I'm no longer paying tuition -- and can chuck alumni fund-raising letters in the garbage -- I can at least resign myself to it. I stopped by Austin Hall to look through the windows of the classroom doors. The students looked just as they did a decade ago, although the spiral notebooks we used have vanished; almost everyone was tapping away on a laptop. And there in front of the class was a teacher I recognized. In his blue jeans, Eddie Bauer shirt, and hiking boots, he was hanging on to the appurtenances of youth as desperately as ever. But not even the most adamantly anti-ageist student could fail to notice that he had irrevocably passed his 50th birthday.

The bold, radical young faculty of my day are growing old. Professors pass through a university only a little less quickly than their students, and only the most brilliant of them are remembered after they go. My happiest hours in Cambridge were spent sculling up and down the Charles River. As I pulled toward the boathouse, I'd glide past the gold-tipped brick spires of the undergraduate residences. Through the endless Cambridge drizzle, they looked like something eternal, something entirely out of time. They have outlasted hundreds of foolish professors in the past. They can outlast hundreds more.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard