Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz
As I write, Harvard is conducting its Morning
Commencement Exercises (8 JUN 06). This is a highly
ritualized ceremony and for that, lots of fun. A
little history would help explain.
Harvard is the oldest college in the country. It
chartered in 1636 when John Harvard, a Puritan
minister, died and left his library of books for its
formation. Books, of course, were extremely rare in
the colonies at this time. The purpose of the school
was to educate new clergy and to enlighten the
merchant sons in classical European education. The
school was modeled after Oxford College in England.
People forget that the separation of church and state
didn't exist in New England. These are modern ideas.
The Puritans had left Europe because of religious
persecution and formed a religious utopia in the
American colony. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New
Hampshire were, essentially, theocratic governments.
(Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820.) That is
why it is the "Commonwealth of Massachusetts". The
structure of government to this day is completely
different than what you find in the Midwest and South.
Boston was the largest city in America until 1755.
It was only with the 14th Amendment to the
Constitution that the federal government outlawed
religious government. This all plays into Harvard's
The Puritan's were heavy on education. By the 1640's
they mandated public education for children, and if
your child did not show up you had to pay a fine. The
model of public education for all was copied by the
rest of the country albeit much later. These were
radical ideas for the time. Boston was also the
publishing hub of the Colonies and remnants exist to
this day. The monikers, "Hub of the Universe", "City
on the Hill", "Athens of America" all came from this
period. Harvard was there to participate.
With 370 years of history, short by European
standards, but pretty long for North America, a lot of
ritual has built up for Harvard's Commencement.
First, you have marshals who coordinate the crowd.
These are men in top hats and waist coats who direct
you around Harvard Yard to Tercentenary Theatre in
front of Memorial Church for the ceremony (WWI
memorial). Earlier in the morning, students who
chose, were led into Memorial church for a chapel
service. The Bedford Minutemen in tri-corn hats and
Colonial uniforms play flutes at the front to lead the
students into church.
When the Commencement gathers, a parade is formed. At
the front of the parade, marching through The Yard are
the oldest alumni. Just a few years ago there were
WWI veterans, Class of 1917 leading the parade. A
brass marching band blasts music off the brick
buildings. There are flags and standards everywhere.
The flags represent the different schools and Classes.
So you watch the Class of 1930, 1942 etc. I think it
has to be over 50 years ago you graduated to walk the
Because it is a Commonwealth the state government is
next in the parade, Mayor, Governor, Senators (Yes,
that means Kennedy and Kerry are there, that is enough
of a reason to vote them out of office). Then follows
the President and Fellows of Harvard College. The
faculty take up the back in their gowns wearing the
colors of the colleges they graduated from, not
Harvard's (unless they went to Harvard). It's a bit
like regimental ties in England, you have to know how
to read the code. The students have filtered in
through different entrances, according to their
school, and have seated in front of Memorial Church.
All wear mortar boards and gowns.
Now the coolest job for a cop in the U.S.A. occurs.
The sheriff of Middlesex County calls the meeting to
order. That's right, if you are sheriff of Middlesex
County you are required to attend Harvard's
Commencement. It is a strange irony when you consider
billionaires and the famous can't get tickets to
Harvard's Commencement and here the county sheriff
gets in for being the sheriff. Standing in front of
the thousands, wearing a top hat, waist coat, striped
pants, and patent leather shoes, he, "Calls the
meeting to order" by rapping a tall, silver topped
staff three times on the granite steps of Memorial
Historically, he was the police force and all the
marshals were his men to maintain order. Of course,
today, the place is bathed with Secret Service. I've
even seen, depending who is there, men lining the
roof-tops with sniper rifles.
The ceremony goes rather quickly. There is a prayer
from the minister, the Harvard Choir sings hymnal
music, the brass band plays. There is a graduate and
undergraduate speech, a Latin address. Honorary
degrees are conferred but the recipients don't speak.
The Pastor gives a sermon. The President of Harvard
calls each Dean up from his respective school and asks
if his students have completed the curricula. The
Dean gives an oath they have and the President confers
the degrees on the group who is standing. Most groups
are pretty normal and may whoop a bit. The Law School
students can get rowdy. The worst is the Medical
School only surpassed by the Business School. The
Middlesex County sheriff always has to step in and
call the meeting back to order, sometimes with
difficulty. The Medical School blows up surgical
gloves and condoms that they bounce around like
balloons. The Business School is the loudest most
hyper group, they wave miniature flags representing
their respective countries. When their degree is
conferred, mysteriously, suddenly, hundreds of
smuggled champagne bottles appear, the ruckus of
popping corks and alcohol splashing everywhere
consumes the crowd. Go figure.
After more choruses and "Fair Harvard" is sung, then a
prayer, the Middlesex County sheriff raps his staff
three times and announces the meeting is adjourned.
Starting with Memorial Church all the bells in
Cambridge are rung in celebration. The smart ones in
the crowd make their way, quickly, to the free beer
tent. Others loll around The Yard where there is a
white table cloth picnic among the ivy. The Harvard
brass band marches around playing music. You have the
feel you are in South Africa or Burma in the 19th
In the afternoon you go to your particular school
(Divinity School, School of Public Health, Harvard
College, etc.) where your Dean personally confers the
degree on you. It is called Afternoon Exercises.