Open Ye the Gates

A beautiful piece by Romance Languages and Literatures professor, Dr. Francesco Erspamer in the Romance Sphere magazine

(original post here)

by Francesco Erspamer

Harvard should remain (or return to be) a place where unhindered passage is granted to those who seek knowledge, truth, and social justice.

Harvard news office writer Ken Gewertz died a few months ago, in September. He did not see his university lock and guard its gates, the gates that in December 2005 he had described in a fascinatingarticle published by the Harvard Gazette. “The gates have become such fixtures in the Harvard landscape that they verge on invisibility,” he had written in the opening paragraph: “They are reduced to mere function, a passageway from the Yard to the street, from the street to the Yard.”

The gates are all but invisible today: some of them closed, not passageways anymore but barriers. Even the ones which are open serve a very different function: with guards preventing outsiders from going through, they do not connect but rather separate the street and the Yard, the city and its university.

Since November 9, the Yard has been off-limits to undocumented visitors: for security reasons, we are told. It is an unprecedented decision, at least in recent memory: even during the 2001 three-week occupation of Massachusetts Hall and of the President’s office—a defining moment in the Living Wage campaign—the closing of the gates did not last more than a few hours. It is indeed possible that a locked university is a safer space than an open one, for the same reason that in a police state there are usually fewer crimes than in an open society. Taking a step further, it could be claimed that if we put body scanners and sniffing dogs at all entrances, the Yard would become even more secure. Not an unlikely situation: it happened to airports. I am old enough to remember when to take a flight I had just to walk with my luggage to the plane, with no metal detectors to go through, and no questions, no documents required except for your ticket. But this was before a culture of fear and a rhetoric of safety succeeded in limiting public debate and in distracting the attention of the people from the ongoing concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few. Economic deregulation and social control are strictly intertwined. Of course a society must protect itself, and give away some of its freedom in the process, but over-protection is quite a different matter—it is an ideology.

Locking the gates is not only an effective way to keep those who do not belong outside. It is also a symbolic feat, as powerful as building walls, and much quicker. One hundred and fifty years ago, the London police locked the gates of Hyde Park to prevent a rally by workers demanding the extension of the right to vote. Part of the crowd forced their way into the park. Their conduct proved deeply troubling for the gentry: flowerbeds were trampled and some stones were thrown at mansions in Belgravia—then, as now, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world. One of the great cultural critics of the 20th century, Raymond Williams, wrote a short essayon that episode, comparing it with the protests of his own time, the 1960s. In both cases, he noted, conservatives depicted “minor demonstrations as ‘anarchy’ and ‘chaos’ and opposed them in the name of reason and culture and education.” In 1866 the brief occupation of Hyde Park prompted the Home Secretary to introduce a bill that would have made meetings in the park illegal. It did not pass because of the tenacious resistance of the opposition led by John Stuart Mill, the author of the Essay on Liberty. So effective was Mill that the right of meeting and speaking in Hyde Park has become sacred and immemorial—an invented tradition and an attraction for tourists.

For more than one month tourists have not been allowed to enter the Yard. But the slow transformation of Harvard into a forbidden campus had begun earlier. A couple of years ago several back doors to buildings in the Yard, including Boylston Hall (where my department is hosted), were locked—one now needs to slide an ID card to enter. The main front doors are still open but on them you find signs that redirect accidental visitors to buildings outside the Yard: “No public restrooms!,” they warn. When I moved to Harvard, in 2005, Boylston Hall was much more accessible and friendly. Tourists regularly used the bathrooms in the building, which sometimes was a nuisance but gave an impression of strength: Harvard could afford to welcome strangers and was not afraid of them. Since then Harvard seems to have been tempted by a different self-image, that of a protected environment, perhaps a familiar setting for students (and parents) who themselves are used to living in gated communities, but not exactly an image that spurs the opening of the mind to new relationships, uncharted ideas, visionary solutions—an opening that in my view is the fundamental goal of education.

Tourists may still circle the Yard and tour its gates. One in particular attracted my attention (it was pointed out to me by Prachi Sanghavi, a Harvard student, an activist of Occupy Harvard, and a wonderful person). It is the main entrance to the Yard from Harvard Square. Erected in 1900 by the Class of 1875, is therefore known as the 1875 Gate (or Straus Gate because of its proximity to Straus Hall). Below the Harvard shield, its entablature bears a quote from Isaiah (26:2): “Open ye the gates that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.”

Words are carved in stone to make them hard to erase, even in times when some would conveniently forget them. On November 11, Harvard President Drew Faust issued a statement (in the fiction of a message to the Harvard community) to explain her decision to limit access to the Yard. “All members of the Harvard community have full ability to enter the Yard and express their views,” she wrote, trying to reconcile safety and free speech. The contrast with the inscription on the 1875 Gate is manifest. President Faust, at least in that letter, sees Harvard as a self-contained and self-sufficient body, which has little to gain and much to lose from an external contamination. The inscription, on the contrary, directly derived the ability to pursue truth (the veritas invoked in the above emblem) from an influx from the outside: “that the truth may enter in”. Those who chose that biblical quote certainly knew its context: a song of the people of Judah, praising the Lord because “he has brought low / all who dwell high in a towering city; / he levels it to the ground / and lays it in the dust, / so that the oppressed and the poor / may tread it underfoot.” Let the warning and the advice hidden in that inscription be acknowledged. Let the invitation extended by the class of 1875 be renewed, and unhindered passage be granted—as proclaimed more than eight centuries ago in Italy by the charter of the very first university—to all those who seek knowledge and truth.

(Posted on December 14, 2011).

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This entry was posted in General.

2 comments on “Open Ye the Gates

  1. Supermann says:

    has the gate re-opened yet?

  2. […] Open ye the gates (MarthaR). I’m so old I can remember when people could just walk right into Harvard Yard. […]

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