The sabbatical is working out well. I’ve been spending much of my time at Harvard, where the computer science department and Berkman Center for Internet and Society have both been welcoming and supportive beyond measure, another reason why the time is so enjoyable. I have a comfortable office among old and new friends, less than a 10-minute walk from home. There’s free coffee, a new computer and lots of interesting things to do. I would be happy to have a sabbatical every year, though Princeton is unlikely to support this, and Harvard might tire of my presence.
Harvard and Princeton are quite different places, of course, but there are times when their similarities seem unusually close. For example, both schools are major tourist attractions. One of the most popular local sites is the statue of John Harvard, which stands (or in his case sits) in Harvard Yard outside University Hall. Harvard didn’t found Harvard University nor did he attend it, as the tour guides are fond of pointing out, but when he died in 1638 after barely a year in the colonies, his will left nearly £800 and his library of 400 books to the new college just starting up in Cambridge, and this was enough for naming rights.
Tradition has it that if one rubs the statue’s left foot, it will bring good luck. Most of the statue is dark brown, but the left foot always gleams golden and bright, and at almost any time of day, some tourist is rubbing it while someone else is taking a picture. People who cross the Yard regularly try to walk behind the shooters so as not to interfere, though sometimes the crowds are so thick that it’s impossible.
John Witherspoon, who was born almost a hundred years after John Harvard died, has his statue in Firestone Plaza. The two Johns both have longish hair and wear similar clothing — styles evidently didn’t change rapidly at the time, at least as imagined by sculptors who lived 200 years later — and both have a big book in hand. But Witherspoon is standing, resting his book on the outstretched wings of a tough-looking raptor, and there’s no sign that anyone has ever tried to rub his foot; somehow one gets the feeling that he would not have approved.
Like Harvard, Witherspoon was a minister, and he left his library of 300 books to Princeton. Unlike Harvard, who died at 30, Witherspoon had a long, rich and influential life. He was a popular teacher whose students included Aaron Burr, James Madison and dozens of senators and congressmen. He was the sixth president of Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey), a congressman and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. With a little better luck and timing, or the services of a good public relations firm, we might all be at Witherspoon University today, but his name lives on only in a dorm, a nearby middle school and the street that leads from FitzRandolph Gate to Small World Coffee. By contrast, John Harvard is immortal.
Another similarity strikes me on my usual walk across campus. On the south side of Harvard Yard, a small gate leads in from Massachusetts Avenue. The Dexter Gate, which was built in 1901, leads through a dark passageway under a dorm into almost an alley at the rear of Widener Library. But it has two of the most compelling inscriptions in the whole place.
Over the entrance is written “Enter to grow in wisdom.” The words come from Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869 to 1909. Eliot was an educational reformer, generally credited with modernizing Harvard, including innovations such as standardized entrance exams, an elective system and written examinations. (The Harvard Crimson noted in September last year that less than a quarter of undergraduate courses now have written final exams, so Eliot’s influence in that sphere seems to be waning; I would not be surprised to find a similar trend at Princeton.)
But back to the inscription. It would be hard to improve upon the sentiment of Eliot’s words. What better goal for those who come to a great university than to grow in wisdom?
The inscription on the other side of Dexter Gate, hard to see as one leaves campus for Massachusetts Avenue and the bustle of Cambridge, is another Eliot quote: “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” The words are different, but in spirit they seem almost the same as Princeton’s own “in the nation’s service, and in the service of all nations.” Surely, words to live by, in both directions and at both places. It’s so easy to take these wonderful universities for granted; entering or leaving campus we might occasionally pause to think about why we’re here.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.