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The College Pump: Encore

As promised, here, for visitors to Harvard Magazine's website, are further selections from The College Pump.


The opening game of the 1941 season was a 19-0 loss to Pennsylvania. A disappointing start, but it generated one of the better on-field putdowns in the annals of Harvard football.

As the Herald Tribune told it, Harvard was hard pressed from the outset and had to punt on every series of downs.

Fortunately the team had a redoubtable kicker, end Loren MacKinney '42. The left-footed MacKinney boomed punt after punt. After each one a big Quaker lineman would bowl him over. The Penn man would then help MacKinney up and say, "Nice kick."

"Thank you," MacKinney would say.

After one especially robust punt, the Quaker lineman paid his usual compliment and added, "Do you always kick with your left foot?"

"No," MacKinney shot back. "I'm saving the other one for the big games."

--November-December 1991

A Charles Garden of Verses

The loveliest of autumn sports

Is running miles in simple shorts;

The coaches never take a chance

On anyone who runs in pants.

--October 16, 1940

Now as the river fills with ice

The shells are locked up with the mice.

A world of shouts and grunts and groans

Has vanished with the megaphones.

-- December 14, 1940

Those College Application Blues

From the Loomis Alumni Bulletin (autumn 1943): "Readers of the Bulletin will remember, perhaps, a poem published last spring called Dissertation on Education by Thomas Lehrer, of the class of 1943. The poem ended with the lines:

I will leave movie thrillers

And watch caterpillars

Get born and pupated and larva'ed,

And I'll work like a slave

And always behave

And maybe I'll get into Harvard...

Well, he did get into Harvard, and already the poem has attracted considerable attention. The headmaster of Exeter, it is said, carries it in his wallet; it was read aloud to the entering class at Harvard last June; and the graduating class of a New England school sang it at commencement exercises."

This is the poem:

Dissertation on Education

Education is a splendid institution,

A most important social contribution,

Which has brought about my mental destitution

By its own peculiar type of persecution.

For I try to absorb

In the midst of an orb

Of frantic instructors' injunctions

The name of the Fates

And the forty-eight states

And the trigonometrical functions,

The figures of speech

(With the uses of each)

And the chemical symbol for lead,

The depth of the ocean,

Molecular motion,

The names of the bones in the head,

The plot of Macbeth

And Romeo's death

And the history of the Greek drama,

Construction of graphs

And the musical staffs

And the routes of Cortez and da Gama,

The name of the Pope,

The inventor of soap,

And the oldest American college--

The use of conceits,

The poems of Keats,

And other poetical knowledge.

I'm beginning to feel

I don't care a great deal

For the reign of the Emperor Nero,

The poems of Burns,

What the President earns,

And the value of absolute zero,

The length of a meter,

The size of a liter,

The cause of inflation and failure,

The veins and the nerves,

Geometrical curves,

And the distance from here to Australia,

Reproduction of germs,

Biological terms,

And when a pronoun is disjunctive,

The making of cheese,

The cause of disease,

And the use of the present subjunctive.

I wish that there weren't

Electrical current,

Such places as Rome and Cathay,

And such people as Watt

And Sir Walter Scott

And Edna St. Vincent Millay.

I don't like very much

To learn customs and such

Of people like Tibetan lamas,

And I'd like to put curbs

On irregular verbs

And the various uses for commas,

International pacts

All historical facts,

Like the dates of Columbus and Croesus,

Bunker Hill, Saratoga,

And Ticonderoga,

The War of the Peloponnesus.

But although I detest

Learning poems and the rest

Of the things one must know to have "culture,"

While each of my teachers

Makes speeches like preachers

And preys on my faults like a vulture,

I will leave movie thrillers

And watch caterpillars

Get born and pupated and larva'ed,

And I'll work like a slave

And always behave

And maybe I'll get into Harvard...

--February 19, 1944

Beating the System

Lehrer got into Harvard--and got Harvard-wise, as evidenced by some of the infernally clever songs he wrote as a graduate student in mathematics during the late 1940s and early 1950s. This is one with advice that ought to be taken advisedly.

The Slide Rule Song

Don't bring the answers in on bits of paper,

And don't be crude and write them on your cuff.

The proctors would catch on to such a caper,

And you can bet they'd get you soon enough.

(Chorus repeats last two lines)

Don't write them on your thumbnail, that's the worst place,

Don't hide them in the lining of your hat.

You really shouldn't be here in the first place,

If you can't be more original than that.


Against such things they have a justified rule:

They expel you without benefit of doubt.

But if you hide the answers in your slide rule,

It's eight to five that no one will find out.


--March 3, 1954

O Tempora, O Mores

Overheard on the sidewalk outside the Harvard Trust Company, one beard to another: "...but I'll get my diploma before it bounces."

--July 8, 1967

The Golden Years

"We have two elderly members of our golf club who are growing into the stages of failing vision and memory loss, but are still enjoying golf," reports C. Colmery Gibson '37. "On the first tee you can hear conversations like this:

"'That felt like a good drive, but I couldn't see it. Did you see it?'

"'Yes, good drive.'

"'Where did it go?'

"'I can't remember.'"

--September-October 1981

"Pecuniary Mulcts"

Leafing through Quincy's History of Harvard University, Primus came across an elaborate code of fines ("pecuniary mulcts") in use at Harvard in the middle of the eighteenth century. He wondered what would happen if a list like this were to be posted in the halls and Houses today:

Absence from Professor's public lecture. .4
Profanation of Lord's Day, not exceeding 3.0
Absence from public worship .9
Neglecting to repeat sermon .9
Undergraduate tarrying out of town without leave, not exceeding per diem
Entertaining persons of ill character, not exceeding 1.6
Going out of College without proper garb, not exceeding .6
Frequenting taverns, not exceeding 1.6
Profane cursing, not exceeding 2.6
Graduate playing cards, not exceeding 5.0
Undergraduates playing cards, not exceeding 2.6
Selling and exchanging without leave, not exceeding 1.6
Lying, not exceeding 1.6
Opening door by pick-locks, not exceeding 5.0
Drunkenness, not exceeding 1.6
Going upon the top of the College 1.6
Cutting of the lead 1.6
Tumultuous noises 1.6
Tumultuous noises, second offence 3.0
Refusing to give evidence 3.0
Rudeness at meals 1.0
Keeping guns, and going on skating 1.0
Firing guns or pistols in College Yard 2.6
Fighting or hurting any person, not exceeding 1.6

"It is interesting," writes George Birkbeck Hill in Harvard College by an Oxonian (1894), "that for a graduate to play at cards was three times and a third as wicked as for an undergraduate to lie, and that to go skating was two-thirds as immoral as getting drunk."

--April 1976

The Fading Art of Speling

Commencement footnote from Robert P. Dunbar '58, a teacher of history at Boston State College:

The Boston Globe for Friday, June 6, carried a front-page story twitting Harvard for serious spelling errors on two signs posted in the Yard the morning of Commencement, designating gathering points for VIPs who were to participate in the exercises.

The Globe, alert to such ominous trends, hinted darkly that even at Harvard, spelling might be "a fading art."

With undisguised glee, the paper reported that one sign directed SHERRIFFS (among others) to gather beneath it, while the second, twice flawed, beckoned CANDIDATES FOR HONERABLE DEGREES. Two incriminating photographs, clearly undoctored, accompanied the piece. The article went on to quote a University spokesman who lamented, lamely, that no provision for proofreading the signs had been made, but vowed that this oversight would be corrected next year. (One can imagine the least senior member of the English faculty gaining a new assignment.)

This indelible blemish on fair Harvard's once-noble escutcheon could have been avoided had Harvard only followed the crusading example of one of her most celebrated sons, Theodore Roosevelt '80, when, as president in 1906, he embraced the spelling reforms of the Simplified Spelling Board.

The goal of that board was to change the spelling of thousands of English words so that they conformed to a simplified phonetic standard that the board had laboriously devised. The reform promised, as its name implies, to make spelling simple. Already a generation old, the movement had managed over the years to draw within its ranks some of the most distinguished figures in American life--including the presidents of Cornell, Stanford, and Columbia--but before 1906, no one so luminous as the president of the United States. Although a latecomer to simplified spelling, President Roosevelt, as in all things he supported, lacked not for zeal. With the faith of a catechumen he directed the Government Printing Office to adopt, in all executive-branch publications, the new spelling of the 300 words by which the board planned to introduce its reform.

The reaction to the president's directive could not have been swifter or sharper had he ordered mandatory public nudity for all citizens on the first Tuesday and Thursday of each month. Apparently it mattered little that the 300 changes were modest: through became thru, axe ax, kissed kist, and laugh, surely funnier, laf. The press skinned Teddy alive. The New York Times, presuming to speak for the entire fourth estate, sniffed haughtily: "Every newspaper, we assume, will take the kindly view that the president's heterographical freaks are misprints and will correct them into English according to accepted standards."

Teddy needed help, fast. And reporters thought he might get it at Harvard--from President Eliot, a star so bright in the educational firmament that were he to give simplified spelling his benediction, it might still be rescued from the landfill of ridicule to which it was quickly being consigned.

But, alas, when asked by a reporter of his reaction to the president's directive, Eliot, with monumental Harvard indifference (and possibly a trace of humor), responded: "I suppose that President Roosevelt has a right to write his messages in any style of orthography to which he may incline." Surely this was not the resounding endorsement Teddy needed.

Thus was Harvard's present ignominy preordained. Had Harvard stood fast with her courageous son at that critical hour, simplified spelling might yet have triumphed, and Harvard today might still be proudly crimson instead of shamefacedly scarlet.

--July-August 1980

The Improper Bostonians

At last month's meeting of the Associated Harvard Alumni, President Pusey recalled that a dozen years ago, when the Puseys were still rather new arrivals in Cambridge, Mrs. Pusey had been invited to a gathering at the Somerset Club, and someone had asked her how she was getting on. Mrs. Pusey had answered that she thought Boston was a wonderful place--all the people were so friendly. "Oh, my dear," replied her new acquaintance, "you can't have been meeting the right people!"

--May 25, 1968

How Others See Us

"Would you be interested in what the French think of Harvard and Yale?" asks Henry F. Allard '46, of Providence. In the Nouveau Petit Larousse there are the following definitions:

Harvard: a celebrated private university in Cambridge (United States) which embraces all human knowledge (founded in 1636).

Yale: an American university founded by Elihu Yale in 1701 at New Haven (Connecticut).

--July 8, 1950

Humilitas: In recognition of Neil Rudenstine's ascendancy, University Archives is displaying presidential memorabilia from Henry Dunster's day to the present. Among the exhibits is a clipping from a California newspaper covering part of Charles William Eliot's swing through the Golden State in 1892. It identifies the distinguished visitor as "President Eliot of Dartmouth College, New Haven."

--March-April 1992

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