I Met a Hero in Harvard Yard

Or I might say, “Sauron forgot about a hobbit.”

There is one thing everyone ought to know about blacktop.  It cracks.  Ice then gets into the cracks and before you know it, there’s a regular furrow, and some windswept dirt, and something with stubborn roots sets up in it, like dandelions with their brave yellow caps, or pokeweed, or ordinary grass.  In the long war of grass against asphalt, give me the grass every time.

The goodness of the natural world reasserts itself.  God does not abandon us to our sins.  A boy whose bones are rickety from life indoors will grow strong straightaway, if you put him on a mountain for a month or two.  Women whose souls are withered by the poisons of feminism don’t necessarily have to find a special diet for the antidote.  Just removing the poison, and giving them a chance to breathe freely again, will often do the trick.

I’ve said hard words about higher education.  I’ve called Princeton my mater ferox, or the black hole where faith and reason go to die.  I recall a moment during freshman orientation, when the young people of several dormitories were invited to attend a discussion on sex and morality.  I was ashamed to confess what I believed.  Perhaps I was not the only one who believed it, but I’ll never know.  When the group came to the general agreement that sex should be deeply personal and not mechanical, one burly fellow with granny glasses spoke up.  “I don’t see anything wrong with mechanical sex,” he said.  “It can be really cool, so long as both people are up front about it.”  There were some uneasy looks, but nobody argued against him.  I was not a hero at Princeton.  I should have thrown the proud old faker for a fall, but I didn’t.  I breathed its air, as did everyone else.

Or not quite everyone else.  I recall one of my classmates with honor.  I never knew him personally, but everyone knew about him.  His name is Walter Weber, and he has been fighting the good fight against abortion for his entire adult life.  Even at Princeton he was doing so.  I remember that one morning he had passed out colored flyers everywhere, depicting the atrocity of abortion.  The whole campus was indignant.  “How could he do so insensitive a thing!” they cried.  “Suppose some girl who had had an abortion woke up and saw that?”

The logic escaped me.  I was young and inexperienced.  I said, “But if she’s had an abortion, then either she knows what it is, in which case she’s not seeing anything she hasn’t seen before, or she should have found out what it is, in which case she was irresponsible and now she’s learning something.  But I can’t believe that any woman at Princeton would not know.”

It did inspire some tense conversations.  One of them transpired between a friend of mine, a woman who was pro-life and Christian, and another woman at our eating club.  The other woman, who even at Princeton had acquired a reputation as a partier, said that if she ever got pregnant she would have to have an abortion, because she knew that alcohol was a cause of birth defects, and she could never give up drinking because she enjoyed it too much, and so it wouldn’t be fair to the child to take that chance.

But Walter Weber kept on with his campaign, and the names he was called never seemed to slow him down.  There was a crack in the asphalt, a little fissure in the moonscape of higher education, and he was the good solid green life in it.

I’ve met some heroes like him recently, at Harvard.

I don’t want to mention their names, lest I embarrass them, since they are still undergraduates.  But a small group of brave students at Harvard last week held a campaign against pornography, inviting various professors to come and give talks on its evils. That’s brave enough, or lonely enough, at Harvard. But what they did each day, out in the open, astonishes me.

They stationed themselves in front of the most frequented classroom buildings on campus, passing out flyers and engaging students in conversation, taking jibes and some angry abuse, weathering indifference or quizzical derision, all for the natural goodness and holiness of the body, and for a sweet world of green things, and not asphalt.  One alumnus, a self-described anarchist, took one of their tokens cheerfully, till he found out that they were associated with a church, at which he returned it in scorn.  A student, quite puzzled, asked one of them what he used when he abused himself.

“I don’t,” he replied.

“All right, you lost me,” said the student, and walked away.  Such is the level of common moral discourse at Harvard.

I’d come to Harvard to speak about what I’ll call a world without faces; a world in which persons treat themselves and one another as commodities for consumption.  Also to speak about a world made noble by the greatest mystery in the physical order, the “human face divine.”  The former is a world in which the great middle ground between anonymity and copulation has been ravaged.  The latter is a world in which young men and women look kindly and admiringly upon one another.  The former is a world in which all things are turned inside out, and a man knows a woman before he knows her name.  The latter is a world that cherishes the touch of a hand upon a hand, and all the sweet and ceremonious preparations for knitting the knot that ever shall remain.

These people were truly young, essentially young.  It’s hard to describe.  When people give themselves over to grave and habitual sin, even if they deny that it is so, they have about them something of a hunted, sulky, defiant look, somewhere between brazenness and shame, if they have not lapsed into that ennui which the poet Herbert shrewdly called “the grief of pleasures.”  These young men and women knew how strange they must appear to their fellows, but they didn’t care.  They were bright and free.

One of their questions remains with me still, as much for its content as for the person who asked it, and the manner in which she asked.  “How can we women help our men to avoid or to overcome this evil?  What can we do to help them be better men?”

Suppose a man walking for years and years on an endless stretch of gray, nothing but asphalt and rubble and dust, mile after monotonous mile; if he should suddenly see a crocus poking through the rocks, spreading its humble yellow bloom to the air; or should hear a trickle of fresh water spilling over a tumbled ruin; with the same grateful heart I greeted that question, the like of which I have not heard from a college student or a professor in thirty years.  The question was asked with love, not scorn; with admiration for men as men.

I should add that these students are members of the Anscombe Society for Traditional Morality, a group also known as the Love and Fidelity Network.  They have chapters now at more than two dozen schools in the northeast.  They were founded by brave young women at my materca frigida, Princeton, the iron womb of the beast.

We mustn’t suppose that Harvard is anywhere near becoming a seedbed for the good and true and beautiful.  A well-known priest who spent plenty of years at Princeton, building up a vibrant Catholic community there, explained to me why, whenever I went back to the school, I felt ill at ease, wary, jittery.  I expected him to call my attention to the grossness of the new buildings, glass and steel, declaring their commitment to power and wealth.  He didn’t.  All he said was, “That’s easy.  Princeton is an evil place.”  The blacktop is blacktop, the desert is dry.  Make no mistake about that.

And yet that same God who abandons us to our evil imaginations also sends us a Savior.  The Roman Empire was, in the time of Saint Paul, a great vigorous thing that was yet dead at the heart.  But the seeds of its destruction and resurrection were being sown.  Not blacktop, nor death, shall have the last word!

(Photo credit: Taylor Weidman / The Christian Science Monitor)

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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