On the face of it, Harvard looks as confident and self-assured as ever. Starbucks cafes are filled with young liberal arts majors wearing keffiyeh-scarves to match their black and white checkered sneakers, discussing over tall frappucinos on how they slightly disagree with their professor’s take on Georges Bataille, and the tables at the COOP bookstore are populated by hopeful asian-looking boys and girls, delving deep into their GMAT and SAT prep-books. The crimson heart of American higher education refuses to get shaken by evaporation of billions of dollars of endowment money – and sure enough, after losing within last six months an amount which is roughly the size of the state budget of a country like Lithuania, what they’re still left with is about as much as is the annual GDP of a country like Estonia.
However, last night I fell prey to the academic budget cuts myself when visiting Betsy (a lucky and very interesting acquaintance from my last week’s NY-Boston bus trip) at Wellsley College, narrowly missing the last train back to Boston and then discovering that, due to the endowment not having done that hot over the last half a year either, they had decided to save money by suspending the midnight shuttle bus from Wellsley College to MIT at Boston. Luckily there was a nice asian girl walking by who called me a cab and let me into the main campus building so that I didn’t have to wait outside in what was getting a rather chilly night.
And the cab ride back to Boston turned out being great fun as well. After the initial usual “where-are-you-from-what-are-you-doing-here” part the conversation took some very interesting turns and at the end we ended up sitting in the taxi in from of the place I’m staying at for more than an hour, talking about things such as financial crisis and threats of protectionism to global trade, keynesian economics, wage stagnation and widening social inequality, pros and cons of single-payer health care system, benefits and dangers of bank nationalisation, comeback of marxism, and Enlightenment roots of liberal democracy. My driver actually got out a pen and took notes, asking me to spell some names so that he could look them up on internet later, and showed some pretty astonishing technical competence and sophistication when discussing some finer economical and financial points. At about half past one at night we finally shook hands and parted friends, both of us agreeing that this was one of the most interesting cab rides either of us had had in a very long time. This encounter led me to think that this is what may well be the real strength of the American democracy. While we both were in agreement that America has its share of troubles and problems and that the immediate future does not look pretty, he seemed to genuinely have faith in the principal tenets of democracy and civic society. It appears to me that there is a lot more people like that in America than in most places in Europe. People who believe that being a citizen is something beyond the obligation to pay taxes and the corresponding right to enjoy public services. Who believe that it also entails being informed, making an effort to understand, having an opinion, and getting involved.
So today I am moving from Boston across the river to Cambridge – I found myself a B&B just a few hundred yards from the Harvard Square. Later tonight I have my meeting at the Classics Department to go over the part of my dissertation that deals with ancient Greece. Before that I will have a shot at getting myself an access to library – if successful I intend to stay here for perhaps another week. Before coming here, I was warned by a couple of friends who had studied in the US in the past that in can be difficult to get into campuses as you can’t simply walk through the door and take a seat. Well, last week in Columbia University I did just that – all it took was a few minutes of convincing the front door security about the sincerity of my intentions and the fact that the seminar was indeed “open to public”, after which I could walk straight into a presentation and follow-up discussion on primitivism and African literature – where my initial plans of simply staying quiet and listening did not quite materialise, once again. There were several professors present and participating in discussion, and everyone was very friendly, and somebody walked up to me after the event and asked if I was from the English Department :). I am not yet quite counting on the same luck continuing here, but we’ll see soon enough.