October 3, 1997: Anne Bradstreet
As anyone who reads the Crimson with any regularity knows, I turned 50 last April. I have not been
stereotypically reassessing my life, but in a way I have been thinking about the virtues I admire,
because I realized that they have changed over the years. I used to place a high priority on courage,
integrity, and honor. And I still do. Steadfastness, independence and, contrariwise, devotion to
others, support of one's friends and colleagues. All good and important virtues.
But lately I have been finding special value in something for which I would not even have had a name when I was in college thirty years ago: Openmindedness. A complicated virtue. On the one hand, it is the capacity to set aside preconceived ideas, prejudices and long-held beliefs, and to be willing to be persuaded to change your mind about something. But what is the difference between that and a total lack of principle, being just a reed in the wind of the forcefully held opinions of others?
I see openmindedness as the capacity to hold on to your principles, but just a few big ones, and to be
amenable to persuasion about other things, and whether they can be consistent with your basic principles. I think we should be able to learn from others things that we don't know anything about or misunderstand, without abrogating our own most deeply held values. At least, thinking now of our educational roles as teachers and students, I think if we can't be that openminded, college is wasted on us; the benefit of living in this extraordinary community of learning and fellowship will be lost.
Tomorrow we will celebrate Women at Harvard College, a group whose inclusion in our array of opportunities has a long and complex history. We pick as our anniversary point the opening of the Yard dormitories to women twenty-five years ago, a somewhat arbitrary point but a moment when the rate of change at Harvard suddenly accelerated.
But I would like to take us back more than 350 years to the time of Harvard's very founding, to pay homage to one of the first women in Harvard history, for her courage and her openmindedness. Anne Dudley Bradstreet came to America in 1630; she lived for a time right in Harvard Square, on the site of what is now, but will not be for much longer, the Tasty. Bradstreet was America's first poet; buy the Oxford Book of American Verse and you will find that she is poet #1. She could read the Latin and French, and had, I should think, all the prerequisites for admission to Harvard College except gender. Her associations with Harvard were other: her father, Governor Thomas Dudley, was one of the founders of the College, her husband, Simon Bradstreet, was also an overseer, and her two sons graduated from the College.
In England Anne Bradstreet's parents were gentle folk, and people of means. She had received as good an education, at home, as any Puritan woman could have. But in the years leading up to 1630 religious life for the Puritans in England became increasingly difficult, and in April 1630 her family and her husband's set sail for the new world in four boats. The first year in the Massachusetts colony must have been terrible; two hundred members of the original group had died by December, of malnutrition and various illnesses. Bradstreet survived, and moved over the next forty years from Salem to Charlestown to Newtowne (that is, Cambridge) to Ipswich to Andover. She wrote great quantities of verse, some on classical subjects, some on familial subjects, some metaphysical and some romantic. Reading it today, and knowing how brutally primitive the instruction offered at Harvard was in those days, we can fairly believe that Bradstreet was among the most learned, literate, and creative persons in Cambridge at the time.
I won't read any of Bradstreet's poetry today, but want to close with some beautiful words she wrote late in life in a letter to her children. ``I came into this Country, and found a new World, and new Manners at which my heart rose.'' Bradstreet held on to what she came with, her faith in God, her devotion to her family, and her knowledge of both literature and science; and she found in her new experience in America, and within herself, things she would never have known if she had stayed at home, things not all to her liking. I hope all of us who are here under easier circumstances can draw a fraction as much from the vastly greater opportunities life in Cambridge presents today.