The infrastructure of learning

Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Late one evening, after watching the 3hour-long film “Beloved”, I discovered the well-lit Au bon pain across the Harvard Yard.  It was close to midnight, but this favorite haunt of undergrads cramming for an exam or taking a break from their endless papers was still very much open.

In one corner sat a student furiously doing battle with a book of crossword puzzles.  In another, a chess tournament was in full swing. In almost every table, students were either reading or discussing, pounding on their laptops, or silently contemplating their coffee.  There was unmistakable energy in this bakery cum cafe. I got myself a croissant and a bowl of gooey New England clam chowder and quickly felt at home among Harvard’s young insomniacs. A uniformed but unarmed security guard patrolled the tables and occasionally stopped to watch the progress of the chess game, but as far as I could see he did not remind anyone that this was an eating place and not a library or a sitting room.

Au bon pain is definitely not known for its food or its ambience, but like some of Harvard’s libraries, its principal attraction is that it never closes. Students find each other here at any time of the day.  In my idea of a university, a place like this is as vital as the colleges and the faculties themselves.

I remember that we had the humble equivalent of Au bon pain in Diliman when I was a dorm resident in Narra in the early ‘60s.  We called it the “drug store” even if it hardly sold pharmaceutical products. It was more accurately a sari-sari store serving food on the side.  The instant coffee was bad, but the water was always hot.  The food was terrible, but it tasted different from cafeteria fare.  Its main attraction was that it sold cigarettes and even beer to old clients.  Around its oily tables sat the aspiring philosophers of Diliman arguing about God and existentialism through the wee hours of the morning.

The abundance of such “tools of conviviality”, the basic infrastructure of the scholarly life, is what makes Harvard, I think, one of the best intellectual environments ever constructed.  Every other building in this community is either a museum, a library, a theater, a hall of residence or a dining hall.

Outside the “Yard” lies downtown Cambridge, a walking New England town lined with restaurants of all kinds, bookshops selling new and used books as well as discounted new ones they curiously call “remainders”, clothes shops, gift shops, music shops, flower shops, cafes, pubs, and cinemas.  Since coming to the States in early October I have been searching for the great American cuisine.  I think I may have found it in Cambridge.  My last meal here was dinner in Casablanca, a restaurant that serves a special menu of  New England and Mediterranean dishes, of which the most exotic, I thought, was the “Tunisian spoon lamb” – a lamb stew flavored with herbs, barley couscous, and fresh figs and served in an oversized ceramic bowl.

The variety of cuisine here is only matched by the bewildering multiracial composition of Harvard’s student population.  My impression is that one out of every three students in Harvard today is an Asian, most likely Chinese, if not Japanese, or Korean or Vietnamese.  It is the same with the restaurants.  Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants have a commanding presence in Cambridge.

It is obvious that the US has methodically turned its eyes on China, with Harvard leading the rest of the American academic establishment in the education of China’s next leaders.  It is difficult to imagine young Chinese students coming to an expensive place like this without full scholarships.  In an earlier time, Filipino pensionados were sent here to be educated in the American way of life as preparation for the roles that awaited them in our country’s political, economic and cultural institutions.  Today the Filipino presence at Harvard is very much diminished, but it remains outstanding.

On the day I arrived in Cambridge, I picked up a copy of the Harvard Gazette which contains a comprehensive calendar of all lectures, concerts, conferences and exhibitions scheduled for the week.  I realized I was one day late for Raul Pangalangan’s lecture on “The Spratly Islands Dispute in the South China Sea” held at the Harvard Law School, but the announcement made it possible for me to track him down.  Raul, a specialist on international and constitutional law, is Visiting Professor at the Law School where he finished his master of laws and doctorate in jurisprudence.  As a Harvard student, Raul had won the Laylin Prize for the best paper in public international law and the Sumner Prize for the best dissertation on issues pertaining to international peace.  His wife, Beth, also a Harvard LL.M., is a Research Fellow.  They are here with their four sons.

He wanted us to have dinner at the Faculty Club, but it was fully booked for the evening.  We landed in Casablanca instead and did not regret it.  I could see in their faces that he and Beth were at home in this paradise for scholars.  We talked about UP and the small things that could be done to make it a more suitable place for the intellectual life.  I was struck by what Raul said.  He was not looking for cafes and museums and faculty clubs.  He was only looking for places where he could take long walks and play ball with his children.  What was done with the UP Lagoon is a good beginning, he said.

We could do more.  But it really takes so little to please a Filipino intellectual.


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