Monday, December 20, 2010

Prayers and exams (for close Harvard watchers only)

Speaking of things that have been done the same way at Harvard for a long time …

Harvard has had morning prayer services six days a week every day since the founding. There can't be many institutions with a record like that.

The service is now held from 8:45-9:00am, and consists of a 5-minute homily by a member of the community, a hymn sung by the congregation, some choral music by a trained student choir, and a prayer or two. I speak there once or twice a year as it's one of the few places where it is easy to speak on moral subjects. The venue has the advantage that homilies are so short you don't need to be fair to the other side of whatever argument you decide to make, and at the same time no one else is given the opportunity to respond. My talks are collected here.

Historically academic activities have been timed to avoid conflicts with the service, even though attendance is now typically no more than a couple dozen people, many of them not students. Classes officially begin at 5 minutes after the hour, morning exams began at 9:15, and so on.

When responsibility for proctoring final exams was shifted from the administration to the faculty last year, the time of morning exams was shifted to 9:00. That would require anyone who wanted to go to Morning Prayers to be a few minutes late to their exam. I doubt this could have happened twenty years ago without some protest; today wonder if anybody even noticed.

I was thinking not only because my own exam is taking place right now, but because the Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, already planning to retire at the end of next year from his post as Minister in the Memorial Church,  has been hospitalized following a stroke. What will be the role of the Minister and the Church in Harvard's future?

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