Visitas Thinks Big 2017 – Harvard University – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH: Hello. Well, my goodness, aren’t I lucky? I got to follow all
these fabulous talks, and I’m up here to talk
about improbable things. Hmm, and I even have two
titles to remind you. I am really interested in
the common and the ordinary, and I have a challenge here to convince
you that there’s some value in that. When somebody asks me to think big,
I have an inclination to start small. I’m a historian. History is all around us. I hope you can feel it in this
building that we’re in today. It’s meant to intimidate you, it’s
meant to overpower you, and I can tell, some of you at least
can feel that sense. But we can get ahold of lives and
ahold of our position in the world. If we can exercise a lot more
curiosity about ordinary things, including the things sitting
right in front of us, and so I’m going to try to convince
you of that a little bit today. What did you have for
breakfast this weekend? Did they feed you a very strange
thing called a Veritaffle? Did anyone get a Veritaffle? No? Yes? Yes? Oh, if you didn’t get
a Veritaffle this time, you’ll get one when you come back. What is a Veritaffle? It’s one of the strangest
things on this campus. It’s actually a waffle
produced on, I think, generally on Sunday mornings in
the Harvard dining halls that is impressed with
the official Harvard seal. The Harvard seal? It is three open books
arranged in a kind of triangle and one syllable of the three syllable
word Veritas embossed upon on it. Veritas, which is a Latin word for AUDIENCE: Truth. LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH:
Truth, you’ve already got it. OK, what’s going on here? What are they trying to do? Are they trying to get you to think big? Is that what goes on in the dining hall
as you pour syrup on your Veritaffle? Well, Veritas is all over the place. When you walk out of
the auditorium today and you’re in what’s called the
transept, at each end of the transept is a stained glass window, and
you will find the word Veritas in both of those windows in
slightly different forms. I’d like to suggest a little
game, as you go around campus, looking for various manifestations
of this word to Veritas. They show up on windows,
on t-shirts, on banners. Here, we are in the
entrance to Widener Library. Here is a really fabulous
example that you’re not going to find walking around
campus, but if you’re lucky enough to go into the University
Archives and ask, they might show you a Harvard flag
emblazoned with the symbol Veritas that went many, many times circumnavigated
the earth in 1991 in the space shuttle Atlantis. So Veritas has gotten around a bit. Where did it come from? I think as you see this
symbol over of a campus, you think nothing could
be more stable, nothing could be more ancient
than the Harvard seal. And in fact, if you went
into the Harvard Archives, you would find in an early college
book this inscribed in 1643, someone drew the outline of the
shield and in a crude kind of way, outlined and designed the Harvard
seal with the word for truth. Unfortunately, a few historians have
been punking around in the archives. This is a legitimate document– it’s real. But somebody designed
the symbol for Veritas, but the college didn’t want it. They didn’t like it. They turned it down, and they preferred
something more specific to the Puritan origins of Harvard. And they gave it a Latin
term Christi Gloriam– to the glory of Christ, and
that symbol in various forms, different Latin incarnations
about Christ in the church, to the glory of Christ. The ultimate purpose of
Harvard College initially was to train a learned ministry. In various incarnations, that
version of the Harvard seal lasted through the administration
of President Josiah Quincy, who actually found the old document from
1643, and it continued until the 1880s. Long, long time after the
origins of the universities, and it was there in time to show
up on the base of the John Harvard statue, which you have all seen. So, what was going on here? What was this fight about? This was about what kind of
university Harvard was going to be, and those who eventually went
out and reduced the shield to its old 1643 version wanted
a kind of universal commitment to truth rather than the ratification
of the sectarian original organization of Harvard. Now, why does this matter? I’m not sure that the people
who come up to the John Harvard statue, which was installed in
1884, care this isn’t John Harvard. Nobody knows what he looks like. I mean, this is a
historical fact that Harvard took its name from the donation
of books from John Harvard, but nobody seemed to notice that
and create this statue of Harvard until almost 250 years later. People don’t care about that. This is about the present,
like the Veritaffle. It’s not about the past. It’s about the present. Is it about a Harvard brand,
or is it about something more enduring and
something more significant about a commitment to an idea? So what the Veritaffle teaches me– and it’s a theme I
hammer on in my courses– is history is not the old and moldy. History is not the past. History is the study
of how things change. You want to change the world? You really want to know how people
have changed things in the past. History is not about the
veneration of the past. It’s about understanding it. And history remains contentious as you
know if you noticed in the newspapers the controversy over the seal of
Harvard Law School, which was recently, with the approval of the corporation,
done away with because it carried a symbol about slavery. It’s a very complicated story
that I won’t go in here today, but history is controversial. And history is above all, a
conversation between present and past, about what matters, about who
we are, what kind of boundaries we establish between one another. This project, Tangible
Things, that I have engaged in with a number of colleagues
for many years, one of the things we’ve done is dig into archives
and museums at Harvard to look for little
stuff, small stuff that open up new ways of thinking
about the world around us. We found lots of interesting things
in our explorations, but none of us were quite prepared to meet
Harvard’s 120-year-old tortilla. Yes, it’s there. It’s in the Harvard Herbaria and
botanical research libraries– a place that Professor [? Claymore ?] does some
of her path-breaking work is recorded. A tortilla, what on
earth is doing there? Well, it confronts us with
a past we’ve forgotten and invites us to
confront it, and invites us to explore, and to understand. It’s pretty obvious that if
Harvard is collecting tortillas– and when I dug into this
problem, I discovered a whole jar of tortillas
that are 139 years old collected in Mexico by a
man named Edward Palmer, who pioneered a new field
called ethnobotany, which was not just about
plants and their development but was about how people used plants. So he paid a lot of
attention to how women in the areas he was researching
in Mexico made their tortillas– very interesting
documents that survived, and so interestingly
enough, these tortillas that were collected by
people who were called botanic explorers in the 19th and early
20th century, went out to find plants. These ended up– some in
the anthropology museum, some in the botanical
museum, or the herbarium. And then something else
interesting happened, it wasn’t just about the
advancement of science, the collection of usable plant
products, or the plants themselves. It was about a kind of science
that supported the larger economy and found new ways to use plants. Harvard has then a
collection in something called economic botany that is how
to take a plant and make it useful. A man named Oakes Ames– the archive
with economic botany is named after him, and looking at his papers, I
was just fascinated because it was an example of how something that
looks kind of clever and interesting in the 1920s becomes a big political
controversy in our own time– as he noted that someone
had figured out how to make a substitute for maple
syrup out of corn or maize. So, what did you have for lunch? I have no idea, but I know many of
you have eaten the products produced by economic botany. And if you start with a tortilla and
begin to move forward in time to a time when a tortilla was so exotic that
nobody in Cambridge, Massachusetts has ever seen one and therefore
put it in a museum exhibit to a time when that’s
practically all some of us eat, and how did that happen? How did that change occur in ordinary
life as manufacturers took over? And here’s the interesting
thing, food crosses boundaries and creates boundaries as
people move from place to place. So the Frito Kid, blue eyed and blond,
becomes the Frito Bandito and then it sort of pushed off the
screen for something else, and we are now in the period of
the perfectly organic, healthy, gluten-free, fabulously
[? hand-produced, ?] authentic Mexican tortilla made in Western Massachusetts
or perhaps Joe Bravo’s fascinating tortilla art produced and sold
in galleries in Los Angeles. Food is about history. Common things take us beyond our own
lives, not just to foreign places, but to lost eras in time, and
food can also remind us, I think, that in a world where humble bread,
a tortilla crosses boundaries, it can still remain very difficult
for some people to do so. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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