What E Pluribus Unum really means

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Dear Readers, thank you again for the privilege of writing. In November of last year, I visited Boston to attend a rare book show.

I took the subway from my hotel to Harvard Square. Just across the street at the subway exit was the entrance to Harvard College. I walked through the yard, crossed another street and entered the domain of Harvard Law School, a collection of buildings surrounding the gray stone Langdell Hall. The central core was the library with both ends used as class rooms.

It was 44 years since I last attended class. I quietly entered and sat in the back row of a downward sloping auditorium, with the teacher's podium positioned in the front. Professor Alan Dershowitz was teaching criminal law before about 40 students. Dershowitz glanced in my direction a couple of times wondering what I was doing there.

The marvelous thing about a Harvard law professor is not necessarily the breadth of his or her knowledge, but the nuances they can conceive to explore their field of expertise. This is imbued in the Socratic method of teaching, in which the teacher asks questions of the students.

There was a spirited give and take, although most of the talking was done by the girls. Women form about half the student body of 500 or so in each class, in the three-year-long program. In 1960, there were only about 10 women in my class.

After 45 minutes, which I truly enjoyed, I quietly made my exit. As was true of my deportment almost a half century ago, I did not raise my hand to join the debate.

It's exhilarating to ride the subways of Boston. Here you see the faces of the world in many shades of color and hints of ethnicity.

The strength of America - in contrast to Europe or Asia, where races of men and women are divided and distinct - is that we are a mixture of many different peoples. The symbol on our coins has true meaning. It is E Pluribus Unum, one out of many. This principally means that each American citizen regardless of his or her background has the same rights as anyone else.

But it has another meaning, too, that has always been a part of America but is now accelerating - where white and brown and black are friends and partners and husbands and wives.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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