- Historic Sites
”…to Thy Jubilee Throng”
On Harvard’s 350th anniversary, a distinguished alumnus salutes his proud and often thorny alma mater
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
The College faculty became the faculty of arts and sciences, providing instruction to doctoral candidates in its graduate school as well as to undergraduates in the College. In the ever-expanding catalog of courses, enterprising undergraduates found they could share, along with graduate students, in the ground-breaking scholarship of their professors. This was—and remains—an experience not always available to undergraduates at the other American universities that came into bloom in the second half of the nineteenth century. For the Harvard faculty the challenge of teaching bright, noncaptive undergraduates compels what Alfred North Whitehead called “the imaginative consideration of learning,” which fosters the best scholarship.
The “golden age” of the presidency of Abbott Lawrence Lowell saw the consolidation of—in today’s cant—the world-class university. Harvard “indifference” eased the coexistence of club men, content with a gentleman’s three C’s and a D, and earnest youths who came to learn. To counter the urge of the professors to pursue their centrifugal quests in scholarship, Lowell asserted the presence of the College. He restored a semblance of general education, requiring the undergraduates to take “distribution” courses outside their fields of “concentration,” and brought them under the College’s own roofs in the stately Georgian houses on the Charles River.
The listing of the alumni of the Eliot-Lowell era in Fleming’s useful appendix gives a qualitative measure of the role of Harvard University in American life. Here one recognizes two Presidents of the United States and two presidents of Harvard; four justices of the Supreme Court of the United States; editors of The Nation and The New Republic as well as the arch-exponent of yellow journalism; the principal partners of the House of Morgan and of a half-dozen Wall Street law firms; a notorious American fascist and the only American entombed in the Kremlin wall; the organizers of the American Civil Liberties Union and of the American Newspaper Guild; the black scholar who first diagnosed our country’s endemic racism; nine of the earliest U.S. Nobel laureates in science; the scientific director of the Los Alamos laboratory; and a throng of politicians, professionals, and artists in all fields,whose memory outlives them today, one and two generations beyond their passing.
A glimpse into Harvard’s future is not as easily managed as these into its past. Harvard can no longer afford to support the lifework of the scientists on its faculty. The national treasury is the only source in scale with the costs of today’s scientific and medical research conducted by Harvard and the other ninety-nine “research universities.” At Harvard federal funding covers about 75 percent of the sponsored research. Such dependence compromises the autonomy of the university. The federal money comes from “mission-oriented” agencies to support projects, not scientists, and in short-term grants that make the long-term enterprises of science uncertain, seeking “results” ahead of understanding. This kind of funding thus also blanks out long stretches of the 360-degree horizon of scientists freely motivated to ask and pursue their own questions. Under the present administration, the funds flow increasingly from the military and paramilitary agencies, with huge new appropriations for “Star Wars,” the Strategic Defense Initiative—rejected as infeasible by the consensus of the community that is called upon to create it.
How Harvard fares in its hazardous relationship to the federal government will strongly set the course for other universities as well as itself. Only with the concern of a national constituency that cherishes the values of objective knowledge can Harvard look forward to the celebration of its 400th anniversary.