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Eliot Of Harvard
A stern but brilliant Yankee revolutionized American higher education while president of our oldest university
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
but now the horrible crime of assassination for political reasons has stained indelibly the annals of the republic. That is the horror of it to my mind—the men can be replaced, the policy of the government will probably be unchanged, the war will go on without any intermission or faltering, but the dreadful fact remains that an American President has been assassinated by an American. This is a crowning fruit of slavery to our eyes, but to the world and history it is a legitimate fruit of American institutions, such as they have actually been since the republic was founded. First, civil war, and now, political assassination. Oh, are we copying Rome?
Passing on to thoughts of the late President, Eliot noted: “I am no worshipper of men,—even now, I don’t like to hear Lincoln’s name put too near Washington’s, but his character seems to me a rough and ungraceful but truly noble growth of republican institutions. He grew to his work, which was holy and it hallowed him. You can count on your fingers the names which History will rank with his.”
Regarding his own small niche in history Eliot cherished no illusions. “As to being read a hundred years hence,” he answered an interviewer’s query in old age, “I haven’t the smallest expectation or desire of any such waste of time on the part of future generations. I am entirely content with an ephemeral influence, added to the contribution of some bricks laid in the walls of a durable institution.” And to my grandfather he once remarked: “Sam, I can’t seem to get interested in heaven; I want to know what’s to happen to the World Court.”
Theodore Roosevelt was a Harvard man, and in the year 1905 he returned to Cambridge for the twenty-fifth reunion of his class at the college. “As he was President,” Eliot later recalled in conversation, “I invited him to stay at my house.” Eliot’s account continued as follows:
He appeared very early in the morning, a very warm day in June. He said he was dirty, and he looked dirty. I showed him to his room. The first thing he did was to pull off his coat, roll it up with his hands, and fling it across the bed so violently it sent a pillow to the floor beyond. The next thing he did was to take a great pistol from his trousers pocket and slam it down on the dresser. After a while he came rushing downstairs, as if his life depended on it, and as I stood at the foot of the stairs I said, “Now, you are taking breakfast with me?” “Oh, no,” came the reply, “I promised Bishop Lawrence I would breakfast with him,—and good gracious! (clapping his right hand to his side) I’ve forgotten my gun!” Now he knew that it was against the law in Massachusetts to carry that pistol, and yet he carried it. Very lawless; a very lawless mind!
I find the picture of an American President, gallant in his own defense, relying for protection on a six-shooter in his pocket instead of surrounding himself with a phalanx of oyster-eyed Secret Service operatives, both quaint and appealing. Yet when he carried a pistol in Massachusetts, Roosevelt consciously violated a state law. That was enough to excite Eliot’s stern condemnation. What would Eliot have said—and what might Teddy Roosevelt himself have thought—regarding the assassinations, the corruption in government, the mass warfare and concomitant abominations of our time?
For all his optimism, the present state of the world—and of America in particular—would surely have caused Eliot mental suffering. He would have thrown himself into some sort of work, however, to alleviate the evils that we seem to wish to heap upon ourselves. His favorite motto came from Edward Everett Hale. “Look up and not down,” Hale’s homily ran, “look out and not in, look forward and not back, and lend a hand.”
In his day Eliot lent a hand by flinging open the doors and windows of American education. If I may repeat the key phrase from his inaugural address, he let “the winnowing breeze of freedom” blow through and refresh the American academic world. “He labored,” as the famous old Eleventh Edition of the Encylopedia Britannica has it, “to unify the entire educational system, minimize prescription, cast out monotony, and introduce freedom and enthusiasm; and he emphasized the need of special training for special work.… His success as an administrator and man of affairs and as an educational reformer made him one of the great figures of his time, in whose opinions on any topic the deepest interest was felt throughout the country.”
Add to this the statistical information that Eliot managed to multiply Harvard’s student body by four, its faculty by ten, and its endowment by nearly eleven times (to twenty million dollars), and one has the picture of an extremely forceful educator—one might almost be justified in saying educational force.
Not all present-day educators, however, feel Eliot’s influence was really positive in the long run. W. H. Ferry, always a stimulating critic, put the case like this in a recent letter: