August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
On Harvard’s 350th anniversary, a distinguished alumnus salutes his proud and often thorny alma mater
This September Harvard University will observe the 350th anniversary of its founding. It will do so with ceremony only somewhat less resplendent than the celebration of its tercentenary in 1936. For four days, indoors and out, oration and proclamation, festschrifts and fireworks, a brass band, a symphony orchestra, and a procession of crimson gowns and hoods will assert the ancience, the eminence, and the permanence of our country’s oldest, richest, and, some argue, foremost university. In 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States and son of Harvard, came up from Washington, D.C., to make the celebration national. This time, the invitation to the President of the United States has been turned down by a White House that many at Harvard view as ominously alien to the world of learning.
Observance of the founding recalls a humbler institution. How a tiny colonial college came to be one of the world’s five or ten great universities is a question to put to history. Some of the answers are happily supplied by Glimpses of the Harvard Past , written for the anniversary by four members of the history faculty and published by the Harvard University Press. In affectionate topical and episodic essays, Bernard Bailyn, Donald Fleming, Oscar Handlin, and Stephan Thernstrom show Harvard’s history to have been far from fated. We are reminded that such institutions, to which we try to give immortality, share our mortal frailty. They persist when they do by the will and vision generated by each succeeding generation of their constituencies.
Harvard had a founding distinct from that of other great and more ancient universities. They had their origins in self-governing communities of scholars, secured by royal endowment. But Harvard, the “first flow’r of their wilderness,” was the creation of the community. In New England in 1645, there were 130 graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. Some of them decided to found a college to turn their boys into men. The Puritan theocracy had need for men of literacy and numeracy as well as of piety.
The College was created first, the teachers hired afterward. Governance was vested, accordingly, in a board of Overseers—at first the ministers and magistrates of the six parishes of the colony—and then, upon the legal incorporation of the College in 1650, in the five Fellows, the president, and the treasurer of Harvard College, who own and govern it down to this day. Thus, by improvisation, Harvard established the corporate form of governance characteristic of American universities. Legally, professors are employees; from that status they claim what independence and right to self-government they can. Conserving the accidents of history, Harvard has kept its Overseers. Elected now by the alumni, they bear witness to the public interest in the university.
Through its first two centuries, Harvard College kept to its founding mission: to turn boys into men. The disciplining course of study was compulsory for all: the ancient languages, grammar, mathematics through the calculus, the elements of physical science, political economy, history, philosophy, and Bible study. Increasing slowly in enrollment toward five hundred, open by public funding to the “poor but hopefull,” Harvard drew its students from an ever-widening geographical territory.
It taught some who counted. A useful appendix compiled by Donald Fleming lists the theocrats Increase and Cotton Mather; Gurdon Saltonstall, governor of colonial Connecticut; Abraham Pierson, first rector of Yale; Samuel and John Phillips, founders of the academies at Andover and Exeter; Samuel Adams, organizer of the Massachusetts rebellion, and also his two presidential cousins; and signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In the first generation to grow up in the new nation the roll of Harvard alumni counts Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, and others who brought on the flowering of New England, as well as William Hickling Prescott, George Bancroft, and Charles William Eliot, who proceeded to transform their College into a university.
With the accession of Eliot to his forty-year presidency in 1869, Harvard was set upon its second mission: the advancement of learning. From early in the century, the Boston community had been boasting of its “university.” The new president found a College heavily dependent on tuition income and “with the exception of the endowments of the Observatory, the University does not hold a single fund primarily intended to secure to men of learning the leisure and means to prosecute original researches.”
In fact, the endowment was then approaching $500,000. Invested for a prudent 5 percent return, it would now approximate Harvard’s $3 billion plus. The College remains as dependent as ever on tuition. With one of the most generous financial-aid programs in the country, it helps to fund more than 40 percent of the enrollment, still keeping the College open to the poor but hopeful.
Eliot first addressed the compulsory curriculum of the College. He abolished it in favor of free election of a course of study by each undergraduate. By this bold stroke, as Handlin shrewdly observes, he “freed the faculty for scholarship.” Inevitably, the students drifted from the hard subjects to the soft, in general from mathematics and the sciences into the humanities. By the academic year 1900-1901, one-half of all the teaching that took place was concentrated in eleven courses.
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.