|Harvard was already 150 years old when this etching was made about the time of the American Revolution.l|
Flags at half staff at Fox News and Tea Party retreats today. On October 28, 1636 the greatest bastion of “cultural elitism” in American history came into being and despite stiff competition, it remains a force with tendrils deep into the highest echelons of government, law, business, and the arts.
It was on this day that the College at New Towne was created by an act of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. New Towne was just up the Charles River from Boston would soon be named Cambridge, in honor of the English university where many leading citizens had received their education. A fitting name for the home of the very first institution of higher learning in North America.
This was only 16 years after Separatist dissenters, known to us as the Pilgrims, established a tiny colony at Plymouth and eight years since the dour Puritans had established themselves. Despite a steadily growing population due to new arrivals from England and extraordinary fertility, settlements still clung close to the coast and not many miles inland was still a “howling wilderness” populated by Native tribes and confederacies. The urgent mission of the school was to train new Puritan divines to fill the pulpits of the town churches that the members of the General Court were sure would be built. The school began with one Master, Nathaniel Eaton, and nine students.
After just two years of existence and without graduating a single student the struggling College received a startling and totally unexpected windfall. John Harvard was a young Puritan minister who had arrived in the New World in 1637 and was settled a minister in Charlestown. He was the son of a butcher and tavern keeper who “rose in the world.” In 1625, his father, a stepsister, and two brothers died of the plague. Only his mother and one brother survived. His mother remarried and was widowed twice more by men “of substance.” She was able to send her son to the Puritan hot bed of Emmanuel College, Cambridge from which he graduated in 1632. His mother died in 1635 and his brother in 1737 leaving John the unexpected heir of a small fortune. Unfortunately the minister contracted the dreaded consumption (tuberculosis) and was dead within a year. Among Harvard’s closest friends was Eaton the Master of the New School. In his will Harvard donated his impressive library of more than 400 volumes to the school in addition to £779 17s 2d, half of the cash value of his estate. Eaton was entrusted with using it for the benefit of the school.
Eaton put the money to work right away. He saw to the erection of a fine frame two story building with as stone foundation and a cellar. The building could supposedly house the Master and up to 30 students with a parlor for instruction. The property included its own apple orchard, barn, and garden plot. Eaton was glad to rename the school Harvard College on March 13, 1639.
Eaton was not to enjoy his stewardship of the college for long. He and his family ran afoul of the notoriously high handed Governor John Winthrop. Eaton was fired and brought up on charges that he had “whipped too harshly” two of his students and that his wife had served others hasty pudding contaminated with goat feces—an event which inspired the name for a much later college humor society. After being convicted, Eaton fled to Virginia and was later accused by the Governor of absconding with £100 of the Harvard bequest—an allegation that dogged the man until his dying day in an English debtor’s prison.
Eaton was succeeded in 1640 by Henry Dunster, the first man to hold the title President. The first students graduated in 1642. During his tenure, in 1650 Harvard College received its official Charter. Dunster remained in his post until 1654 when he too ran afoul of Puritan authorities in a dispute over infant baptism.
Harvard was never officially affiliated with the church. It didn’t need to be. The authorities of Massachusetts Bay assumed that all institutions would be subject to “instruction” by a virtual theocracy. A 1643 pamphlet summarized the mission of the college, “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churche.”
Even in the early years there periodic eruptions campus misbehavior and scandal—even Puritan boys away from home for the first time were apt to go a bit wild, drinking, gambling, “whoring,” insulting good townsfolk, and occasionally openly rebelling against bad food, inept instruction, and capricious discipline. These instances were usually met with canings, expulsions, prosecution by local authorities, and—once in a while—the dismissal of faculty members for being too lax or too harsh.
Despite this, the College was succeeding in supplying new ministers—plenty of them, even more than there were pulpits to fill. Its classic education, drawn from the colleges of Cambridge in the mother country, however, was suitable preparation for other professions as well. Soon the college was producing lawyers in as great abundance as divines, followed by medical doctors. Even “failed” students who did not succeed in a profession could fall back upon the calling of the desperate gentleman—school mastering. Others found their way into business, particularly maritime trade, where a good education in figures stood them well.
In 1664 the College building burned to the ground taking with it all but one of John Harvard’s library books. It was quickly replaced with grander accommodations.
Concerned with both rowdisim on campus and creeping infidelity, Increase Mather, the powerful pastor of Boston’s North Church, was named Acting President in 1685, named Rector following year, and made permanent President in 1692. Although not in residence on campus, and seldom even a visitor, Mather instituted sweeping changes in curriculum and discipline. He purged classic, but heathen Latin writers from the curriculum, instituted study of Greek and Hebrew and emphasized Biblical text and commentaries by Christian writers. To reign in the unruly students, he enforced rules that they must live and dine on campus. Mather held sway at Harvard until 1701.
Despite the turmoil and the rigidity of Puritanism, Harvard had done its job well. At the dawn of 18th Century New England had the highest concentration of college graduates in the world, the most literate general population, and quite likely the highest standard of living. Although the society had a rigid social structure, it was not a hierarchy of unbreakable class or caste distinction. The sons of farmers and tradesman, could, and often did, acquire an advanced education and rise to prominence. A profusion of ministers, lawyers, teachers and merchants trained at Harvard provided a core of educated civic leadership that was unmatched.
However much Mather and his Puritan peers might have wished it, however, an education inevitably caused inconvenient questioning of authority and received wisdom. Mather’s successor as President was John Leverett, the first non-minister to serve. He quietly began distancing the college from control by the Boston clergy. In the next century the ideas of the Enlightenment would begin to percolate through the school, as well as a growing restiveness with Calvinist rigidity.
Graduates of Harvard like Samuel and John Adams were to become leaders of the drive for Independence. When the notions of Harvard cross fertilized with Virginian aristocrats who had been schooled by tutors and at institutions like the College of William and Mary where the radical notions of the Scottish Enlightenment held sway, there was revolution in political thought as well as simply politics.
The earliest known official reference to Harvard as a university occurs in the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Undergraduates still attend Harvard College, with the University now offering graduate education in many fields.
Through the last half of the 1700, Harvard and the ministers it was still producing became more and more unorthodox. Rival Yale, founded the same year as Mather left the helm of Harvard, was soon seen as an orthodox bastion against Harvard liberalism. In 1805 the Harvard Board of Overseers filled the Hollis Chair of Religion with liberal Henry Ware, Sr. a move that would eventually lead to the rupture of the New England Standing Order and would leave the Unitarians firmly in control of the College, and over most of the churches of Eastern Massachusetts. The orthodox Congregationalists responded by founding Andover Theological Seminary in 1808 to train reliable clergy.
Over the next fifty years a Unitarian establishment came to dominate the College. Early on the Unitarians and High Federalists instituted a series of societies and institutions on campus meant to shore up their authority against possible challenges by orthodox Congregationalists. Ironically, the religious liberals instituted an illiberal regime that was constantly being challenged. And the challenge was not only from the orthodox. By the 1840 Unitarians of Ware’s sort were seen as enforces of their own orthodoxy and were the subject of rebellion by a new wave of philosophy—Transcendentalism exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson who shocked sensibilities with his Divinity School Address. Many Harvard graduates became leading members of the New England Renaissance, a cultural phenomenon that gave the nation its first full throated literary voice.
By the Civil War, Harvard had become the firm foundation of the rule of Boston and Massachusetts by an insular elite—the Boston Brahmins. The management by a succession of stodgy Unitarian Presidents nearly killed the college by the Civil War however. Wealthy Bostonians were becoming reluctant to entrust their young men to religious indoctrination and not “practical training” for the business world.
To the rescue came yet another Unitarian, Charles William Eliot who became president in 1869. He was a trained scientist and had attended the advanced polytechnic universities of Europe. He was also a Transcendentalist who determined to secularize the college in order to free the minds of the students.
Under his long leadership he instituted the New Education meant to enable students to make intelligent choices, but should not attempt to provide specialized vocational or technical training. He radically reformed and expanded the curriculum, supplementing the traditional Classics education with a broader sampling of the humanities including modern language and literature as well as a firm grounding in science and mathematics. He instituted an elective system that let students participate in building their own education. Her reformed graduate schools and added new ones, emphasizing original research as well as instruction.
An administrative reformer as well, he reorganized the faculty into schools and departments and replaced recitations with lectures and seminars. He encouraged both private and public secondary schools to change their curriculums to prepare for college admission, thus almost single handily inventing the modern High School. He instituted admission to the school by standardized testing.
A tireless fundraiser, he solicited the generous support of the very wealth to create a huge endowment and build the many new structures his expanding university required. In doing so he tied Harvard closely to the emerging plutocracy of Gilded Age America. Although a noted progressive and liberal—he insisted on education Blacks and admitting Jews, for instance, he displayed class loyalty by fierce opposition to unionism and the labor movement and encouraging Harvard students to actively become strike breakers. By the time Eliot’s tenure ended in 1909 Harvard had been transformed into a world class research university.
Jews and Catholics, previously admitted on a strict quota basis, began being admitted in large numbers beginning in the 1960’s. Black and other minority students became actively recruited and supported as the 20th Century closed. Harvard absorbed Radcliffe College, founded in 1879 as the “Harvard Annex for Women” in 1977 making it fully co-educational. Women now are a majority in the College and are enrolled in large numbers in all graduate schools. .
Today Harvard remains the most prestigious American University with 2,000 faculty to teach and advise approximately 6,700 undergraduate and 13,600 graduate and professional students in 12 degree-granting Schools in and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The Harvard University Library is the largest academic library in the United States, and the second largest library in the country.
Harvard is—by a wide margin—also the wealthiest school in the world. In June 2009 the University had an endowment of $25.7 billion despite having lost maybe as much of half of its value in the economic crisis. The losses have resulted in some major finger pointing—largely at former President Lawrence Summers who departed controversy wracked tenure to become President Barak Obama’s top economic advisor. The losses caused some belt tightening, the delay of a capital project or two and a review of a previously announce policy that would make undergraduate admission free to needy students. But the recent up-tick in the stock market has already recovered much of the loss and no one is going to have to hold a bake sale for Harvard any time soon.
Most universities like to list a handful of distinguished alumni in their brochures. It would take a phone book for Harvard including 8 Presidents of the United States including both George W. Bush and Barak Obama and 18 Supreme Court Justices including five of the nine sitting justices.
The school, even with a far more diversified student body than in the past, continues to pump its graduates into all of the elite institutions in the nation. Since most of them can read, write, and formulate independent informed opinion, this continues to depress the Right.