Colossus On the Charles
Washington Post Book World, August 24, 1986

see also


THE HARVARD CENTURY The Making of a University To a Nation
by Richard Norton Smith Simon and Schuster; 397 pp; $22.95

HARVARD HAS BEEN DESCRIBED in all sorts of ways. The phrase "We happy few," comes to mind. So does "Little Moscow on the Charles." Before the Civil War, according to Richard Norton Smith, the place was little more than an academy of manners for Boston's gentry. But such modesty is not the present Cambridge style. Next month Harvard will celebrate its 350th birthday with a fantasia of seminars and an orgy of Charles River chestiness. Accordingly -- Smith wants us to understand -- the Harvard he's writing about is nothing less than America's "de facto national university" and "an instrument of national purpose" to boot.

It is debatable whether the road to riches, size and overblown reputation that Harvard has taken since 1869, when this book really begins, quite represents the triumphal progress that Smith and Harvard like to believe.

It can also be seen as a pedagogical primrose path that has led the university into the fiscal embrace of government research, turning it into an overcrowded government adjunct all set about with rapacious graduate schools. But there is little doubt that the administrators responsible for what Harvard is today are its last five presidents and it is from their viewpoint, rather than that of students, faculty or even educational history that Smith approaches his subject.

In dealing with the first two, Charles William Eliot and A. Lawrence Lowell, Smith delves again into material covered by Samuel Eliot Morison in Three Centuries of Harvard written for the tercentenary in 1936. But he breaks new ground in assessing James Bryant Conant who took over from Lowell in 1933 and Nathan Marsh Pusey, a private man of Christian principle who badly botched the public challenge of student violence in 1969. Last comes Derek Bok, the put-your-feet-up over-coffee-and-doughnuts conciliator now deep in his own problems with students protesting South African investments.

Eliot and Lowell ruled Harvard with Bostonian arrogance for close to 65 years, beginning just after the Civil War. Both were brilliant. Both had enormous power. Both would have killed for Harvard, though they did not have quite the same Harvard in mind. Eliot, a dynamic introvert with a disfiguring mark on his face, was anti-clerical and anti-classicist, a ferocious apostle of science and reason. Lowell was a volcanic extrovert who believed in general education and the college as the core of academic life.

From 1869 to 1909, in pursuit of "specialized, useful knowledge," strong departments, and advanced degrees, Eliot built up the graduate schools, nearly tripling Harvard's faculty and course offerings, as well as its size and endowment. It became the largest, most influential university in the United States. He also helped found the College Entrance Examination Board, granddaddy of today's SATs, to establish national educational standards.  But he banished the taking of class attendance from the college and introduced the free elective system. When it was pointed out that (then as now) such freedom meant that many students would get little education, Eliot (more candid than current apologists for the elective system) did not pretend that "Harvard people" would be mature enough to handle it. Instead, dismissing all the "careless, lazy, indifferent boys," he noted briskly: "it really does not make much difference what these unawakened minds dawdle with." Harvard undergraduates avoided work in droves.

Lowell sneered at Eliot's "defective specialists," deplored the "mass-produced mediocrity" of the graduate schools. With his own money he endowed one of Harvard's great ornaments, the Society of Fellows, precisely to allow clever and creative students to do advanced work while avoiding "the PhD treadmill." When he took over in 1909, out went Eliot's lax elective system. In went a system of concentration and distribution.

Undergraduates now had to take six of their total of 32 full courses in a chosen major, plus one each in literature, history, philosophy, science and math. To graduate they also faced a grueling general examination. Lowell introduced the tutorial system, too, and appointed freshmen advisers. To combat the effects of bigness he rounded up the millions necessary to devise and build Harvard's present house system. Academically, Harvard College bloomed.  During World War I, in 1915, Harvard's Hugo Munsterberg, a world class experimental psychologist, openly spoke up for his native Germany. When an old grad offered the college $10 million if Munsterberg were fired, the professor said he would happily resign the moment a check was deposited in the university's account. Lowell, however, told the donor that academic freedom was not for sale at Harvard, and Munsterberg was obliging enough to die before America got into the war. For future presidents who would wrestle with similar problems Lowell had ready a typically upbeat motto: "God buries His workmen, but carries on His work."

Chemist James Bryant Conant was short on charm but long on convictions about meritocracy. Harvard's faculty members, he insisted, should all be at the absolute forefront of their disciplines. A Harvard education should be available on a need-free basis to smart kids from all over America. He set up national merit scholarships and sent admissions officers scurrying far and wide.

(Today Harvard's admissions office spends as much as 15.8 million dollars a year on scholarships, employs 30 full-time and part-time searchers and sifters, and has been known to hunt for talented Eskimo candidates by helicopter).

The G.I. Bill completed Conant's meritocracization of Harvard. But it led to the chronic overcrowding that contributed to undergraduate disaffection in the 1960s and '70s. Conant's ad hoc search committee, including non-Harvard scholars, lured brilliant scientists to Cambridge, doing wonders for Harvard's Nobel Prize quotient. But these savants were picked with little regard to their interest in teaching, or their loyalty to Harvard. With Conant's eager blessing they were soon involved in millions of dollars worth of government research, a genie that Harvard has not yet been able to stuff back in the bottle.

Conant's other great gift to Harvard College was something called General Education in a Free Society. Adapted from the Great Books and Western Civilization programs at the Universities of Chicago and Columbia it involved a bare handful of required courses in science, social science and the humanities. Taught by men like critic-semanticist I.A. Richards, classicist John Finley and the Department of Government's Sam Beer, the courses provided a real core curriculum based on the evolution of Western thought and knowledge, and informed by a shared "belief in the worth and meaning of the human spirit, however one may understand it." Established in 1944, Gen Ed petered out in the 1960s. Professors great (and dedicated) enough to present such courses, and famous enough to prosper despite teaching outside organized departments, retired. No one replaced them. It has become fashionable to believe that the history of Western thought was too provincial and biased a subject to offer New World students in an age of globaloney. I.A. Richards used to tell his students that one duty of a critic is "not to beat a cat for being the wrong sort of dog." It was therefore important, for this reviewer at least, to remember that what Richard Norton Smith has set out to write is not a provocative, broad-gauged personal assessment but an essentially neutral, fact-stuffed, corporate history. The form has obvious limitations that become more glaring in the book's later stages when Harvard issues grow hotter and more immediate -- the faculty's contribution to the debacle of 1969, for instance, or teaching versus research, or Harvard's new "core curriculum," which isn't a core at all but a smorgasbord.

Sometimes the book reads like an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other foundation report. But it covers an impressive amount of ground. Smith is often both penetrating and subtle. If he spends too much time on the crocodilian maunderings and maneuverings whereby recent Harvard presidents (especially Bok) have been chosen, he also opens the door perceptively on key issues -- only to close it again and move on just as the reader is hoping that at last Smith will really wade in and wrestle his subject to the ground.

He seems to agree with Harvard about the high value of bigness, bland conciliation and the appropriateness of methodology over vision and shared knowledge in an age when many undergraduates are less interested in education than in specialist cramming for GMATs and LSATs, etc. But where Harvard College is concerned -- the fragile institution that, after all, most of the now many times 10,000 men (and women) of Harvard care about -- A. Lawrence Lowell perhaps should have the last word: "The very object of a university," he said, "is to keep before men's minds those things that lie beyond the spirit of the age."