February 26, 2006


How the Liberal Arts Got That Way (MATTHEW PEARL, 2/26/06, NY Times)

Until the 1860's, Harvard presidents were anointed by and answered to the university's Board of Overseers, a powerful group of political and religious establishment figures that included the governor of Massachusetts, along with other dignitaries appointed by the Legislature. But in 1865 the Legislature passed a law democratizing things, allowing Harvard alumni to elect the overseers, in an effort said to "emancipate" Harvard (a loaded term in 1865) from politics, and render it an independent rather than state institution.

In the years leading up to this transition, the Harvard presidents fought against the tide of liberalism, limiting the number of disciplines that could be taught and, within those disciplines, maneuvering student choices toward rigidly designed classical studies. When Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked to Henry David Thoreau that all branches of learning were taught at Harvard, Thoreau recalled of his own time there that, yes, "all the branches, but none of the roots." Students were insulated, reprimanded for congregating in groups, raising their voices and even "throwing reflections of sunshine around the College Yard."

All five of the transitory line of pre-1865 presidents — Edward Everett, Jared Sparks, James Walker, Cornelius Felton and Thomas Hill — had been Harvard students themselves, and all but one were clergymen. They fought in the humanities against the expansion of teaching foreign languages, and in the sciences against the spread of Darwinism, which was seen as antireligious. [...]

The 1865 law shaking up the Board of Overseers allowed the university to adjust more nimbly to events outside its gates. But the biggest result, four years later, was the selection of the next president, the chemist Charles William Eliot, who ushered in large-scale reforms that marked the renaissance in liberal arts education, not just at Harvard but also across the country.

Eliot, only 35 at the time of his inauguration, published a two-part series on "The New Education" in The Atlantic Monthly, setting forth a national agenda for educational reform. The presidents of colleges like Cornell and Johns Hopkins were compelled to coordinate their efforts with Harvard's. Appropriately, Eliot remained president for 40 years, the longest term in the university's history, and brought Harvard into the first years of the 20th century.

In a long-gestating paradox, however, the very changes that freed Eliot to renovate Harvard with a more independent and egalitarian framework also did in Larry Summers by leaving Harvard presidents without an identifiable constituency or a body to which, in the end, he may be said to answer.

You pretty much have to have gone to Harvard to think it paradoxical that a reform based on indulging the trends of intellectuals and the immature ends in the indulgence of intellectual trendiness.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 26, 2006 9:55 AM
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