The New York Times
How the Liberal Arts Got That WayBy MATTHEW PEARL
February 26, 2006
BEFORE Lawrence Summers announced his resignation as president of Harvard on Tuesday, the last upheaval of equal magnitude at the university was 140 years ago. That older drama was perhaps the most consequential episode in the history of American higher education; one that not only created the institution where a Larry Summers could flourish as a graduate student and professor, but oddly also laid the seeds of his presidential breakdown.
From 1846 to 1868, Harvard had five consecutive presidents whose short-lived and frustrated tenures evoke Mr. Summers's five-year stint. The era, like our own, was one of strong discord over the central purpose of a university. Then, the controlling movement was a reaction against the liberal flowering of the 1830's that had briefly expanded the fields of study offered and the freedoms of students to enjoy them; today's melees concern, among other lesser disputes, the distribution of money and attention among the many divergently interested departments of the university.
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.
Harvard students not only pushed back against the institutional emphasis on recitations, the prevailing pedagogical method of memorization and repetition, but also pushed the culture on campus outward and into the larger world. When the Civil War broke out, Harvard students volunteered to fight in surprisingly large numbers. President Felton, whose death by illness made his tenure less than two years, is said to have deducted points from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s grades when Holmes enlisted in the Army. He was also said to have taken the time to write a letter to another president — Abraham Lincoln — during the height of the war, to inform him that Robert Todd Lincoln, then a Harvard student, had been caught smoking.
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. The president could no longer concentrate on pleasing the finite body of individuals who approved and could censure him. From Eliot's term onward, each president had to be acutely aware of negotiating between competing and in many cases incompatible demands from the various factions — the administrative governing boards, the faculty, the students, the alumni, the donors and those holding the federal purse strings.
When Larry Summers, through a series of perceived missteps and affronts, lost the support of the most vocal part of the faculty, the Harvard Corporation could not really have saved him even if it wanted to, because it was no longer clear who was in charge.
The Harvard experience had long ago been liberated from politics in its most concrete attachment — that tie to the Massachusetts Legislature — but it has been politicized in a different way, subjected to the realm of public politics and opinion. By removing the president's identifiable overseers (in name and role), the president himself was divested of concentrated power because any or all pressure groups could cause problems for him.
There had been a time — 1829, to be precise — when Josiah Quincy had been able to shift seamlessly between being the mayor of Boston and the president of Harvard, and Everett had been governor before taking office in Harvard Yard. Today the Harvard president, in a way, has a much broader constituency than any mayor or governor, but also a blurrier one. Harvard, as our dominant university, has become a stand-in for the national education culture, and the Harvard president has become everyone's college president.
So, if the culmination of events at Harvard in 1865 was a factor in reshaping higher education in America for the last 140 years, will we see a similar impact from the Summers affair? I suspect that this time it will be mostly for Harvard alone.
The melodrama of the Summers affair has made for a great news story, as does the assumption that any action at Harvard carries a national influence. But overexcited observers on both sides will find few substantive ripples outside Harvard Yard. True, it might make a few other college presidents a bit warier of offending their faculties, or make them think twice before pressing for big changes quickly.
But in the end, and in defiance of the overwhelming level of national news media attention all week, this incident may commemorate how America has outgrown Harvard. It is still our most prestigious brand; but as a Harvard alumnus, I find it especially obvious that today there are so many equally outstanding institutions, public as well as private, and such a huge proportion of the public is now college-educated, that Harvard no longer dictates the dominant model for the American university.
The uproar of 1865 resulted in Harvard becoming more egalitarian and left nobody in charge — in a sense, American education has made a similar transition over the last century, no longer leaving Harvard with the necessity of being in control. This may also leave Harvard, finally, free to shape its modern identity on its own terms.
Matthew Pearl is the author of "The Dante Club" and the forthcoming novel "The Poe Shadow."