Kirtley F. Mather, professor of Geology, Emeritus, still feels, 25 years later, that his effort in 1935 to rescind the Massachusetts Teachers Oath were well worth while. At that time, Mather withtood public opinion and almost defied the President of the University in his outspoken stand against the oath.
On the first of October, 1935, a provision in the General Laws of the Commonwealth required all teachers to take an oath of allegiance. The law stated, "No professor, instructor, or teacher who is a citizen of the United States shall be permitted to enter upon his duties within the Commonwealth unless and until such oath or affirmation shall have been so subscribed."
The following day, Mather spoke directly against the oath. His address, entitled "The Twilight of Democracy," drew immediate reaction both in the Boston press and from President Conant. "Teaching in an institution like Harvard must not become a state function; if it does, education is doomed to stagnation and the twilight of democracy will deepen into blackest night," Mather stated.
In his career as teacher and geologist, Mather estimates he has taken oaths of allegiance to the Constitution "at least 50 times." His objection to the Teachers Oath centered around the need for a professor, presumably independent of the government, to take it. With such an oath, he stated, "Education would then become the crassest of propaganda and the fascist spirit would dominate a land from which liberty had been banished."
President Conant, although personally opposed to the oath, nevertheless brought pressure upon Mather to get him to sign. "It is out of the question for Harvard University to consider not obeying the law," Conant said on Oct. 4.
While members of the press corps surrounded the Faculty Club waiting for Mather to make a statement, he reportedly slipped out the ladies' entrance of the Club. His statement was issued between the second and third acts of "Porgy and Bess," smash hit of the 1935 season--although Mather does not recall the incident now. This statement again showed a spirit of rebellion. "When the splendid group of patriotic teachers are singled out for treatment as suspicious characters, I rebel."
In a letter circulated to Faculty members Oct. 8, Conant made clear the University's position: Any teacher who refuses to take the oath cannot work at Harvard. "It is clear that the act does not require you to take the oath if your duties are wholly and clearly apart from teaching," he wrote in a remarkably restrained tone.
"When President Conant insisted. I obey the law," Mater reminisces, "he accompanied his statement with the idea he heartily disapproved of the whole idea." And so Mater capitulated--partially.
He signed the oath, but attached a three-paragraph proviso, thus making the entire oath invalid. At the same time, Mather issued another statement, calling the oath "completely antagonistic to the spirit which breathes through the Constitution of the United States and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." (He smilingly recalls, however, that he constitution of the Commonwealth was out of print at the time, and that he "couldn't find a copy of what I was swearing to uphold.")
"The law to which I object appears to transfer to state legislatures and to officials appointed by partisan governors a responsibility which has constitutionally resided in non-political quarters," he wrote. The State Commissioner of Education returned Mather's oath, and Mather was faced with the alternative of taking the oath or resigning from the University. He signed the oath, and the controversy ended.
In the spring of 1936, during the preparation for the Tercentenary Celebration, an attempted repeal of the oath failed in the House of Representatives. Mather, along with other members of the Faculty such as Max Lerner and F. O. Matthiessen, formed the Harvard University chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.