President Eisenhower once accused Adlai Stevenson of mystifying the public with "Harvard words," which is some indication of how elusive the quality of being Harvard is, since Mr. Stevenson in a Princeton graduate. Uncertainty about this quality bothers newcomers to Cambridge and returning students alike. Beyond the one fact about its nature that everyone returning learns, that it changes very little (Boston, being the hub of the universe, stands still while the rest of the world moves), Harvard chastely offers few clues to the curious or the irreverent.
In fact, the College, for all the reverence attached to its name has never had a very clear notion of what it was about, except at the very beginning. In those days, everyone knew that the business of any college was to rear Puritan divines. This purposeful age vanished, however with the Unitarian Coup, and ever since Harvard has been adrift on a secular sea, stirred vaguely, as great corporate bodies are, by forgotten impression and dim, ancient impulses from its past, like parietal regulations.
Confusion persisted through the nineteenth century (which lasted longer in Boston than elsewhere), and George Santayana was forced to characterized the old College rather uncertainly, as a place which "liberated the young man from the pursuit of money, from hypocrisy, from the control of women. He could grow for a time according t o his nature, and if this growth was not guided by much superior wisdom or deep study, it was not warped by an serious perversion; and if the intellectual world did not permanently entice him... he learned that such things existed, and gathered a shrewd notion of what they could do for a man, and what they might make of him."
This century has done nothing to clear matters up. The rise of the University and its Ph.D.'s have forever confused the role of the College, and a newcomer must surely find this the most puzzling question of all, for it is difficult to avoid seeing the embarrassment behind the term "University College."
Such ambiguity is the essence of what Harvard is, by tradition and under the weight of present circumstance. The College is what one defines it as, and therefore many still revere it. It is most like the Holy of Holies in the great temple of Jerusalem, which, when the Roman soldiers broke into it, was discovered to be completely empty.