In 1636, a vote by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony established Harvard College, the oldest institution of higher learning in what would become the United States. Two years later, upon the donation of John Harvard’s entire personal library and portions of his estate, this fledgling college became known as Harvard, and, ever since, has shaped the nation that grew up around its gates as much as the minds of the students it has educated. At Harvard’s 375th anniversary, this—among all the others in this University’s vast history—is the theme we celebrate the most: Harvard’s ability to inspire for the better both American society in general and its individual graduates.
Although it is true that Harvard has in many ways reflected certain trends in the history of the United States at different historical moments, it has also often shaped those trends, for better or for worse. True, first established to provide the British colonies with a ministry of learning, Harvard College was then emblematic of the Puritan values that governed the culture in which it was born. Also, in terms of demographics, it was of course composed of the scions of the American elite for the first few hundred years of its existence, and there is no denying that Harvard’s general conservatism in terms of curriculum and methodology was also in line with that group. But there are also many profound ways in which Harvard influenced the society that grew up alongside it. Here are a few.
In intellectual terms, Harvard is largely responsible for the genesis of pragmatism, one of the most significant movements in the intellectual history of the United States. As Professor Louis Menand points out in “The Metaphysical Club,” the pragmatists were thinkers who, in the context of a divided nation emerging from the Civil War, rejected the notion of absolutes and the certainty with which the previous generation had clung to their assumptions. Heavily influenced by Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” these thinkers—whose ranks included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James—more or less applied Darwinian principles to philosophy: in linking practice and theory, they were essentially articulating a new mode of thought for American society, just emerging from a cataclysmic event and in need of a focus, voice, and purpose. Starting in the 1870s, the pragmatists provided those things to their country, and they did so—in large part—from the hallowed halls of Harvard.
Additionally, Harvard has shaped the typical course of higher education in the United States. In the nineteenth century, Harvard—under the leadership of A. Lawrence Lowell, a member of the Class of 1877 and known as much for his bigotry as for his commitment to curricular reform—pioneered a system in which students chose a particular discipline in which to focus the bulk of their studies. While still well grounded in the various departments of academia, students became specialized, a trend that still continues to this day. Additionally, during the presidency of James Bryant Conant, a member of the Class of 1914, Harvard—somewhat radically—pushed for meritocracy in order to confront the rapidly growing American aristocracy and to share its resources with as many qualified, talented students as possible. With one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation today, Harvard remains true to its commitment to the meritocratic ideal, and we could not be prouder that many universities here and abroad have emulated that same ideal.
Of course, Harvard can also inspire and influence within the respective sphere of the individual. It seems safe to say that many graduates who pass through the gates of this University experience a moment of discovery that, for better or for worse, inspires each to action of some kind. Such inspiration can come in the classroom or on the playing field, among faculty members or with roommates. In any case, it is a unique ability of this University to reach as many individuals as it does, and, at this moment in Harvard’s history, we can only express our gratitude for the privilege of attending. Looking forward to the next 375 years, we are certain that Harvard will be decidedly different in every respect save for this, its ability to transform its students and the society in which it exists.