Twenty five years have clapsed since A. Lawrence Lowell and Edward S. Harkness faced each other in University Hall to inaugurate their great experiment in the subdivision of Harvard College. Over a quarter of a century later, this plan, designed to save Harvard from itself, is still an experiment. For even with the House System, the College still suffers from many of the same ills Lowell proposed to cure.
The war's interruption and unexpected rigors of post-war college living have retarded the plan's development. Yet in spite of their youth and technical shortcomings, the Houses have succeded by their very existence in fulfilling Lowell's essential requirement: that they provide a basis for social and intellectual contact among the mass of undergraduates. But they are accomplishing only a part of what Lowell expected of them.
Lowell's plan was to preserve the quality of the small American college in the big university by dividing the College into units. Undergraduates have had little or no chance to experience this quality in the necessary uncrowded conditions Lowell visualized. Over 4,000 students now live and are educated in facilities designed for a maximum of 3,000. Almost every planned single suite is a double, every double a triple, and every triple a quadruple. Tutorial, the educational aspect of the Houses, has failed to absorb the burden.
Ahead lies the possibility of eventual ruin for the entire Plan and subsequent return of dormitory standards at best. By 1958 the first of a flood of post-depression babies will begin applying for admission, and many feel that if the College is to maintain its national character it will have to admit more than the present 4,500. Under such an enslaught the House system, already badly in need of additional space, could conceivably collapse.
The optimum of House spirit has always been something of a question. Lowell often seemed intent on producing something akin to the loyalty attached to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, yet he always insisted on placing the College ahead of the single units making it up.
Lowell's intention to restore the "mind whetting quality of the small college without losing the advantages of the big college" has not been forgotten. It has been incompletely carried out. The main justification of the plan is the assembling of reasonably small groups of students and tutors in the same building so that free intercourse and friendship can voluntarily blossom if a student so wishes. Difficulties have come in refinishing this idea to the maximum. But while the plan is yet to be perfected, it does represent a striking advance over conditions in Cambridge during the first 25 years of the twentieth century.
A Hotchkiss boy up to receive an award for his school's paper at a Crimson dinner in 1930 summed up the immediate reaction of many to the proposed College subdivision when he noted Harvard was carrying out Princeton's idea with Yale's money. Those at the dinner nodded sympathetically remembering that Woodrow Wilson 25 years earlier had tried to institute a democratic division at Nassau, but had been unable to defeat the alumni-backed club system. President Lowell, however, jumped to his feet to correct the speaker's remark. Princeton was not involved at all. "It was a bolt out of the Blue," the dark-haired, mustached president declared.
Yale Snubbed Harkness
The bolt had been in the form of Yale graduate and benefactor Edward S. Harkness '97, who had come to Lowell after being turned down by his alma mater. Yale had been unprepared for his offer to finance subdivision, but Lowell was already strongly convinced overgrown Harvard had to be split up. Ten seconds after Harkness had offered his financial assistance, Harvard had for all practical purposes become the guinea pig for large American colleges.
With all the perception of Woodrow Wilson, Lowell had seen as early as 1906 the necessity of housing all students, not only as an educational problem but as an encouragement of democratic social life among his students. He spoke at Yale in April of 1907. "A body that is too large for general personal acquaintance tends to break up into groups whose members see little of one another," Lowell then a professor of Government stated. "The obvious solution is to break the undergraduate body into groups like the English colleges, large enough to give each man a chance to associate closely with a considerable number of his fellows and not so large as to cause a division into exclusive cliques. We need a system of grouping that will bring more men from different parts of the country, men with different experience and as far as possible social condition into each group. In short, what we need is a group of colleges each of which will be national and democratic, a microcosm of the whole university."
When Lowell succeeded Eliot in 1909, he immediately began his campaign to democratize the growing undergraduate body. His first step came in 1916 with the addition of four freshman dormitories along the Charles. Lowell always said it had been one of his deepest regrets that as an undergraduate he had not known many in his class who later proved themselves men of worth. His regret spurred on his conviction of the necessity of throwing all members of a class together for at least one year. Through the freshman dorms, classmates were to meet each other briefly as equals before passing on to the disrupting existence of upper-class living.
By the autumn of 1928, Harvard was well on its way to becoming an urban university: if not a Paris, then a Boston University or CCNY. Increased admissions had created a mass of undergraduates living at random about Cambridge, eating at cheap counters along Massachusetts Avenue, and split into numerous factions, of which the club group along the Gold Coast was the most notable. Whatever American tradition of college life Harvard had once possessed was menaced with suffocation in the unmanageable mass of undergraduates.
Lowell instituted required concentration and general exams in an effort to cut out the worst abuses of the electoral system. Tutorial was widely increased to help prepare students in the special fields. But with the student body and tutors casually scattered about Cambridge contact between the two was limited. Not only had an undeniable social chasm split the Gold Coast and the Yard, offending Lowell's delicate democratic sense, but his educational program stood in danger of falling before an unmanageable student body. He did not wait for Harkness.
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