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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
On December 8, 1941, James B. Conant, then President of the University, spoke before a large audience in Sanders Theatre. "The United States is now at war . . . . We are here tonight to testify that each one of us stands ready to do his part in insuring that a speedy and complete victory is ours. To this end I pledge all the resources of Harvard University," he said.
Few Civilian Students
The Government was not slow to accept Conant's offer. By the fall of 1942 over 3,000 Armed Forces personnel were already taking courses at the University. As the number of civilian students continued to decline, it became increasingly clear that a wartime Harvard education was going to differ markedly in its external trappings, if not in its scholastic content, from that offered in peacetime.
For those planning to study at the University as civilians, Provost Paul H. Buck made this difference quite explicit. The wartime educational philosophy of the University was enunciated when Buck addressed the incoming class of '46." . . . Obviously your first responsibility is to prepare yourself for usefulness in the war effort. College men need not be told again that they have no right to be in college unless they have planned their program in the light of participation in the war . . . . We firmly believe that every physically qualified man of college age should be trained for the Armed Services unless specifically assigned to other work by an appropriate federal agency." he stated.
Summer vacations had already gone the way of other peacetime pleasures. With regular instruction established on a year-round basis, a third 12-week summer term was added to the normal two-semester system.
The freshman class soon dominated undergraduate life. Most of the other students had succumbed to the draft. Squeezed into a few Houses they tried to grab what education they could before turning 18. While the Yard was given over to the military, Kirkland and Eliot Houses became the headquaters for a new Navy program, V-12. The Army took over control of Leverett and Winthrop Houses, filling them with a counterpart to V-12, ASTP. Adams, Lowell, and Dunster remained the only civilian sanctuaries, but the latter could not survive past June of 1944 when the Army Air Force took over.
V-12 and ASTP members, however, doubled as undergraduate students besides being in the military. They received their degrees and commisions at the same time, and were kept quite busy in the process. A typical day in Eliot House began at 0600 (6 a.m.) with a two mile run and calisthentics. By 0710 the future naval officers had swabbed the decks, cleaned themselves and their rooms, and stood inspection. Classes started at 0800, continuing through the morning. Physical drill followed dinner. Buglers sounded taps at 2315.
With such a schedule, life became just another almost forgotten peace-time amusement. As for college pranks, "the students were too damned frightened," according to Arthur Darby Nock, Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion and a resident of Eliot all through the war. "It was like a ship on shore. The boys probably knew that the least bit of jibbery pokery, and they were back in the ranks," he says.
Society Eats Horsemeat
In such an atmosphere student opinion came to a standstill, even among civilians. The CRIMSON was replaced by the twice weekly Service News, a paper which did not run an editorial until Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April, 1945. The Student Council also showed an amazing lack of energy. It could find little more than the quality of food to discuss. Nock recalls that "the college kitchens kept up their functions although one time at the Society of Fellows they fed us horsemeat."
But while the Dewey-Roosevelt presidential election passed by almost unnoticed, war events did stir up interest. When the Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, thoughts immediately turned toward victory. On the other hand, Nock remembers that the air was charged with "a quite astonishing gloom when the Bastogne Battle began."
Through it all, however, University life continued almost as if there were nothing abnormal happening. Uniforms became common-place and so did Radcliffe girls in Harvard lecture halls. Undergraduates who had never experienced the pre-war Harvard found nothing unusual about metal trays or double decker beds. While about 500 of the teaching staff took leaves of absence, 1600 stayed. These were assisted by professors who came out of retirement.
Although many liberal arts courses were dropped from the catalogue, the staples remained and were taught by the best men in their respective fields. Some academic changes were evident, of course. Science fields were stressed, and most of the labs became top secret war research centers. Many students received intensive training in languages definitely foreign from the normal Germanic and Romantic peace time studies. The Armed Services needed men proficient in Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. Harvard training helped supply these people.
There were also other and more spectacular abnormalities. One day in the fall of '43 gunboats glided up the Charles River and took positions in the Harvard bend. Motorized police barred off Cambridge streets and thousands of uniformed figures appeared in the Yard. Ever smiling, ever cigar-smoking Winston Churchill was to receive a Doctor of Laws degree in a traditional ceremony at Sanders Theatre. Those who saw and heard the British Prime Minister speak cheered wildly for the man regarded as the greatest figure of the times. After he left in the afternoon both gunboats and police slipped quietly away.
Yale Dropped for B.C.
Meanwhile the summer contingent of the freshman class struggled with such courses as English A, History 1, and Government 1. An informal football team stumbled through an informal football season, meeting and tying Boston College instead of Yale in "The Game." When the summer term came to an6The class of '46 looked like many of Harvard's past classes as it sat down to register for the first time. Within a few short months, however, nearly all of its members were in uniform.</C
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