Theodore Roosevelt at Harvard

In his second match, he met Charley Hanks. They both weighed about 135 pounds, but Hanks was two or three inches taller and had a much longer reach. Roosevelt was also nearsighted, which made it hard for him to see and parry Hanks' blows. "When time was called after the last round," one spectator recalls, "his face was dashed with blood and he was much winded; but his spirit did not flag, and if there had been another round, he would have gone into it with undiminished determination."

From this contest sprang the legend that Roosevelt boxed with his eyeglasses lashed to his head, but some thirty years later T.R. said, "People who believe that must think me utterly crazy; for one of Charley Hanks' blows would have smashed my eyeglasses and probably blinded me for life."

In many men, energy and enthusiasm are defects, for they overflow in all directions at once, and succeed in accomplishing nothing. But one of Roosevelt's greatest assets was his remarkable power of concentration. President Eliot recalls that "the intellectual power which most attracted the attention of his companions and teachers was an extraordinary capacity for concentrating every faculty on the work at hand, whether it were reading, writing, listening, or boxing. Thus he would read by himself in a room half-filled with noisy students without having his attention distracted even for an instant; indeed, he would make no answer to questions addressed directly to him, and did not seem to hear them."

Like many energetic young men, T.R. was a bit of a rebel, and refused to knuckle under completely to the academic grind at Harvard. He read voraciously, but for information, not for exams. He became absorbed in certain areas of the curriculum, and tended to ignore the rest. As he noted in his autobiography, "I worked drearily at the Gracchi because I had to; my conscientious and much-to-be-pitied professor dragging me through the theme by main strength, with my feet firmly planted in dull and totally idea-proof resistance."

T.R.'s school record shows that he was not an even scholar, but did well in those courses which interested him, and not so well in others. He refused to bow down to the college fetich of classical studies. Even on his entrance examinations, he appears to have chosen that course of requirements which contained the minimum of classics and the maximum of mathematics, for on the freshman rank list he is among the very few members of the class who were in the advanced section in the latter subject. He took one third of his courses in the modern languages, and a large number of courses in natural history.


Phi Beta Kappa

Though not an outstanding scholar, Roosevelt did well enough to make Phi Beta Kappa, and probably could have done even better had he tried harder in subjects he considered boring. His best marks came in natural history, where he consistently scored in the high eighties or nineties. His only flunks came in Greek (58) and French 4 (51). His averages for each of his four years here were competent, but not spectacular--75, 87, 82, and 78. He did not write a thesis for honors, but he gained the final ranking of 21st in a graduating class of 161. This was quite an achievement for the boy who had barely squeaked by the entrance barrier four years before, and had been "conditioned" in three subjects--Greek poetry, plane trigonometry, and botany.

In eagerly pursuing his academic interests, Roosevelt shocked many of his apathetic classmates. At a Pudding show in 1880, George Pellew, class poet, strummed the spirit of Harvard on his lyre:

We deem it narrow-minded to excel.

We call the man fanatic who applies

His life to one grand purpose till he dies.

Enthusiasm sees one side, one fact;

We try to see all sides, but do not act.

...We long to sit with newspapers unfurled,

Indifferent spectators of the world.

Recommended Articles