Society of Fellows

Social Experience at an Intellecutal Level'

On the evening of September 25, 1933, 13 men sat down to dinner in two stately, oak-panelled rooms in Eliot House to initiate a venture into, "social experience at an intellectual level," Next fall in the same rooms the venture will begin anew, for the twenty-fifth time. The faces will be different, and there will be more of them--about thirty now--but the fundamental purpose and structure of the Society of Fellows will be the same.

Despite its growth, both in numbers and in the esteem in which it is held by members of the academic world, the Society is today little known to the average undergraduate. This is due partly to its loosely defined status within the University and partly to the manner in which it has avoided drawing attention to itself. In 1948, on the fifteenth anniversary of its founding, a brief history of the Society was written for limited distribution by George C. Homans '32, Professor of Sociology, and Orville T. Bailey, a former professor at the Medical School. Another small booklet catalogued the accomplishments of all those who had been Junior Fellows up to that time. But, other than this, very little has been written about the Society.

Picked for Their "Promise"

In all there have been more than 150 Junior Fellows. Each is picked for his "promise of notable contribution to knowledge and thought" by a group of ten Senior Fellows (members of the Faculty) who comprise the governing board of the Society. The chief aim of the Society is to give the Junior Fellows three years of freedom to study whatever (and whenever) they please, and to provide reciprocal stimulation by bringing the members together at thrice-weekly meals. The stipend attached to a Junior Fellowship is extremely generous, the requirements connected with it practically nil.

Chief among the founders of the Society were President A. Lawrence Lowell '77, Lawrence J. Henderson '98, professor of Chemistry, Alfred North Whitehead, professor of Philosophy, John Livingston Lowes, professor of English, and Charles P. Curtis Jr. '14, a Boston lawyer and a member of the Corporation.


These men were all dissatisfied with the American system of qualification for degrees, especially as it affects the exceptional scholar. In our graduate schools, Lowell wrote, "we have developed into a mass production of mediocrity." Elsewhere, arguing more specifically in favor of a Society of Fellows, he said, "I do not want to depreciate the Ph.D., but to diminish it as the sole road to teaching in an institution of higher learning. Nor do I wish to diminish the study for the Ph.D., but to provide an alternative path more suited to the encouragement of the rare and independent genius."

In 1926, Lowell appointed the other four to a committee which was to study fellowship systems in certain European universities and make suggestions as to how a program of this sort might be managed at Harvard. The "prize fellowships" at All Souls College, Oxford, at Fondation Thiers, in Paris, and, most especially, those at Trinity College, Cambridge, were thoroughly investigated by the Committee.

Whitehead's Conclusions

Henderson afterwards recalled developing his ideas in conversation with Whitehead. "He (Whithead) reached a number of conclusions of which the most important was that the success of the Trinity Fellows depends on two kinds of factors: (1) the benefits conferred directly upon the individual by stipend, lodgings, freedom from routine or required tasks, and so forth, and (2) the benefits of association with others, including men of widely different interests and activities." The Committee of Four felt that these central principles of the Trinity system should form the core of any similar program at Harvard.

In the next six years President Lowell twice appealed to a large foundation for the $1.5 million he judged necessary for the establishment of a Society of Fellows. Both times his request was turned down as being inconsistent with the grant policy of the foundation. Finally, in 1932, Lowell announced that the requisite funds had been provided by an "anonymous donor" --who later was revealed to have been none other than Lowell himself. In his own private account of the Society's founding, Lowell records his failure to secure other financial sponsorship of the project, and then goes on to say, "The result was, there being no visible source of the necessary funds, I gave it myself, in a kind of desperation, although it took nearly all I had."

The two principles around which the Society was originally built--those of economic security and "social experience at an intellectual level"--remain substantially intact today.

The appointments, which run for three years, provide room and board in one of the Houses, together with a stipend of between $1500 and $2000. Married Junior Fellows, living outside the University, receive an added $2000. No stipend is subject to any deduction for tuition or laboratory fees. In addition, appropriations for travel, books, and other necessary equipment may be made from the funds of the Society.

Independent Work

Of courses, libraries, laboratories, and other facilities of the University are open to Junior Fellows without charge. At the same time, the Fellows are completely free from all course requirements, examinations and the like. They work independently in the various departments of the University, but study for no degree.

The Junior Fellows continue the old practice of lunching together twice a week (Tuesday and Friday) in the Society's rooms in Eliot House. On Monday evenings they dine with the Senior Fellows and a number of specially invited guests. Homans and Bailey have provided a description of one of these dinners:

"The Chairman sits at the head of the U-shaped table and the others spread out from him, taking care that guests and Senior Fellows do not sit side by side but interspersed among the Junior Fellows. No lines of age or rank are recognized.

"The conversation is understandably lively, and goes on in knots up and down the table. Here there is a discussion of the foreign policy of Afghanistan, from which unlikely country a Junior Fellow whose field is Indic Philology has just returned. There the question turns to the operational definition of concepts, and the degree to which it can be applied in the social sciences. Here a defense of Hugh O'Neil, the great Earl of Tyrone, ends in an explanation of Elizabethan expansion as the result of a price squeeze on the gentlemen of England. There Totem and Taboo is tabooed, with anthropological reasons. Here some pellet-counters thrash out the merits of the rat and the hamster as laboratory animals. There the probable next moves of the Rubber Workers Union are mapped.

"There are never any set speeches, set papers, or set topics. Junior Fellows talk about their work only as it comes naturally. Many of the Fellows and guests remain at table long after the dinner is over. The rest return to the parlor, where they pull up chairs, to continue a subject already begun or to join a group that is starting something new."

At the luncheons the atmosphere is even more free and informal, the discussion still more open and candid. In the words of one Junior Fellow, "No one is afraid to ask even the most elementary question about the various projects of his colleagues." Often the conversation turns to national and university policies; clashes of personality and of interest are made more apparent.

In a very general sort of way, the battle-lines in most discussions are drawn between humanists and scientists. Some of those who have seen the Society in action for a number of years feel that today's discussion is not quite as sharp and provocative as that of the previous generation. The present chairman of the Society, C. Crane Brinton '19, McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History, recently agreed that this might to be so, and noted that "by