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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Unknown Charles Warren Center

By Jack Davis

By awarding fellowships to young foreign scholars who will return to teach in their own countries, the Center hopes to raise the low level of international interest in American history.

The Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History has been operating in its yellow Church Street house for nearly two years. But most undergraduates don't know it exists, and even graduate students in American history are only superficially aware of what it does.

This is the result of the Center's almost exclusive concern for the professional historian. By definition, the Center is not involved in current affairs and hence doesn't attract the sort of attention that the Kennedy School of Government or the Joint Center for Urban Studies receive.

What is remarkable about the Warren Center is exactly this: It is able to finance significant historical scholarship at a time when funds for research projects without strong and direct contemporary relevance are exceptionally scarce. The bulk of its $200,000 operating expenses each year supports long-term post-doctoral research fellowships and important publications in the field of American history.

The University established the Center in November, 1965, under a $7.2-million bequest from the estate of Annielouise Bliss Warren, widow of Charles Warren '89, member of the Board of Overseers and a distinguished lawyer and legal historian. According to the Center's director, Oscar Handlin, Charles Warren Professor of American History, the history department had been considering such a project for a number of years before the gift was made.

After eight months of organization, the Center moved in July, 1966, to 53 Church St., an early-nineteenth century house which Harvard bought from Cambridge (it was used by the city's Boy Scouts) and renovated to serve as the Center's headquarters for its first few years. Practically all of the Center's main programs were begun in its first academic year, 1966-67.

The only Warren Center activity directly affecting undergraduates is a series of visiting historians who normally present public lectures and participate in seminars and informal discussions with history students. The guests to date have been Edmund S. Morgan from Yale; Willard Hurst, legal historian at the University of Wisconsin; George Kennan; Daniel Boorstin, of the University of Chicago; and Richard Hofstadter (who refused to speak with any undergraduates) of Columbia. H. C. Allen, Professor of American History at University College in London, will lecture March 19 on "America: Land of Comfort and Violence," while on a visit to compare the Warren Center to his American studies center in England.

These occasional affairs are incidental to the really important--but delayed and indirect--impact the Center hopes to have on Harvard. Any improvement in the higher levels of historical research, such as the Warren Center is now sponsoring, will inevitably filter down to affect undergraduate studies. Handlin points out, however, that the Center is now making a more deliberate effort to improve the quality of teaching in the field of American history--improving the working conditions of junior faculty members--to make Harvard attractive to young historians.

Since schools which can't afford to build cyclotrons can still compete for historians (and everybody wants American historians), "It's a constant struggle to keep instructional quality in American history at a high level," Handlin says. This demand is partly responsible for the loss of two promising assistant professors of American history last year--Stephen Thernstrom, now a professor at Brandeis, and Gordon Wood, who went to the University of Michigan.

The Center is trying to make teaching history at Harvard less strenuous in a number of ways including the awarding of Harvard Faculty Research Fellowships, grants which free faculty members from full-time work in the history department. However, only one of this year's three appointments went to a junior faculty member, Dr. Neil Harris. The grant allows Harris, who taught "The Impact of Technology on America" last spring, to spend only half his time teaching and the other half doing his own reading and research (on "crowds and the nature of safety" in the last half of the nineteenth century).

Far from attracting bright young historians, the other two fellowships this year enabled two permanent members of the faculty -- Kenneth Lynn, professor of English, and Morton White, professor of Philosophy--to take leaves of absence. Their studies might have been difficult to finance without the Warren Center's support, however, because of the general unavailability of research funds for historical work approached through the humanities.

The 1965 Warren bequest established four endowed professorships loosely affiliated with the Center which, when filled, may broaden the range of instruction in American history. When Handlin was named to the Warren professorship of American history, Bernard Bailyn filled the Winthrop chair vacated by Handlin, in turn freeing history department funds for a possible additional professorship. However, even if another tenured position is added to the history department, a new professor might not be in the American field.

Only one of the three other Warren chairs had been filled--by the late Mark DeWolfe Howe, Charles Warren Professor of the History of American Law--and finding a legal historian of Howe's stature (there aren't many legal historians in the first place) will be difficult. The remaining chairs are even more specialized--on the history of religion in America (though the divinity school may be close to announcing an appointment) and on the history of American education.

The Center's impact on the study of American history outside Harvard will be largely through its publications--Perspectives in American History, the John Harvard Library, and a revision of The Harvard Guide to American History.

Perspectives is an annual review designed "to fill a need not satisfied by the existing journals in the field." Volume I appeared last spring and featured three "monograph-length studies" too long for periodicals and too short for books--"The Origins of American Politics," by Bailyn (112 pages); "American Imperialism: A Reinterpretation," by Ernest R. May (159 pages); and "Attitude: The History of a Concept," by Donald Fleming (77 pages).

Characteristic of the Warren Center's general approach, the volume concluded with seven brief "essay reviews" of books that, according to co-editors Bailyn and Fleming, "either in themselves change the perspective on significant issues in American history or that provide the occasion for a general re-assessment of such issues."

Volume II, which will appear this fall, concentrates on a single theme--"The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960."

The John Harvard Library was established by the Belknap Press of the University Press in 1955 to make important but inaccessible documents of American cultural history generally available. The collection includes such works as Frederick Hawkins Piercy's Route from Liverpool to Great Salt Lake Valley and Isaac Ray's A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity.

It has been 14 years since The Harvard Guide to American History, first assembled in 1896, was revised by Handlin, Arthur Schlesinger, Samuel Eliot Morison, Frederick Merk, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Paul H. Buck. In what was the kitchen of the house the Warren Center now lives in, Richard K. Showman, formerly in charge of educational exhibits at Sturbridge Village, is working full-time to bring the bibliography up to date, under the general supervision of Frank Freidel.

The revised guide will add 500 listings selected from over 100,000 books and articles on American history printed since 1954 to the 15,000 citations (some of which will be dropped) of the existing volume. The University Press is scheduled to publish the revision in early 1970, unless the great demand for the guide results in a decision to employ a computer to speed up the work.

The Warren Center plans a similar revision every five years, to prevent a repetition of this massive task. Tentative plans also call for a paperback supplement every year.

Upstairs in the quieter wing of the Center--away from the noise and typewriters of the administration and publications staff--are studies for the 11 post-doctoral fellows and four foreign scholars. It is here that the serious scholarship--the Warren Center's really unique contribution to the field--is carried on.

A typical post-doctoral fellow is a teaching historian who has published one book and needs time and facilities to work on a second. According to its second annual report, the Center "recognizes that the critical stage in scholarly training now comes after the award of the doctoral degree when the recipient prepares his work for publication and starts a new proj- ect." This need intensifies, the report continues, with the increasing condensation of graduate studies, which themselves lead directly to full-time teaching.

Last year, the post-doctoral studies included such topics as the background of the 1964 civil rights act, post-Civil War Indian policy, a demographic study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Andover, early development in the modernist impulse in American Protestantism, the career of Charles Merriam, and Anglo-American politics in colonial New York.

These fellowships, Fleming says, "mean that a person in American history has another opportunity to do research; and there aren't really many opportunities like it."

The Center's program for awarding fellowships to foreign scholars "might, after a period of years, prove to be the most important thing we've done," notes Fleming. By supporting the studies of "young scholars" who will return to teach in their own countries, the Warren Center hopes to raise the low level of international interest in American history. An Indian and a Swede received appointments for last year's trial run of the program; this term four foreign scholars (from Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland) are at the Center.

The Warren Center's future development will probably involve little more than a continuation of current projects and a moderate expansion of the fellowship program. Limited office space and funds restrict the number of fellows to 15. In new headquarters --one possibility is moving into Littauer once the Kenedy Library is completed--and with probable subsidiary grants, the Warren Center could conceivably accept most of the qualified (meaning, very highly qualified) post-doctoral American historians who apply for the fellowships. Applications for the first three years of the program have averaged around 50, and the number may dwindle after a few years. Moreover, a similar center to be opened by Johns Hopkins University may draw off part of this limited supply.

The overall concept of the Charles Warren Center is a valuable and farsighted step in advancing the study of American history. As Fleming notes, "There's nothing really like this anywhere else.

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