What Harvard Means

30 Theories, to Help You Understand

You've probably heard the story about the three blind men and the elephant, the one where each blind man grabs a different part of the animal and each comes away with his own erroneous idea of what it is--the one who grabbed the elephant's tail thinks it's a rope, and so on.

It's like that with Harvard, too. The people here aren't quite so blind, to be sure, but they are intensely, incessantly analytical about themselves and their surroundings. There are few constants in Harvard's 339 years other than that for all that time, people have thought they had the place figured out and disagreed violently on their interpretations.

So to help you understand, here are 30 different Harvards, each almost as real and true as all the others. It may all confuse you, but so, at first, will Harvard.

The Essential Harvard

1 Eliot Superlative Theory


Charles William Eliot, who was president of Harvard through the late 1800s and the turn of the century, once called Harvard "the oldest, richest, and freest" university in the country. You can't dispute him on the first two points: founded in 1636, Harvard is unquestionably the oldest institution of higher education in America; and its endowment, about $1.4 billion, makes it still by far the richest (University of Texas is second, but it's all new money). As far as freedom goes, well, Eliot was speaking before the advent of experimental colleges where you can do whatever you want. The tremendous freedom still exists for faculty members but the rest of us would probably be a little less fettered elsewhere.

2 Faculty Get Down to Basics Theory

The august Harvard faculty, threatened some years ago by student radicals, was forced to state its principles. This is what it came up with: "The central functions of an academic community are learning, teaching, research, and scholarship."

3 What's All the Fuss About Theory

John Reed '10, the only American buried in the Kremlin, shortly before his graduation summed it up like this: "College is like the world; outside there is the same class of people, dull and sated and blind." Reed's theory probably has less currency than any other; all the rest depend on the notion that Harvard is different, and therefore worth puzzling over.

Harvard the Institution

4 Best Theory

Perhaps the most common of Harvard theories is that it's the Best, period and everything else falls into place from there; no doubt you share that view. All sorts of American education councils are constantly trying to quantify this theory by rating various schools according to esoteric criteria, but for people here it's mostly a matter of whether you believe in your heart that Harvard is the best, or whether you don't. It certainly has bright students and top-notch faculty, but there are always nay-sayers.

The nay-sayers, though, are in their own way subscribers to the Best Theory. Their position is usually that Harvard is not The Best only because it has recently gone to the dogs. They assume that Harvard once occupied the s ate of grace from which it has fallen.

5 Forgotten Undergraduates Theory

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