The 17- and 18-year-olds who entered Harvard in the fall of 1953 were part of the first generation of Americans that grew up actually expecting to go to college. Not until after the Second World War did four years of college, especially at elite private universities such as Harvard, begin to lose their traditional association with the self-selected indolence and gentility of aristocratic American families.
Not to say, of course, that there was no patrician order at the Harvard of the 1950s, or even that no vestiges remain today. The university will doubtlessly never lose its segment of the student body that languishes at vaunted social clubs and idles at the secluded retreats of the very rich. Yet, such members of the Class of 1956 could only survive as outcasts from the much larger group that looked forward to perhaps the ultimate opportunity for achievement, intellectual and otherwise.
A flip through the notes prepared for the 25th reunion of the Class of 1956 shows a group of men, almost all of them white, and from rather privileged backrounds.
Although a significant portion had the benefit of a prep school education before attending Harvard, there was a difference between the students of this Class and those of previous Harvard generations. Some had goals more specifically-defined than those of others, but only a few could say with certainty that they intended to become eminent research scientists, or an editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, but most had the idea that Harvard would be the place for accomplishment and challenge.
Certainly, achievements begun at Harvard have lasted throughout the entire careers of most members of the class of 1956. The Class report indicates a median income of more than $60,000 per year, with more than a quarter of the class earning above $100,000. They are the "silent generation," who, unlike the generation attending college in the 1960s, did not feel compelled to wrestle with the problems of the world, but only to carve out lives for themselves from the opportunities it had to offer them.
But, something other than visions of the "good life" stimulated the imagination of many who did go on to successful careers. "The people in my class wanted to do something challenging and interesting that wasn't a waste of time. The people in my class weren't just interested in money and going to the country club," Evan R. Berlack '56, a Washington attorney specializing in international law, described the motivation for achievement among members of the class of 1956.
The activity that occupied the time of students then was only uniform in its variety. One member of the class claims his friends involved in jazz numbered at least 90 per cent of the marijuana-smokers at Harvard--that's about 15 or 20 people, he says. Many students were serious academics, working diligently with a possible eye towards a future of university life or government service. The Crimson and other publications were the training ground for future journalists. Jack Rosenthal '56, now an editor for the New York Times, describes such achievements as a particular source of pride of the Harvard of his day, "We flaunted the intellectual. That was the badge of our generation."
For the young scholarsof the 1950s, life in Cambridge was a fertile, and secure, world of its own. Coming from the rather prosaic and unstimulating setting of high schools and prep schools from across the country, students at Harvard faced a bewildering choice of pursuits to occupy their time, from academics to drama to athletics.
And amidst this congregation of students with different interests and perspectives, there were separate, and perhaps self-enclosed, worlds of their own. Rosenthal says that people who paid no particular attention would hardly know that finals clubs existed. Sirjay Sanger '56, a psychiatrist living in New York, readily admits that his overriding goal at college was to succeed in his pre-med courses and gain acceptance to a medical school. But, he describes people with entirely opposite aspirations and ideals. "It was clear to me from the first day who was going into family business, law, power, and who was going into services and helping people. The people who spent a lot of time arranging beer parties, making sure to be at the right place at the right time, and taking care to date the proper girl of social eligibility, were headed towards money--in business and industry."
Perhaps, this wide diversity of students and their interests and pursuits is the seed for their characterization as "the silent generation," a term habitually strung around the necks of college students during the 1950s, most often to remark on the sharp difference between their tranquility and the campus unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s. Members of the class of 1956 say that if they were silent, it was because they had "nothing to beef about"--there were no wars, almost no public threat after the close of the McCarthy hearings, and plenty to keep people busy at Harvard.
Even if the preoccupation with scholarly or other activities precluded the sort of anger vented by later students, it could not stifle political concern. Students saw some of Harvard's most noted professors carted down to Washington during the early 1950s for the McCarthy commission's investigations into alleged Communist activities. Some students may have heeded the danger signals and muffled their political opinions, but the notorious red-baiting stimulated the sort of concern, and apprehension, for public affairs as did the draft legislation of the 1960s.
There was no doubt who was the political spokesman for the serious and intellectual college student of the 1950s. "Adlai Stevenson was the looming personification of the set of values we thought we were describing--humor, understanding, knowledge, lack of bombast," Rosenthal says. The senator's image as a sincere, but firm, peacemaker was echoed in the concern of many Harvard students who followed their education with stints in government service.
That the most popular academic concentrations were in the social sciences indicates a widely-prevalent concern with political and social issues.
"It wasn't as if everybody just sat around and twiddled their thumbs. Everybody argued vociferously," Michael Harwood, a freelance writer, says today.
The liberal ideals of the time were joined by a new cause, as the civil rights movement began to pick up steam during the 1950s. The attitude of most college students was one of concerned interest, but they expressed almost none of the spirit of activism. "I would sense that few of us knew much about Blacks, but there was a great sense of social duty. We were ripe for a civil rights movement," Rosenthal says. An important catalyst was the 1954 Supremem Court decision, Brown versus the Board of Education, which enlarged many of the issues for the Cambridge denizens.
Edward W. Averill '56, a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University, was one of the organizers of the Social Democratic Forum at Harvard, an effort to bring forward different points of view for discussion of issues that weren't ordinarily presented in classrooms. He says a speech given by a reporter active in the civil rights movement in the South drew an audience of more than 200.
But the support for the Black cause during the 1950s could only be muted by the college generation's inability to organize politically and take any direct action, for it was not until after their school years that the issues came to a head. "The question of equal rights was a sore one, but it hadn't really sharpened. There wasn't something--such as the Selma march--to gather around," Harwood, recalls. Even if the rising concern with civil rights ignited a dialogue among students infused with firm political convictions, wide segments of Harvard remained undented, James H. Barton '56 mentions the extreme of his own apathy, "You've heard of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown versus the school board? Well, I didn't find out about it until 1956." He also describes the students he knew as mostly inward-focused and apolitical, saying that there were many people who went through Harvard--and on to well-paying jobs without questioning what they were doing or the possibilities of changing things.
It was easy for them to accept a clearly-laid-out academic, or social, course, and follow it to well-defined careers in medicine, law, and business. Naturally, success exists in whatever terms used to define it. Nobody questions the success of the student who took his years at Harvard as the road to a comfortable life and career. But, for many others, who came to Harvard in the early 1950s, part of the challenge has always been following their beliefs and talents past their college years to areas of rewarding and satisfying activity