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Harvard at 300: Bathing the Wounds of a University's Troubled World

By Cristina V. Coletta

"Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things out of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone to many; thus, in some sort, to our whole Nation."

John Harvard and the Note of Reason by Samuel Eliot Morison. Read on November 8th, 1936, the 300th anniversary of the founder's birth.

In 1936, Harvard and the world were on the verge of change. Events were brewing in Europe that would eventually throw the entire world into the turmoil of World War II. Meanwhile at Harvard, the elitist enclave of Cambridge intellectuals that had prospered through the 1930s would become the highly diversified University of the second half of this century.

But on September 17 and 18, 1936, all eyes were turned to the past. Thousands of alumni and honored guests from around the world flocked to Harvard to celebrate its 300-year history and reflect on the University's tradition of consistent excellence. The event was of international importance, calling for the participation of honored guests and delegates from 325 universities in North America and 45 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa.

A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, then President James Bryant Conant '13, President Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 and Tercentenary historian Samuel Eliot Morison addresesed the gathered crowd. Each encouraged the listeners in Tercentenary Theater to rejoice in the vigour and perseverence that had brought Harvard to its 300th birthday and to apply that same optimistic determination to the solution of contemporary ills in society.

Yet, looming over the celebration was the troubled state of the world. Perhaps in a deliberate attempt to assauge the worries of the gathered guests, the keynote speakers used the occasion to create a common rhetoric of hope and inspiration to bathe the wounds of the troubled university, nation and world.

In 1936, Europe was on the brink of political disaster. In England, the year began with the death of much-beloved King George VI and ended with a crisis of leadership surrounding the eventual abdication of the playboy Prince of Wales Edward VII. France was paralyzed by a kind of national paranoic fear that money-grubbing businessmen were controlling the country to the detriment of the average working class and petit bourgeois citizen.

In Spain, political disunity had given way to civil war; on July 13, 1936, a military junta challenged the Popular Front coalition of Socialists, Communists and Republican Leftists formed in February of 1936. If the infant fascism took its first steps in Spain, it flexed its muscle in Hitler's Germany.

In March of that year, a newly-reconstituted German army marched into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland and the government foisted the first of two four-year plans on its inhabitants to transfer control of economic life to the state in order that a condition of national war readiness might be achieved.

The eclipse of democracy in Europe ironically coincided with a re-emergence of hope and a belief in values of truth, integrity and individual liberty in the United States. Both economic and spiritual recovery from the Great Depression was almost complete. The American outcry for individual liberty was not, however, derived from the shared jubilation at the country's rebirth, but rather from voices of dissent which maintained that Roosevelt's new America stood in direct contrast to the Federalist fathers' notion of individualism.

In 1936, Harvard was split into two opposing camps, the ideological make-up of which mirrored those of the national political scene. Pushing for change and reform within the University was Conant. A local boy from Dorchester who made good at Harvard as a chemistry student, and then stayed on to become the Sheldon Emery Professor of Chemistry, Conant's election to the presidency by the Board of Overseers two years earlier had come as a suprise to most people, including the man himself. Initially unhappy at the prospect of having to abandon a promising scientific career, Conant settled down to work and launched several projects that shook Old Harvard to the core of its being.

First on the docket for Conant was a total reconstruction of the faculty. In addition to merely improving the existing faculty, Conant sought to develop new subgroups of teachers who would enhance Harvard's intellectual reputation. The Nieman Fellowships, which permit twelve journalists to work on topics of their choosing at Harvard for a year on a full full stipend, were created during this era. Conant also worked to open the gates of Harvard Yard to poor, but talented scholars with his National Scholarship program--a New Deal of sorts for less privileged classes.

While Conant's zeal for change reflected President Roosevelt's national initiative, it directly opposed the ideals of his predecessor, A. Lawrence Lowell. Although Lowell shared a birthplace with Conant, his Boston was about as different from Conant's as one could imagine. Born and raised on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay, Lowell was Boston Brahmin through and through.

Like most of the wealthy, Republican eastern seaboard Harvard constituency, he opposed Roosevelt's policies of reform, viewing tham as a product of the taboo socialist left. Retired due to failing health, but still very active within the University, Lowell was the figurehead around whom those who diasgreed with Conant's reforms grouped themselves. Conservative alumni angered by Conant's "dilution" of the College's population responded by decreasing the amounts of their much needed contributions.

Out of Darkness

Both Lowell's and Conant's speeches reflected the direction they wanted the University to go in. Lowell looked to the continuity of history and the succession of generations to reassure a world in crisis that out of darkness had always come light and out of chaos order, so long as higher education remained atop its pedestal in society.

"As wave after wave rolls landward from the ocean, breaks and fades away sighing down the shingle of the beach, so the generations of men follow one another, sometimes quietly, sometimes after a storm, with noisy turbulence," the conservative president said.

"But, whether we think upon the monotony or the violence in human history, two things are always new--youth and the quest for knowledge, and with these a university is concerned. So long as its interest in them is keen it can never grow old, though it counts its age by centuries."

Conant, on the other hand, emphasized his faith for the future in the perfection of a "true national culture" to be created by "those of who have faith in human reason [and] believe that in the next hundred years we can build an educational basis for a unified, coherent culture suited to a democratic country in a scientific age."

In "The Founding of Harvard College", Morison remarks, "From the small college here planted in sylvestribus et incultis locis on the edge of the Western Wilderness, Harvard University has grown, and higher education in the United States is largely dervied. So we are gathered here to commemorate our founders and early benefactors; to thank God for the faith, overriding all prudentobjections and practical difficulties, thatsustained them through poverty and struggle, in soambitious and so excellent an enterprise."

The need to give something of healing andrestorative value back to Harvard is echoed inPresident Roosevelt's address, which reminded anaudience all too familiar with the militaristictone of modern times that "Harvard should trainmen to be citizens in that high Athenian sensewhich compels a man to live his life uneasinglyaware that its civic significance is it mostabiding, and that the rich individual diversity ofthe state is born only of the wisdom to chooseways to achieve which do not hurt one'sneighbors."

Although their eloquence was timeless and theirwords pregnant with meaning, all of the advice andadmonitions so freely given those two days fell ondeaf ears. Sooner than anyone hoped or expected,the Second World War engulfed the nations,changing them and Harvard forever.

The elitist enclave of Cambridge intellectualsthat lingered on through the last golden days ofthe 1930s would become the highly diversifieduniversity of the second half of this century. Theworlds of Lowell and Conant are gone forever,alive only in reflection and remembrance

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