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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Class Boasts Three Nobel Winners

Anderson, Miller, Solow Awarded Coveted Prizes for Research Work in Physics, Economics

By Chris Terrio

The Class of 1944 was overshadowed by the war going on overseas. Many of the students in the class were rushed through Harvard in just three years. Others came back after the war to finish their degrees. In the end, hundreds of students took part in the Allied victory.

But three members of the class--Philip W. Anderson '44-'43, Merton H. Miller '44-'43 and Robert M. Solow '44-'47--experienced another kind of victory years later: they each went on to win a Nobel prize.

Arguably the world's most coveted honor, the Nobel has come to many Harvard faculties and graduates; but rarely has a single class--and a wartime class at that--been so prolific.

Trade-offs in College

But the College experience of a Nobel prize-winner--at least of these three winners--had its trade-offs. Solow, who was honored with the economics prize in 1987 for creating a "simplified representation of how an economy works," recalls that he was a bit of a loner in his Harvard days.

"I was a very independent soul," Solow says. "The thing I liked best about Harvard College in those days was that nobody bothered me."

While some current students complain about the lack of attention they receive in Harvard's advising system, Solow says that was exactly what he liked about it.

"I never went to see my advisor," Solow adds. "For me, the inattention that Harvard paid to its undergraduates was welcome."

Anderson, too, says he was something of an outcast as an undergraduate, largely due to the school's admissions policies at the time, he says.

"I was a misfit," says Anderson, now a physics professor at Princeton University. "We didn't have high scholastic requirements for entry, and students came more or less from the patrician classes of the East Coast."

"I was a faculty kid from Illinois in a Harvard very much dominated by clubs and boys from private schools like Andover and Exeter," he says.

Future Nobel-winners or not, the three men did not escape the defining element of their generation: the war.

"The war affected us quite considerably," says Miller, who shared the economics prize in 1990 for pioneering work in financial economics. "Our programs were accelerated so that the class of '44 was actually graduated in '43."

Indeed, Solow may not have been honored for his economics work if had not been for the sociopolitical climate of the period.

"When I came to Harvard in September of 1940, everyone knew the whole society was in deep trouble," Solow says. "The Depression had just ended and the War had just begun. We were ever aware of economic problems."

"The war not only provided motivation for my field, but the G.I. Bill actually paid for my education after 1945," he adds. "I spent the ages between 18 and 21 in the Army. My character was formed during those years."

Of course, it wasn't just the national situation that pushed Solow toward his chosen field of economics.

"I had intended to major in biology, but I wasn't good enough. So I took a freshman economics course," Solow says.

Ironically, the other economics honoree also had initially intended another course.

"I majored in English at Harvard," Miller says, "[but] I think I was influenced a lot in economics by my undergraduate tutor, who steered me toward the economic department, and over toward the Business School. When I left Harvard, I had no doubt about economics."

Miller, now a professor at the University of Chicago, says a big attraction for him was the wealth of opportunities in the field.

"Economics was such a wide field back in the '40s," Miller says. "You could hope to cover a wide range of interests. But now it's becoming more specialized--which is an important part of progress."

Entering the army with a degree in physics, Anderson says he "was shuffled off into engineering physics for the military, in radar school."

Unexpected Prize

All three men, though, say they hardly expected to be heading to Stockholm one day to receive what is perhaps the world's highest academic honor.

On the contrary, they say they were hoping--like seniors of every time and place--to go out and get a job.

"Like most members of the graduating class, I was very much career-oriented," Miller says.

"I did not think of myself as a great scientist," Anderson says. "I was just scraping by freshman year."

And despite the worldwide ramifications of the development of the atomic bomb, "physics was not a hot topic even after the war," Anderson says.

He says that he "gravitated into the field" following his wartime radar work. "Even then, you had to be pretty sharp to realize that physics was the wave of the future."

Despite the different paths the three men have followed in the years since their graduations, they have shared at least one common experience: the thrill of receiving the prize, which they describe as "unforgettable" and "amazing."

Miller says he learned he had won the prize at 5 a.m.--noon Stockholm time. "When you have children, it tends to worry you when the phone rings in the middle of the night," he says.

And even esteemed economists are not exempt from that most common of winning feelings: complete disbelief.

"Especially because the voice on the other end has a Swedish accent, one thinks about the possibility of a practical joke," Miller says. "But the Nobel Committee is aware of this, and have a friend of yours standing by, authenticating."

And once they accepted the fact they had won, the winners say, they had the experience of a lifetime.

"It's really a rush--very pleasant and very exciting," Anderson says. "One doesn't realize it until it happens, both because of the media attention and because the Swedes make a great fuss. There's a solid week of wining and dining, and taking good care of you."

Solow's first reaction, however, was somewhat more subdued.

"Let's go back to sleep," Solow says he told his wife.

Anderson's wife says her husband began enjoying the benefits of winning immediately.

"When the prize was announced," Joyce Anderson continues, "there was immediately a congregation in the auditorium of Bell Laboratories, where he was working. He came home grinning and saying, "You can get addicted to the roar of the crowd."

Still, the distinction has not changed her husband's life much, according to Joyce Anderson, who has known him since his Harvard graduate school days.

"He doesn't think of it in elitist terms," she says. "Although I guess you do carry around this little halo wherever you go."

Harvard Then and Now

After a half-century, the three professors say today's undergraduate education--apart from its lack of military content--is essentially the same as that which they received.

"I've never gone a year without teaching an undergraduate course and I don't think methods have really changed," Solow says. "You still stand up with a piece of chalk and explain things."

Indeed the real difference may be with the undergraduates themselves.

"The good kids come much better prepared. They are likely to have had a good deal more science than we did," Anderson says. "High school science in the U.S. isn't great, but you should have seen it in the thirties."

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