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After graduating from the Groton School in 1954, Henry R. Breck ’58 spent the next year traveling in Europe and “doing all the things young guys do” before he applied to college.
Wanting to graduate with his peers in 1958, Breck wrote to Harvard and to Yale asking if he could get a year’s credit for his studies of French and German languages and history.
“Yale said that, ‘we think the process of emotional maturity is furthered by a full four years,’” Breck recalls.
But luckily for Breck, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences had just approved a Program of Special Standing, giving qualified students the option to skip freshman year and enroll in the College as sophomores. Breck was chosen to be the first guinea pig.
The sophomore standing option was one of four new programs created by the Faculty in spring 1954 to give students more flexibility with their undergraduate requirements—a theme echoed in today’s ongoing curricular review —and enable them to speed up their education by one year.
Harvard’s proposals for allowing students to expedite their education came on the heels of the Blackmer Report, issued by the “Big Three” universities and prep schools—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, along with Exeter, Andover and Lawrenceville.
The Blackmer Committee was created in fall 1951 in response to increased demands for the United States to support education of its best students.
Harvard’s core curriculum at the time was designed based on the report on “General Education for a Free Society” and intended to teach young Americans the principles they would need to protect freedom in the U.S. and across the world, and the Blackmer Committee was a natural outgrowth.
With the Cold War well underway by 1951, the schools wanted to ensure that America’s best and brightest were educated as well and as efficiently as possible to help fight communism—and students, knowing that they would have to serve in the military after graduation, wanted to begin their careers as soon as possible.
In the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) meeting on Jan. 7, 1953, a divide emerged between those concerned with “the wastage of time on the part of men who are both unusually able and unusually well-prepared” and those who believed strongly in a traditional four-year undergraduate education.
“Liberal education should not be viewed as a prison term with one-fourth off for good behavior,” Professor of England J. Douglas Bush told The Crimson in February 1954. “I’m aware of the pressures of time and money, but these should not be the real consideration.”
Eliot House Master John H. Finley ’25 also voiced his opposition to the CEP at its Jan. 7, 1953 meeting, arguing that gifted students could be given more flexibility within a four-year program by being placed in advanced courses from their first year, but without heading towards what he feared would become a credit-hour system of education.
The CEP eventually settled on three ways for students to slice a year off of their education: skipping twelfth grade and entering Harvard a year early; replacing the freshman year of college with three full credits (either from advanced high school classes or other college coursework); and condensing undergraduate and graduate education to seven years. These proposals, along with a proposal to grant students placement into higher-level courses, were presented to the Faculty the next spring.
But as with the creation of General Education in 1949, Harvard’s establishment of advanced standing was intended to modify Harvard undergraduate education and thereby shape American high school education.
At the conclusion of the CEP meeting, then-Dean of Admissions Wilbur J. Bender ’27 emphasized not the financial savings or increased educational opportunities, but that the Blackmer Report entrusted the big three universities to take steps to implement it and revise the U.S. educational system. If universities failed to grant credit for high school courses, professors were concerned, high schools would stop offering advanced classes.
CEP granted the Blackmer Report its final approval in February 1954, with Bush alone dissenting—and only on the proposal to allow students to graduate in three years.
With no organized opposition emerging at the Faculty meeting of March 2, 1954, Harvard became the first school to endorse the Blackmer Report, approving the CEP report and creating a Committee on Special Standing. Harlan P. Hanson ’48, then-assistant senior tutor of Kirkland House, was put in charge of its implementation.
Though the Faculty passed regulations and created a new program, the implementation of advanced standing was somewhat haphazard at the beginning.
Breck says that he was granted credit in German after approaching Hanson in fall 1955 and discussing a German newspaper with him for about five minutes. Having spent a year across the ocean, Breck says, “I spoke much better German than he did.”
After passing his French language and literature tests, and being granted German credits from Hansen, Breck says that he approached the English Department and asked for an English credit.
“They said, ‘If you got a French and a German, you probably deserve an English,’” Breck recalls.
“Harvard did something smart,” he says. “They took a very young and probably very immature, bright young kid and they said, ‘We’ll do whatever you want.’”
Breck lived in Lionel Hall for his first semester and then moved to Lowell House for his final two and a half years.
Philip E. Burnham ’60, like Breck, spent a year abroad before coming to Harvard—though he spent it taking courses at the University of Edinburgh. Burnham came to Harvard in the fall of 1957, but spent much less time in the Yard before moving to Winthrop House.
“I spent three days in Mass. Hall above the president’s office as a freshman, and then I was subsequently and swiftly transferred to sophomore status,” Burnham says.
Though advanced standing students now remain in the Yard during their freshman year, the program as a whole has changed little since 1954. Advanced students can still graduate a year early or choose to remain for a fourth year and earn a master’s degree, though most now choose the latter option.
Looking back, some of the early participants regret having graduated early, instead of staying for a fourth year.
“I don’t know in retrospect if that’s a terrific idea,” says George M. Whitesides ’60 about his three-year College education. “All the things that would be wonderful to have done in that last year, I didn’t do them....It’s nice at the time because it makes you feel special, but what comes of the flexibility is what you make it.”
—Staff writer Joshua D. Gottlieb can be reached at email@example.com.
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