Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Harvard Presidents Throughout History

Harvard Gazette

I had the good fortune of taking a class given by the wondrous Peter Gomes on the history of Harvard, which turned out to be also a history of universities, and many were the delightful boluses of pregnant information as Learning marched forever onward. Well, I say "forever". I really mean "in fits and starts".

The first president of Harvard, was a bit of a kook, and had no idea what his institution would become. His wife served the boys a stew made of things better served flushed, and he was chased out of the country and hunted like a dog. Little did he know that he would be the first head of what would become the first corporation in the western hemisphere, and the first college or university to boldly say they had the right to confer degrees, thus paving the way for every other college and university in America, when, in 1693, President Mather said: 'The General Court of Massachusetts, the Governor, Council, and people of New England have named and established Harvard College as a University (academia), with authority to confer degrees, in the manner of the English Universities.'

There have been many presidents since Dunster, most a good deal better. Hard not to be, really, unless your name is LARRY SUMMERS. (Just kidding!) I just think it is a style issue, but I will get to that in a minute.

Things seemed to pick up a bit when President Eliot took the reins...he and his wall of books. He, who was more popular than the President of the United States. He who determined to lure the best minds in the world to Cambridge, and thus make Harvard a national treasure.

President Rudenstine

Book learning alone might be got by lectures and reading; but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted.
—Samuel Eliot Morison,
The Founding of Harvard College

Then came Lowell, who widened and enclosed the institution, by making it more of a university, AND more of a college. He also opened the doors to common folk.
His vision of creating colleges, or Houses in the English model, where students could live together, guided by wise mentors, and work on developing their character as well as their minds was not lost on the presidents, who seemed to embody a gentle style of tolerant, genuine curiosity -- a style which invites discussion in a way that pain nor shock would seem appropriate. And yet that tradition may be on pause, while President Summers re-reads his histories.

Surely it is not because he is an MIT man, rather than the typical Harvard, Princeton or Oxford man, occupying the post. Surely it is not some stunt, like the huge MIT banner rising from the Harvard-Yale game.

Go back, and read the lives of Eliot, Lowell, Bok, Rudenstine, but also read Dunster.
There is a pattern, an evolution, an evolving style. And arrogance is a disease, not something you wear like a stole.

You are a smart man. But we are more than heads. We are also more than Math and Science, even if MIT may have led you to believe otherwise.

Why are not more men in chorus? If everyone sang there would be a chance of peace. A window. And where is all this Math and Science taking us? Better bombs? Better chemical weapons? Advanced forms of Death?

Considering so much of what it goes toward, I don't see why more people don't simply walk away from it. No need to say that some haven't the aptitude, when the attitude become the problem. I am reminded of the "Gays in the Military" "issue". Why would gays, or anyone, want to go into the military in the first place? I thought the idea was to "ride the right horse", and if one takes you where you don't want to go, then refuses to bring you back...what kind of horse is that?

And so it comes down to horses. Don't be a horse's arse.

End of transmission.

[Correction: Nathaniel Eaton was the first president, but Dunster was the first in a continuous line. The "Lost Colony" of Harvard Presidents. And it was he whose wife served up the poop, and was run out of the country. He wound up dying in debtor prison. Dunster was only run out of the colony of Massachusetts. Can't believe I forgot that after only 20 years! ]