HARVARD AT 350. The American ideal of education -- and of a good life -- has changed in the past 3 centuries since the founding of America's first university

A bystander approaches the anniversary of any educational institution with a certain resignation. Cap-and-gown occasions seem designed for self-congratulation, pointing toward one more academically flattened paraphrase of John Donne's joyous song: ``The University is a Paradise, Rivers of Knowledge are there.''

It was a president of Harvard who said that, next to theology, ``there is no subject on which there is so much cant as education.''

A president of Harvard should know.

Yet, for better and for worse, the 350th anniversary of Harvard University provides an irresistible opportunity to ask the question, far older than 350 years: What is education for? It's a question leading to the question behind all education: What is a good life?

How the American ideal of education -- and of a good life -- has changed in the past 3 centuries!

More than one historian has characterized Harvard's early days as Smalle Beginnings, a phrase Gov. William Bradford used to describe Colonial America.

To the standing question -- what is education for? -- there was a simple, imperative answer 350 years ago: to educate the clergy, the ruling class of a theocracy. From 1642 to 1700, 266 out of 543 graduates became ministers. The next most crowded occupations: ``public officials'' (67) and ``physicians'' (a mere 35).

In those years Harvard was called the ``School of the Prophets,'' and students were referred to as the ``Sons of the Prophets.'' An academic day began much as in a monastery -- at 5 a.m. with prayers.

Theological correctness, not intellectual prowess, was the prime virtue of a Harvard professor. Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard, and one of the best, was forced to resign because he rejected the practice of infant christening, arguing that only adult believers should be baptized.

Not long after, Increase Mather, a fire-and-brimstone hard-liner, was appointed to sanctify the office. During the Mather administration, ending in 1701, a cow was worth 30, a Harvard tutor was valued at 50 a year. Tuition by 1700 had reached 10 shillings per quarter, or the price of a pair of shoes and two pairs of stockings.

Education, for teachers and students alike, was puritanical in its austerity.

The 18th century saw the secularization of America, and Harvard. Still, the most thunderous epithet that could be called down on the college was ``godless Harvard.'' The 16-year-old Ben Franklin, writing in the New England Courant in 1722 under the pen name of Silence Dogood, frowned upon the monied frivolity he began to detect, chiding the ``extreme folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Children's Dulness, and insensible of the Solidarity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where, for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely.''

This passage must stand as the first portrait of that stock character, the Harvard Man. Descended from those first generations of the chosen, the 18th-century Harvard Man took the secular step from the ranks of the elect to the ranks of the elite.

The first half of Harvard history may be interpreted as a separation of religion and education to correspond to the separation of church and state. As late as the time of Henry Thoreau, Class of 1837, Harvard was still being attacked for its ``treachery'' to Calvinism. But by then the beau ideal was ``a gentleman and a scholar,'' not a ``Son of the Prophets.'' The college seal was about to change from ``In Christi Gloriam'' to ``Veritas.'' And morning chapel, though still compulsory, had been pushed ahead an hour to 6 o'clock.

Something as modern as ``liberal education'' was beginning to develop, with the humanistic hope that education would build character rather than save souls.

A certain Bohemianism invaded the college. Bored students scraped their feet in unison in class when lessons -- now on Ethics instead of Theology -- turned dull. Cannonballs got dropped from the upper windows of dormitories. Bonfires were built in Harvard Yard -- sometimes with gunpowder added.

The days had long since passed when flogging was the appropriate discipline, plus exile to a country parsonage until a miscreant saw the error of his ways. The role of the student as rebel was so in vogue that a ``Rebellion Tree'' was designated in Harvard Yard where dissidents could assemble. In his inaugural address in 1853 a Harvard president, James Walker, equated ``modern society'' to ``intellectual anarchy.'' And so it must have seemed, compared with the scene more than two centuries earlier when ``it pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. Harvard (a godly gentleman)'' to give half his estate and all his library ``towards the erecting of a colledge.''

During the middle decades of the 19th century, that index of change -- morning chapel -- crept toward 7 o'clock, then 7:30, then 7:45, and finally in 1886 compulsory service was made voluntary.

But by then, even the humanistic ideal of education had been relaxed, just as the humanistic ideal had relaxed the original plan of a godly education for men of God. Under President Charles W. Eliot, in the name of liberty -- his favorite word -- a uniform curriculum was replaced by the ``elective system,'' providing ``spontaneous diversity of choice.''

The Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison has written: ``How radical the elective system was, few Americans of the present day can realize. . . . One idea had been constant since the Age of Pericles: An educated man was one who knew certain things. It was assumed that in the process of acquiring these things his mind had gained a power, richness, and openness to ideas which made him a liberally educated man. And now the head of the oldest American university insisted that it did not really matter . . . what you studied, provided you were interested.''

During his long administration, from 1869 to 1909, president Eliot redefined education as the pragmatic partner of a pragmatic age -- an America of railroads, smokestack industries, and banks. He expanded Harvard's graduate schools to train the elite who had replaced the elect as the ruling class -- businessmen, lawyers, engineers.

But Mr. Eliot might have been horrified at how practical, how utilitarian, education would become. Even 20 years ago, 9 out of 10 colleges required a foreign language for an undergraduate degree. Now less than half so stipulate. Three out of 4 require no European history, or American history, for that matter. About 86 percent require no classical history or literature. The number of students majoring in the humanities has declined by half in the past 15 years -- the number of students majoring in history by two-thirds.

Education, once thought of as indoctrination for puritan theocrats, then as the proper discipline of a humanistic Renaissance man, is now all too widely valued as a white-collar union card, adding a generously estimated number of dollars to one's income in the course of a lifetime.

At Harvard, in the first week of September, on the occasion of the 350th, there will be symposiums about changing gender roles, the future of urban centers, the world oil market, and AIDS research, among other topics.

Like other American universities, Harvard has become a multinational operation with multinational concerns. The economist Seymour Harris noted that ``Harvard is the oldest college in the United States, and also the oldest corporation.'' It now holds some $2 billion in stocks and $1 billion in bonds.

Like other American universities, Harvard is not just a community of scholars existing to teach students. It is a research center, a government contractor, a think tank, a supplier of consultants to industry and designated experts to television talk shows -- and who knows what else! -- the whole operation kept running by a bureaucracy of administrators, fund-raisers, and publicists.

But behind the grand sweep of the symposiums, behind the celebration, the old stubborn questions still nag: What is education for? How does it contribute to a good life?

The debate goes on, with lots of hopeful side glances at the computer, everybody's wonder tool for more and instant civilization.

Yet it is the great teachers who stay in the mind and heart, at Harvard as elsewhere:

Henry Adams, who practically invented the department of history in the American university, filled his students with enthusiasm and intellectual delight despite his own dry, self-deprecating style.

Francis J. (Stubby) Child, the son of a Boston sailmaker, not only became the first and foremost American authority on Chaucer and English and Scottish ballads but also a persuasive and beloved teacher, his cherubic face radiating joy as he taught.

Louis Agassiz, the great naturalist, returned from field trips up the Amazon and elsewhere to talk with his students as equals in classrooms, in laboratories, even in their dorms.

William James, George Santayana, and Josiah Royce -- the three brilliant and individualistic stars of Harvard's philosophy department between the 1880s and the 1910s -- practically constituted a Great College in themselves.

A shared, passionate curiosity of the learned and the learners -- what else is Harvard or any other college finally about? Or as the founders of Harvard said for all time: A college lives so that ``learning may not be buried in the graves of our forefathers.''

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