harvard in 1854 -- 9/20/21

Today's selection -- from The Last American Aristocrat by David S. Brown. In 1854, Harvard was a “tiresomely orthodox institution” teaching “conformity to the college rules.” Presidential grandson Henry Adams was one of its students:

"Late in the summer of 1854, sixteen-year-old Henry made the short pilgrimage across the Charles River and began taking classes at Har­vard. Much like Quincy and the presidency, he recognized the College as something of a family fiat, all a part of being a male Adams. He was the fourth generation (and one of four brothers) to attend the school; his grandfather Adams had offered lectures as the Boylston Profes­sor of Rhetoric and Oratory (1806-9) and sat on its Board of Over­seers -- as would the Governor and his son Charles. The Governor's eldest son, John Quincy II, served for a time on the Harvard Corpora­tion, the smaller of the school's two superintending committees. Bend­ing to family preference, not to say pressure, Henry himself returned to his alma mater in the 1870s to teach medieval and American his­tory. 'All went there,' he later smiled with a deflating sarcasm, 'because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self­-respect. ... Any other education would have required a serious effort.'

1885 photograph of Adams by William Notman

"Henry, in fact, gave his studies more than a passing glance, although, in the fuller sense that he meant, Harvard loomed as a tiresomely orthodox institution, a sheltered place for privileged sons to congre­gate with other privileged sons. The school's student body counted 340 undergraduates with an additional 365 in the divinity, law, scientific, and medical schools; its faculty consisted of thirty-nine professors, and its several libraries held fewer than 100,000 volumes; the young schol­ars, dressed in obligatory black coats, accepted a curriculum largely imposed on them by the administration and faculty. Total expenses for an academic year -- room and board, instruction, and textbooks­ -- came to $249, about $6,900 in current dollars.

"The school ranked its students on a complicated merit system, and Henry seemed willing to play the game before boredom and perhaps some resentment set in. He received no deductions for conduct his first year, but soon the penalties began to pile up -- 70 as a sophomore, an additional 94 points as a junior, and a contemptuous 608 his senior year. Clearly he had little respect for Harvard's method of apportioning distinction. He deliberately courted, rather, a number of small trans­gressions, including smoking in the College yard, cutting classes, and missing prayers. After absenting himself from one devotional service too many, the school sent Charles Francis a formal letter to acquaint him of his son's sins.

"Combined, the penalties helped to bring Henry's final class rank down to a middling 44th out of 89 graduates. Even without these demerits, however, his chances of scholastic recognition were early and perhaps fatally compromised by a freshman-year illness (possi­bly mononucleosis) that caused him to miss a month of classes, thus dropping his first-term standing to 70th. Diligent work the following semester elevated him to 43rd. He inched up to 34th sophomore year and peaked at 21st as a junior. At that point, with but a year to go and no chance of cracking the top tier, he appears to have simply invited penalties. He rejected, in other words, a College model that policed private behavior, held out small rewards for congenial conduct, and treated undergraduates more like schoolboys than young men. In many respects, the institution existed less for the students than the students existed for the institution. Still socially informed by its proud colonial past, Harvard made few concessions to its clientele, who were fenced in a cramped quadrangle containing a few plain buildings. A ringing bell called students twice a day to morning and evening prayers, where, when seated, they were enjoined to refrain from fidgeting, whisper­ing, and otherwise demonstrating a less than monastic reverence. One could conceivably cultivate an intellectual life apart from the school, though the merit system discouraged gestures in this direction. Henry's collegiate friend Nicholas Longworth Anderson, the son of two distin­guished Ohio families, complained to his mother, 'Rank at college is determined not by a uniform elegance of recitation or by a knowledge of the subjects in hand, but by a conformity to the college rules.'"

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David S. Brown


The Last American Aristocrat




Copyright 2020 by David S. Brown


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