Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Andrew Schlesinger's Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience (Ivan R. Dee, 2005)

Aug 14, 2005 12:09 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Andrew Schlesinger's Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience (Ivan R. Dee, 2005)

Harvard surely is more written-about than any other American college or university, and, as is true of much institutional history, much of this literature reflects the implicit belief that no detail is too unimportant to be excluded. For instance, Morton and Phyllis Keller’s Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America’s University (2001), despite covering only about a quarter of Harvard’s history, checks in at well over 550 pages. Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History (2004), edited by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, was 350 pages of proof that even minor essays and newspaper articles can find their way into hardcover if they are about the right topic.

Harvard has also inspired many more polemical works, of course, often written by Harvard graduates. This year alone has brought us Richard Bradley’s Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University and Ross Gregory Douthat’s Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

So it is in some ways a relief to report that Andrew Schlesinger’s Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience is not only unpolemical but also covers the entire period from Harvard’s founding in 1636 to the recent controversies raised by President Lawrence Summers in about 270 pages of text. Unfortunately, it must also be reported that this brevity is achieved at the expense of descriptive and analytical completeness. Anecdotes, entertaining episodes, and factoids abound, but the central argument is both inconsistently sustained and ahistorical.

In the middle of the 19th century, Harvard College President Josiah Quincy discovered that a 1643 version of the College seal had included the word “veritas.” That particular seal had fallen into disuse over the intervening two centuries, but Quincy, as Andrew Schlesinger tells it, “persuaded the Corporation to adopt Veritas (Truth) as the school’s motto….But Harvard’s next president, Edward Everett, condemned ‘this fantastical and anti-Christian Veritas seal’ and restored an old seal from 1693. Then the Veritas was added in 1885.”

Although the story of the seal may not be familiar, it should not be surprising that veritas has sometimes had a rough go of it at Harvard. Schlesinger, a Harvard almnus, documentary filmmaker, writer, and producer (and son of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) sets out to show how and why this has been so.

“The imperatives of veritas,” by Schlesinger’s definition, “are openness, freedom of thought, clash of opinions, resolution, truth-telling.” And “this book attempts to trace some of the conflicts in Harvard’s history between the forces of veritas and the inertial forces--the impediments to truth—sectarianism, statism, aristocracy, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, ‘the shackles of ancient discipline.’”

So this is not supposed to be just another institutional celebration. Rather, it is to look at Harvard’s internal struggles—-for example, ongoing, centuries-long arguments over whom to admit to the student body—-and its role in conflicts external to it, as when its faculty and graduates went off to fight in the Revolution, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II.

In some ways, Schlesinger achieves his goal. Certainly he does not hide his opinions about the less enlightened episodes in Harvard’s past, when its leaders or representatives went along with or reinforced those “impediments to truth” mentioned above. Sometimes his criticism is stinging: Charles William Eliot’s successor, the bigoted Abbott Lawrence Lowell, “with his walrus mustache and stiff white collar was a great New Englander of the nineteenth century. But it was the twentieth century.”

Along with a knack for the occasional well-turned phrase, Schlesinger has an eye for the telling episode. Anyone with a memory of college cuisine is likely to be at least somewhat amused by the rowdy students who perpetrated the famous Bad Butter Rebellion in 1766. And the fact that a Harvard President could lose his job because he had changed his mind about infant baptism, as Henry Dunster did in 1654, is but one of many bits of evidence that Schlesinger provides to demonstrate the pastness of the past.

The problem is that these episodes are, well, episodic. They are rendered chronologically, but without any sustained attempt to analyze them or even to attach them explicitly to the book’s overall theme. Indeed, the book has virtually no continuity until it gets to the middle of the 19th century. Because it proceeds by presidential administrations, it is helpful when Eliot has the stamina to hold the office for 40 years (1869-1909) and thus provide some ballast for the book.

Even the chapter on “President Eliot’s Harvard,” however, contains too many paragraphs like this: “The first class of more than two hundred youths entered the College in 1873. The Harvard Magenta was first published in 1873 as a biweekly; its name was changed to the Crimson in 1875 after the University officially adopted ‘crimson’ as the school color. The first Harvard-Yale football game was played in New Haven on November 13, 1875; there were fifteen men on a side and Harvard won. The Lampoon was founded in 1876.” At this point and others like it, cries of “so what?” are heard in the land.

The sad fact is that it is indeed possible to answer that question, but Schlesinger has not chosen to do so. Consistently missing from the book is any attempt to place people and events into context. It requires a broad understanding of 17th-century New England society, for instance, to explain why infant baptism mattered so much to President Dunster’s critics—-or why the fight between Congregationalism and Unitarianism mattered so much to Harvard’s supporters and critics in the early 19th century. Schlesinger does not even make the attempt.

Nor does Schlesinger make any real use of the extensive literature produced over the past 25 years on the importance of race, gender, and ethnicity in American higher education. Virtually the only secondary sources considered are those pertaining directly to Harvard. Even so basic a book as Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present (1987), was apparently not consulted.

There are, of course, many possible explanations for the book’s lack of contextual awareness: bad editorial advice, lack of time or resources, and so on. But whatever the explanations, ultimately they both contribute to and reflect the ahistorical, presentist nature of the project as initially presented by its author, who commits the teleological fallacy writ large. Schlesinger tells a story of Harvard emerging from darkness into light, moving toward his definition of veritas, even though he’s far from convinced it has completed the journey. He can point out the warts in the past because he wants to believe that things have gotten better and better over time: he wants to believe that today’s Harvard has more freedom, more diversity, more of all the things he values, and that those things are easily defined, self-evidently valuable, and not in conflict with one another.

Current events on campus, however, threaten to undermine Schlesinger’s Whiggish optimism. In his final chapter, “The University of the Future,” he is obviously unsettled by President Larry Summers’s recent embroilments in controversies over minority and women faculty. It’s one thing for President Eliot to have said, “The world knows next to nothing about the natural mental capacities of the female sex,” because he said it nearly 140 years ago. But Schlesinger is discomfited when the current president says much the same thing. (One might ask, what does Schlesinger’s uneasiness say about where he places “clash of opinions” in his hierarchy of values for “veritas”?)

While Schlesinger agrees with Summers that Harvard’s new challenge is to become a “global university, rooted in American traditions” (whatever that might mean, exactly), his concluding paragraph wobbles subjunctively: “Whether the University would survive another 370 years was questionable. Yet European universities had survived almost a thousand years, and empires had risen and fallen.” Well, yes. But did they—do they—should they--seek veritas, as Schlesinger wants to define it?

Even taken together, however, the book’s shortcomings-—its failure to consider context and lack of sustained analysis, its episodic presentation, and its cheerfully presentist teleology—-do not render it entirely superfluous. The last half of the book, including chapters on the years since Eliot’s presidency—-“Harvard and the Outside Men,” “Harvard Against the Totalitarians,” “The Last ‘Great Rebellion’” (on the ‘60s), and “The Transformations of Race and Gender”—-is often salutary in its irreverence (“President [Nathan Marsh] Pusey was bland, pious, as impassive as the statue of John Harvard sitting in front of University Hall”) and revealing in its details. For anyone wanting to know about Harvard’s place in “the American Experience” (as the subtitle puts it), it is worth knowing that this small institution supplied 1,311 of its graduates to the Union Army during the Civil War, of whom 138 died, while 257 more served in the Confederate Army, of whom 64 died; and that 11,319 graduates served in World War I, of whom 375 were killed; even if one will have to look elsewhere to find out how the sense of commitment had changed by the time of, say, Vietnam. (Schlesinger does point out that as late as 1968, just before ROTC was removed from campus, it enrolled about 350 Harvard students.)

In short, unlike more ponderous tomes, Veritas provides a quick, unofficious introduction to the history of an institution that probably does not matter as much as its acolytes believe and its critics fear, but has nevertheless been close enough to the action in American history to warrant careful study. If this book helps to inspire or provoke such study, it will have been worth the effort to produce it. And that’s the veritas.

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