Harvard’s Evolution from Theological to Liberal Education
Harvard s development over 350 years has been enormously rich andcomplex–full of interest for social and intellectual history, for the history ofscholarship, science, pedagogy, and politics. We know something, statistically, about the social sources and destinies of the graduates over the existence, but littleof the later generations. Harvard s benefactors are no less interesting a group, andtheir contributors made all else possible. The debate over the character ofHarvard s founding, its essential character, purpose, and style, began withinseventy years of the founding. Harvard College was little more than a theologicalseminary, thrust into existence by a desire for trained ministerial leadership insociety, wherein the clergy held a position of paramount importance in matters ofcivil as well as spiritual.
Harvard was founded as an institution from which theleadership of church, state, and trade was expected to emerge, and that leadership, like the community as a whole, was expected to remain deeply and correctlyChristian (Bailyn 8). Though Harvard University was originally founded as aPuritan school of theology, it evolved into a university that had a more traditionalliberal arts program that produced well-rounded scholars in various fields of study.
Harvard was founded by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and named for its first donor, the Reverend JohnHarvard, who left his personal library and half his estate to the new institution, Harvard College was born into the Puritan tradition. Puritan Calvinistsbegan the university in 1636 because they recognized the necessity for training upa clergy if the new Bible commonwealth was to flourish in the wilderness. Since1620, some 17,000 Puritans had migrated to New England, and they wantedministers who were able to expound the Scriptures from the original Hebrew andGreek, as well as be familiar with what the church fathers, scholastic philosophersand reformists had written in Greek and Latin.
The study of theologypreeminently under the covenants of works and of grace was central to thefounding of what would become Harvard University, the school of the prophets. John Leverett the first president of Harvard insisted that Harvard had beenfounded as a College of Divines. Congregationalist insisted that Harvard hadbeen founded as a theological institution devoted to perpetuating the Puritans distinctive form of Protestant Christianity. Liberal Unitarians, who controlled theCollege after 1805, thought differently, and leapt upon evidence that stated theHarvard had broadly liberal origins. Some said that it was to provide a broadliberal education for young gentlemen and scholars, but not a divinity school or aseminary for the propagation of Puritan theology (Bailyn 8-10).
The earliest visible Harvard, despite almost a century of previous existenceunder the close scrutiny of the clergy and magistrates of the Bay Colony, is aneighteenth-century institution. In the College Yard stand Harvard’s oldestbuildings, plain and in the best sense homely with their brick exteriors,straightforward appearance, and unassuming design. Harvard Hall stands on thesite of a seventeenth-century building of the same name. It burned down onewintry night in 1764, destroying the 5,000-volume college library, the largest in North America at that time, and the scientific laboratory and apparatus.
For its first 230 years of existence Harvard was relatively small, proudlyprovincial, ambitiously intellectual, but still a college with a conservative, setcurriculum emphasizing rhetorical principles, rote learning, and constant drilling. It was founded in the 17th century supported, as a college of English universitystandards for liberal education of the young men of New England, under strict religious discipline (Bailyn 6).
Harvard College retained its old framework as anEnglish college, modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, though with somedevelopments of its own, but consistent with the prevailing Puritan philosophy ofthe first colonists. Although many of its early graduates became ministersin Puritan congregations throughout New England, the college never formallyaffiliated with a specific religious denomination. Secular knowledge was valued and assumed to be necessary for men of all modes of life. But in the end it was anintensely religious, ascetic Puritan culture that created this institution and thatcarried it through precarious years into the stability of the 18th century.
Secularization of the American university begin with the takeover of Harvard by the Unitarians in 1805. Actually, the Unitarian takeover was precededby a protracted struggle between orthodoxy and liberalism, which began in 1701when Increase Mather stepped down from the presidency. The liberals, who hadobtained a definite majority in the governing Corporation, elected John Leverett aspresident of Harvard College.
Leverett, a religious liberal and a layman, set thecollege on its course away from Puritanism towards intellectual independence. The founders of Harvard were educational conservatives who were notattempting to create new forms of education. As the College grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, the curriculum was broadened, particularly in the sciences, and theCollege produced or attracted a long list of famous scholars, including HenryWadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, William James, the elder OliverWendell Holmes, and Louis Agassiz.
One of the most important developments was the establishment ofprofessorships in the undergraduate department, which was an innovation on the English idea of a college. The greatest departure from the English precedents, anda long step towards the foundation of a real university, was the establishment ofthe three professional schools of Divinity, Medicine, and Law. Medical studiesbegan in 1782, and law and divinity became graduate departments in 1816 and1817, respectively. Even so, the College did not start to take on the aspect of a trueuniversity until mid-century, when a library building, an observatory, a scientificschool, a chemistry laboratory, and a natural history museum were built.
From 1820 until 1872 the University consisted of the College and the three professionalschools, with the later additions of the Dental School, the Scientific School, andthe Bussey School of Agriculture. Harvard gradually acquired considerable autonomy and private financialsupport, becoming a chartered university in 1780. The pattern they extemporizedproved to be permanent, and model for American institution of higher education. For over a century there was no uncertainty on the popular name or thecharacterization of the institution created in 1636. From its earliest day Harvardestablished and maintained a tradition of academic excellence and the training ofcitizens for natural public service. Today it has the largest private endowment ofany university in the world.