Harriet Martineau was a British writer who has been called ‘the first female sociologist’ and even ‘the mother of sociology.’ (No fair blaming her for the activities of sociologists today!) From 1834-1836, she paid a long visit to the United States and traveled and observed extensively. Her comments about Harvard University are interesting:
The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of pre-eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her principles and management so as to suit the wants of the period; and she will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults. She has a great name, and the education she affords is very expensive in comparison with all other colleges. The sons of the wealthy will therefore flock to her. The attainments usually made within her walls are inferior to those achieved elsewhere, her professors (poorly salaried, when the expenses of living are considered) being accustomed to lecture and examine the students, and do nothing more. The indolent and the careless will therefore flock to her. But, meantime, more and more new colleges are rising up, and are filled as fast as they rise, whose principles and practices are better suited to the wants of the time. In them living is cheaper, and the professors are therefore richer with the same or smaller salaries; the sons of the yeomanry and mechanic classes resort to them; and, where it is the practice of the tutors to work with their pupils, as well as lecture to them, a proficiency is made which shames the attainments of the Harvard students. The middle and lower classes are usually neither Unitarian nor Episcopalian, but“orthodox,” as their distinctive term is; and these, the strength and hope of the nation, avoid Harvard, and fill to overflowing the oldest orthodox colleges; and, when these will hold no more, establish new ones.
She attended a Harvard commencement and remarked on the speeches given:
A great variety of exercises were gone through by the young men: orations were delivered, and poems, and dialogues, and addresses. Some of these appeared to me to have a good deal of merit; two or three were delivered by students who relied on their reputation at college, with a manner mixed up of pomposity and effrontery, which contrasted amusingly with the modesty of some of their companions, who did things much more worth of honour. I discovered that many, if not most of the compositions, contained allusions to mob-law; of course, reprobating it. This was very satisfactory, particularly if the reprobation was accompanied with a knowledge of the causes and a recognition of the real perpetrators of the recent illegal violences; a knowledge that they have invariably sprung out of a conflict of selfish interests with eternal principles; and a recognition that their perpetrators have universally been, at first or second hand, aristocratic members of American society.
The next day, Martineau attended the annual meeting of Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa society:
Prayers were said by the chaplain of the society; and then a member delivered an address. This address was, and is, to me a matter of great surprise. I do not know what was thought of it by the members generally; but if its doctrine and sentiments are at all sanctioned by them, I must regard this as another evidence, in addition to many, that the minority in America are, with regard to social principles, eminently in the wrong. The traveller is met everywhere among the aristocracy of the country with what seems to him the error of concluding that letters are wisdom, and that scholarship is education. Among a people whose profession is social equality, and whose rule of association is universal self-government, he is surprised to witness the assumptions of a class, and the contempt which the few express for the many, with as much assurance as if they lived in Russia or England. Much of this is doubtless owing to the minds of the lettered class having been nourished upon the literature of the old world, so that their ideas have grown into a conformity with those of the subjects of feudal institutions, and the least strong-minded and original indiscriminately adopt, not merely the language, but the hopes and apprehensions, the notions of good and evil which have been generated amidst the antiquated arrangements of European society: but, making allowance for this, as quite to be expected of all but very strong and original minds, it is still surprising that within the bounds of the republic, the insolence should be so very complacent, the contempt of the majority so ludicrously decisive as it is. Self-satisfied, oracular ignorance and error are always as absurd as they are mournful; but when they are seen in full display among a body whose very ground of association is superiority of knowledge and of the love of it, the inconsistency affords a most striking lesson to the observer. Of course, I am not passing a general censure on the Association now under notice; for I know no more of it than what I could learn from the public exercises of this day, and a few printed addresses and poems. I am speaking of the tone and doctrine of the orator of the day, who might be no faithful organ of the society, but whose ways of thinking and expressing himself were but too like those of many literary and professional men whom I met in New England society.