Harvard–A View From 1835

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.

The subject of the address was the “Duties of Educated men in a Republic;” a noble subject, of which the orator seemed to be aware at the beginning of his exercise. He well explained that whereas, in all the nominal republics of the old world, men had still been under subjection to arbitrary human will, the new republic was established on the principle that men might live in allegiance to Truth under the form of Law. He told that the primary social duty of educated men was to enlighten public sentiment as to what truth is, and what law ought, therefore, to be. But here he diverged into a set of monstrous suppositions, expressed or assumed:—that men of letters are the educated men of society in regard not only to literature and speculative truth, but to morals, politics, and the conduct of all social affairs:—that power and property were made to go eternally together:—that the “masses” are ignorant:—that the ignorant masses naturally form a party against the enlightened few:—that the masses desire to wrest power from the wealthy few:—that, therefore, the masses wage war against property:—that industry is to be the possession of the many, and property of the few:—that the masses naturally desire to make the right instead of to find it:—that they are, consequently, opposed to law:—and that a struggle was impending in which the whole power of mind must be arrayed against brute force.—This extraordinary collection of fallacies was not given in the form of an array of propositions; but they were all taken for granted when not announced.

The orator made large reference to recent outrages in the country: but, happily for the truth, and for the reputation of “the masses,” the facts of the year supplied as complete a contradiction as could be desired to the orator of the hour. The violences were not perpetrated by industry against property, but by property against principle. The violators of law were, almost without an exception, members of the wealthy and “educated” class, while the victorious upholders of the law were the “industrious” masses. The rapid series of victories since gained by principle over the opposition of property, and without injury to property,—holy and harmless victories,—the failure of the law-breakers in all their objects, and their virtual surrender to the sense and principle of the majority, are sufficient, one would hope, to enlighten the “enlightened;” to indicate to the lettered class of American society, that while it is truly their duty to extend all the benefits of education which it is in their power to dispense to “the masses,” it is highly necessary that the benefit should be reciprocated, and that the few should be also receiving an education from the many. There are a thousand mechanics shops, a thousand log houses where certain members of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the orator of the day for one, might learn new and useful lessons on morals and politics,—on the first principles of human relations.

(In her book, Martineau says she has read the address given by Ralph Waldo Emerson at that same Phi Beta Kappa meeting at a later date…in 1837, I think…and liked it much better that the one at which she was present.  “The society may be considered as having amply atoned, by this last address, for the insult rendered by its organ (however uconsciously), to republican morals by that of 1835”)


Peter Drucker on the hazards of ‘elite’ universities…from 1969!

Also, a new documentary about Ivy League endowments and Ivy League exclusions.

The Harriet Martineau passages are from her book Retrospect of Western Travel (vol 2).  It is available at Gutenberg.

10 thoughts on “Harvard–A View From 1835”

  1. Harvard was the New England version of Oxford and Cambridge in old England. They taught classics of literature, Greek and Latin. Science and other practical subjects were not considered the concern of “gentlemen.” In England of the 19th century, it became increasingly obvious that Scotland was the place for Engineering and Medicine. Harvard Medical School was still quite small with faculty depending on student fees until late in the 19th century. Medical students traveled to Germany if they could afford it. Even today, a study showed that Harvard seniors knew less than Harvard freshmen. It is an exclusive club but is losing its cachet as affirmative action weakens the student body. It excludes Asian applicants for the same reason it excluded Jews, and is doing it again. They are too ambitious and work too hard.

  2. I thought this part was especially interesting: “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.”

    We still have that today, but with the difference that at least the attendees of Harvard & similar universities were back then actually expected to *learn* something, however narrow it might appear to us, these days, the credential itself seems to be the main thing.

  3. Nonetheless, thirty years later the national government had a sense of Martineau’s criticism and established colleges. setting different expectations from students and professors. The land grant schools are, today, often as disgustingly woke as one could possibly dread but students and faculty are less likely to be seen (and less likely to be accepted by others) as “anointed.” Their endowments come from different kinds of graduates and patnerships with business and money from the states temper this elitism – though I always wondered why some aimed at being an Ivy in the wild when their real heritage was so American and so rich. We’ll see what de Santis can do.

  4. Seems to me that the US avoided becoming an aristocracy as a result of several factors. The land grant colleges were one. I’d also include mechanization, the suppression of slavery, the need for meritocracy as a result of external military pressures (two world wars and the cold war), and of course the provisions of the Constitution. Also the availability of cheap land (yes, taken largely by conquest and in some case fraud), which avoided excessive dominance by landowners. And also, I’d suggest, tariffs, which helped to drive higher wages.

  5. re Harriet Martineau, important context is that she was very strongly anti-slavery. Interestingly, she found very strong support for slavery not only in the US South, but also in the North, where a lot of people made money off the institution, one way or another.

  6. Colleges and universities founded before 1800 were all founded and governed to further ecclesiastical goals. This was, primarily, to prepare preachers of various denominations combined with the formalization of dogma and theology supporting and defending whichever particular sect had founded that particular institution.

    Theology, of course, starts from a single, unquestionable, premise and proceeds from there to endless argument over millennia of accumulated commentary and argument over all of the commentary and argument that had come before. By definition, there is nothing more to discover, all necessary knowledge has been revealed from on high. The only reason for controversy is misunderstanding or ignoring that unalterable truth.

    At the same time the mundane world of commerce and technology was explicitly beneath the consideration of “true” scholars. Theirs was the heady world of Latin declensions and Greek paraphrase. The scientific explosion starting at the end of the 18th century provided another whole body of knowledge, subject to proof by experimentation and observation rather that endless argument from ancient authority. A body of knowledge that was being extended constantly. Propagating this body required a more formal mechanism that the hit or miss approach of apprenticeship. Thus the rise of numerous technical “Institutes”. Many places, these secular schools were forbidden by law from adopting the styling of “University” and even in the U.S. where there was no such restriction, most were desirous of drawing a clear line between themselves and the past.

    In a way, it’s Harvard’s venturing into the real world that represents a sort of fraud. Harvard’s founders would no more have started science and engineering school than they would have started a school to train house servants. The present resort to dogma and cant is exactly where the Ivy League started, The other schools, as Ginny says, are merely dumbly mimicking their self perceived betters.

  7. Marc is right – the ivy tower is okay if everyone recognizes its an ivy tower and its lessons from history or language or (in the old days) theology/philosophy were seen as useful but not necessarily worldly – the money graduates earned and the money the professoriate earned was relatively minor and not likely incenitives in themselves. Now, everyone in and out of academia argue that the only way to reach middle class incomes is through a college degree. Youngkin’s argument to remove college criteria from state jobs that don’t need it (certainly some need certification – nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers – though the dei movement is likely to affect the nature of those certifications. Yes one of my favorite employees to talk to and one of my least successful in terms of getting the job done was a Harvard ph.d. in pre-semitic languages. He was truly overeducated for the job (typing undergraduate papers in those pre-computerized days).- but also undereducated (he was a relatively slow typist and not all that helpful – one of the few employees who would declade work was not in his job description. Ours was generally an all hands on deck approach.

  8. David Foster
    June 10, 2023 at 11:14 am

    Not disagreeing with your past factors at all. However, as we seem to be coming to a historical cusp that may not be survivable, I think it is interesting to ponder how many of those factors, or their analogs, are still operational.

    As noted in the discussion, land grant colleges are trying to become as aristocratic and elitist as the Ivy League.

    Mechanization and its modern equivalent of computerization are being off-shored as the norm today and we instead import the goods cheaper at the cost of worthwhile jobs at home which are also off-shored for what has been in some cases argued as slave wages.

    The military pressures have declined and to be honest the armed forces are following the Harvard paradigm as quickly as they can. Indeed, my original career goal started at Annapolis long, long ago and I had a Senator willing to send me. I could not pass the medical due to scoliosis and ended up a cop. None of my children ended up in the military, in no small part because of what it has become instead of the defender of country and Constitution; and if my grandchildren show any such inclination we will have a serious discussion.

    The Constitution is honored far more in the breach than in the observance and it is rapidly losing all observance.

    Land is no longer cheap, and those who work it are detested by society and the urban Left who run things [led by Harvard and Harvard-clones].

    And tariffs no longer protect American production.

    It seems that the conditions on the ground are shifting, and have shifted, very much against us.

    Subotai Bahadur

  9. …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.

    The more things change, etc.

    It seems to me that what has changed is that previously- when the US was an actual free country- the collection of supercilious fops who graduated from Harvard and elsewhere lacked the power to impose their various idiocies upon the nation.

    Lately, they have obtained that power and, subsequently, the nation is crumbling into ruin.

    But of course it’s never described that way. Instead, we get a laundry list of reasons why this can’t be done, or that must be done. We are expected to submit to any tyranny, as long as it is justified by claiming it is needed for the environment, safety, health, or- lately- “equity.”

    I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that somehow these diktats always empower, entrench, and enrich our supposed betters from Harvard and the like, no matter how disastrous the effects they have upon the country.

    A coincidence, right? Right?

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