Harvard will turn 375 this fall, ready to celebrate its vibrant present and promising future. But every anniversary is predicated on a past — often a faraway time that in retrospect seems humble.

In 1636, Harvard began as an idea, a pledge by the young Massachusetts Bay Colony to build a Puritan college in the wilderness of early New England “to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity.”

By 1638, Harvard was a building as well, “very fair and comely within and without.”  The structure was steep-roofed, with a spacious hall, a parlor, and a lean-to kitchen and buttery out back. Peyntree House stood on one and one-eighth acre in what was called Cowyard Row.

And by 1642, Harvard was a college. It graduated its first class on Sept. 23 that year — nine “young men of good hope,” as colonial leader John Winthrop recorded in his journal. Edward Mitchelson, the colony’s marshal general, began the ceremony by striking the dais with the butt of his pikestaff.

That first Commencement included a long prayer and oration in Latin, followed by “disputations” from the graduates to prove their grasp of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Afterward, the School’s president made a private appeal for funds. At the time, Harvard — with no rents, annuities, or estates — scraped by on about 55 English pounds a year.

Since that modest beginning, Harvard has grown from a training school for ministers to a global institution that promotes public service; from a school that forbade music outside of chapel services to a University where the arts are integral to scholarship; from an institution where learning “letters” followed strict classical models to one where a rainbow of humanities options reflect a diverse world; and from a place that focused on Latin and Greek to one that embraces science, technology, and innovation.

All this is what Harvard celebrates as it prepares to mark its 375th anniversary.

“With this anniversary celebration, we hope to both glance back and leap forward,” said Harvard President Drew Faust of the festivities, which will span 10 months starting in the fall. “We plan to honor Harvard’s rich history and cherished traditions, the great minds that have taught here, and the great minds those teachers have inspired. And we will also focus our energy and attention on the questions that will define our present and our future.”

Here are some key areas that Harvard has helped to shape in recent decades, and that in turn have helped to shape Harvard.

The rise of the sciences
Present and future depend on the past, and so it was with Harvard and the sciences. But first came centuries of reluctance, as the young College clung to a classical model of education.

French journalist J.P. Brissot de Warville visited Harvard in 1788. He marveled at the College’s great library but also said that the “sciences are not carried to any high degree,” in keeping with a young nation that he found more interested in commerce than in Newton-like inquiry.

In 1847, Harvard opened the Lawrence Scientific School, the progenitor of today’s top-flight engineering and physical sciences departments. (In the Physics Department alone, there are now 10 winners of the Nobel Prize.) The new School helped to provide the scholarly grist to power the rising nation’s manufacturing, mining, and agriculture.

In World War II, Harvard’s embrace of the sciences transformed the campus into “Conant’s Arsenal,” named after President James B. Conant, a chemist by training. Myriad researchers worked on radar jamming, night vision, aerial photography, sonar, explosives, a protocomputer, blood plasma derivatives, synthesized quinine, anti-malarial drugs, and new treatments for burns and shock. By 1945, Harvard’s income from government contracts was the third highest among U.S. universities.

Chemistry Professor George B. Kistiakowsky tested new explosives and later led the Manhattan Project’s search for a way to trigger a nuclear bomb. Organic Chemistry Professor Louis Fieser invented napalm, lightweight incendiary grenades, and the M-1 firestarter used for sabotage.

But the Harvard project that most influenced postwar science was the Mark I Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, a protocomputer developed in the Computation Laboratory by Harold Aiken, Ph.D. ’39, in cooperation with IBM. Unveiled in 1944, it was 51 feet long, contained 72 tiered adding machines, and had 500 miles of wire. It calculated ballistic tables and Manhattan Project equations.

Now, science and innovation are deeply embedded in the architecture of Harvard, where research has led to the grand (the heart pacemaker), the odd (breathable chocolate), and the futuristic (one of the first multimedia online scholarly journals).

“We can celebrate that Harvard is — but doesn’t feel — 375 years old,” said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, who has broad-based faculty appointments in law, public policy, engineering, and computer science.

Harvard values traditions and “inspiringly worn pathways from those who have come before,” he said, but it is at its best when its sturdy foundations lead academics and researchers “to venture into genuinely new scholarship and teaching.” When the old supports the new, said Zittrain, “the University can catalyze activity far beyond campus.”

When Faust took office in 2007, she said that higher education has an “accountability to the future.” At Harvard, that mission includes pushing ideas out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. From 2006 to 2010, Harvard research spawned 39 start-up companies, 216 patents, and 1,270 faculty inventions. Institutionally, the players include the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Harvard’s Office of Technology Development, which considers sharing innovation a form of public service.

The public service mission
In his 1923 memoir, longtime President Charles Eliot said one defining quality lay at the heart of Harvard’s traditions: “a spirit of service in all the professions, both learned and scientific, including business,” as well as “a desire, a firm purpose, to be of use to one’s fellow men.”

Eliot’s own memory of that service stretched back to the Civil War, in part because of the many participants from Harvard who fought to save the Union. So he would hardly be surprised to find that the University’s sense of self-sacrifice includes military service. When Faust spoke at a ceremony this March reinstating ROTC after a hiatus of 40 years, she said the agreement “recognizes military service as an honorable and admirable calling — a powerful expression of an individual citizen’s commitment to contribute to the common good.”

During last year’s Commencement address, Faust underscored the importance of giving back, announcing creation of the Presidential Public Service Fellowships, which fund 10 students annually to spend a summer helping others. She also promised to double funding for student service opportunities, including in the graduate and professional Schools, and to create a Harvard-wide public service website.

In recent years, the number of service opportunities at Harvard has grown, taking on an astonishing diversity. Earlier this year, 110 undergraduates fanned out during Alternative Spring Break, going on 11 service trips. They helped to rebuild a burned church in western Massachusetts, worked with AIDS patients in New York City, and constructed affordable housing in El Salvador.

At Harvard Law School, every student must complete 40 hours of pro bono work before graduating. Members of the Class of 2010 averaged 556 hours of free legal services apiece. Students in public health, medicine, and dentistry regularly perform aid work. The Harvard Kennedy School regards service as a core mission, and the Harvard Business School supports a Social Enterprise Initiative. Similar service opportunities are open to graduate students in education, divinity, and design.

Undergraduates and faculty regularly volunteer at the Harvard Allston Education Portal, tutoring neighborhood students in science, math, and the humanities.

The Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), Harvard’s oldest and largest public service club, is also home to the Public Service Network, which supports independent, student-led service programs, and the Center for Public Interest Careers, which administers paid internships for summers and after graduation.

Helping others can change lives. Emmett Kistler ’11 came to Harvard to study chemistry. But during his first Alternative Spring Break two years ago, he not only learned how to swing a hammer, but decided to study religion and civil rights. Public service “has been one of the most shaping experiences of my college career,” said Kistler.

“Some of Harvard’s best souls” use their personal time to help others, said Tim McCarthy ’93, a College lecturer in history and literature, as well as public policy. He led the first such work trip in 2001, and has since squired hundreds of undergraduates on similar forays. “I’m on my own spiritual journey,” said McCarthy. “This is part of it.”

Blossoming of the arts
Across Harvard, a different sort of spiritual journey involves discovering the power of the arts.

“There is much to celebrate, of course,” from Harvard’s first 375 years, said Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, “principally the fact — so easy to take for granted, so astonishing in reality — that the pedagogical commitment, intellectual power, and spirit of exploration embodied in this University have been renewed for so many generations.”

To the University’s core values, Greenblatt said, “have more recently been added a vital interest in the role of art-making in the cognitive life of the Harvard community and of the world at large. This development seems to me crucial in furthering the University’s project of advancing our best qualities as human beings.”

Greenblatt chaired Harvard’s 2007 Arts Task Force, which the next year released an influential, 63-page report that favored making the arts a greater part of the University’s intellectual life. After all, “art-making is a way of knowing,” said Office for the Arts Director Jack Megan at the time. “It has to do with understanding the world around us.”

The report forcefully echoed one from 1956, when the University’s Committee on the Visual Arts released what became known as the Brown Commission Report, urging enhanced arts education for undergraduates. “Talking about knowing” was a medieval model of scholarship, that report said. It argued instead that “knowing and creating” belonged together.

Though the Brown Commission did not turn Harvard on its head, it did make a difference. By 1960, Harvard had built the Loeb Drama Center on Brattle Street, and in 1963 the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Harvard soon created a Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) program. “It comes down to the making,” said VES concentrator Julia Rooney ’11, a painter. “Making is what I wanted to do.”

The arts have come a long way. Making art at a 17th century Puritan college was considered subversion. Edward Taylor, Class of 1671, eventually went down in literary history as a great poet in the metaphysical tradition — but it took until the 1920s for an American scholar to discover him. In his own day, Taylor kept his poems private.

The first documented concert at Harvard came in 1771, and singing was confined to chapel services. General Oliver, Class of 1818, concealed his flute under his featherbed, fearing the wrath of College officials and of his Puritan father. The first course in music was taught in 1855, a watershed moment, according to music champion John Sullivan Dwight, Class of 1832. It was, he said, “the entering wedge, and we may all rejoice in it.”

A century and a half later, that wedge has widened to include today’s student painters, filmmakers, poets, actors, dancers, novelists, and photographers, some of whom make the arts their careers. There are so many Harvard graduates in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, for example, that alumni founded Harvardwood, a nonprofit that makes networking easier.

Increasingly, noted arts professionals move in and out of Harvard’s academic settings with ease, leaving inspiration in their wake. In late April, famed jazz virtuoso Wynton Marsalis launched a two-year lecture and performance series at Sanders Theatre. The same month, the Office for the Arts and the Music Department sponsored “40 Years of Jazz at Harvard: A Celebration.”

Last year, the nonprofit Silk Road Project moved its headquarters from Rhode Island to Harvard, strengthening a partnership between the University and an organization that promotes innovation and learning through the arts.

This fall, art-making will be prominent during the Oct. 14 launch of the official 375th anniversary. The celebrations during the academic year will include scholarly panels and symposia. But the opening will be festive and musical, putting Harvard’s “vital arts mission” on display, said University Marshal Jackie O’Neill, M.P.A. ’81. “The launch is decidedly and intentionally supposed to be fun.” At one point, guests will assemble in the Tercentenary Theatre for orchestral and choral interludes, with a capstone performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76.

A university of the world
The Harvard of the dim past was small, insular, and guardedly parochial. Now it is a university of the world.

Some historians say Harvard finally assumed that role in 1936, when it decided to celebrate its 300th birthday on a bright stage presented to the world. Everything about the 1936 celebration was grand and represented “a seismic shift in institutional weight and presence,” wrote authors Morton and Phyllis Keller in “Making Harvard Modern” (2001).

That summer, 70,000 visitors toured Harvard Yard, and a light show on the Charles River in September drew 300,000 viewers. The fall convocation was preceded by two weeks of scholarly symposia. About 15,000 guests attended the final day of festivities.

Representatives from 502 universities and learned societies gathered to recognize Harvard’s three centuries. The climax of the event was a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt ’04, who sat gamely though heavy rains.

In the decades since, Harvard has cemented its position as a global university. This year, more than 4,300 international students — nearly 20 percent of enrollment — attended, coming from among 130 countries. The web portal Harvard Worldwide lists more than 1,600 activities, and notes that Harvard has offices in nine countries.

Last year, nearly 1,500 Harvard College students traveled to a total of 104 countries for research and other activities. Harvard Summer School faculty will lead 28 study abroad programs in 18 countries this year.

“In a digital age, ideas and aspirations respect few boundaries,” Faust told a scholarly audience in Dublin last year. “The new knowledge economy is necessarily global, and the reach of universities must be so as well.”

Jorge I. Domínguez, Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico and vice provost for international affairs, said most Harvard College seniors have had a significant international experience. Moreover, “roughly two-thirds of the faculty at the Kennedy School, the Graduate School of Design, and the Business School say on their websites that some significant part of their professional work takes place outside the United States.”

One trunk, many branches
Modern Harvard also has evolved profoundly in its embrace of diversity. The University of decades ago that one wag described as “male, pale, and Episco-pale” now has a student body that is just over 50 percent white, with 13 percent foreign-born.

Harvard College, which was all male just a generation ago, has a student body evenly divided by gender. Women have a full place at the Harvard’s table, though it was only in 1971 that they were allowed to process into Harvard Yard for Commencement.

Economically, any student admitted to the College is guaranteed a place in the class. If money is a factor in attending, the University will provide financial support.

Longtime faculty member Fred Abernathy, the Gordon McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Abbott and James Lawrence Research Professor of Engineering, has served as a Commencement official for decades, and has witnessed Harvard’s social transformation from close up.

“It has changed dramatically,” he said. “We’ve done it with gender, and (now) we’ll be more international — and the better for it.”

 

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