Campus & Community

Rudenstine Celebrates Boston Latin, Harvard Ties

7 min read
President Neil L. Rudenstine chatted on March 31 with Boston Latin School students Andrew Barr (left) and Shi Wen Li (who will be attending Harvard in the fall), just before participating in a symposium titled Continuity and Change: Classical Education in the Twenty-First Century. The symposium was the first in a series of events launching Boston Latin’s Pons Privatus capital campaign. As a prelude to the panel discussion, Rudenstine spoke about the strong historical ties that have bound Harvard College and Boston Latin for nearly four centuries. Photo by Gail Oskin.

Good morning. I’’m very glad to be with all of you this morning, to celebrate your school and its achievements, and to wish you good fortune as you begin your ambitious fund-raising drive.

I’’ve been asked – in the next nine or ten minutes – to offer you some brilliant, pithy, and profound remarks about the continuity of the relationship between the Boston Latin School and Harvard over the course of the past 364 years; to explain what we mean by the terms “classic” and “classical education”; and then to say what the idea of a classical education might consist of in the century that lies ahead.

We all know, I think, that the Boston Latin School is older than Harvard, and that the University has – totally unsuccessfully – been struggling to catch up ever since 1636. You have prepared your students superbly. You have sent battalions, divisions, and even armies of them to Harvard. And we in turn have done our best not to ruin them completely, so that they could graduate at least no worse off than when you sent them to us.

This has been an incredible challenge for us. Ever since the time when one of your alumni, Ben Franklin – as a young Boston reporter – pilloried Harvard for catering to arrogant, lazy, fashion-minded, and ignorant youths, we have had a reputation for allowing our undergraduates to float freely and sometimes aimlessly through four of their most formative years. Indeed, we are a place, so it is said, that is infinitely harder to get into, than it is to get out of.

The Boston Latin School, by contrast, has stood for the highest standards, the cultivation of powerful study habits, and the pursuit of fundamental time-tested knowledge through the rigor of its structured classical curriculum. When Phillips Brooks — of Boston Latin and Harvard fame — was teaching at this school, in 1855, he wrote enthusiastically to a friend that

You must prepare yourself to see a great change in the youth of our city…. There is more intelligence and brilliance in their faces, and if you meet a Latin School [student]…you will at once know him for one who has had the best instructors, and who knows ever so much more than his [teachers]….

About a hundred years later, another keen observer — and another one of your faculty members — Philip Marson, observed that no student however brilliant, could escape the unremitting toil or the objective evaluation of his efforts…. He also knew that perfection of workmanship was the goal…[and that] he would be judged inexorably…. The school was a proving-ground for those who survived, and a shock…to those who would not or could not accept the relentless drive and discipline.

Now, if you ask me how or why the laissez-faire lubricity of Harvard, and the tensile steel-case structures of Boston Latin, could possibly have made for such long-lasting connubial relations throughout nearly four centuries, I can only imagine that something deeply Hegelian must have been taking place: the counterbalancing of your sturdy thesis and the University’s less sturdy antithesis, which has somehow produced a wonderful, enduring, alchemical synthesis.

This process was not, of course, always smooth. And it sometimes produced very surprising results. For example, Charles William Eliot was one of your pupils who felt more shocked than illuminated by what Philip Marson described as the school’s “relentless drive and discipline.” Eliot reminisced, late in his life, that when he was a boy attending “the best public school in Boston…, the control used was physical force, the application of [sheer] torture — that [was] the long and short of it….”

As a consequence, Eliot and his father decided to give young Charles an antidote: he began — out of school — to take lessons in carpentry, and wood-turning. He also learned typesetting and hand-printing, he rowed boats desperately, he went fishing (with unknown results), and he even bought a pony to go riding. All of this amounted to Eliot’s “liberal” — perhaps not quite classical — education. Later, he decided to take even further revenge when he became President of Harvard. He led the way in making certain that neither Greek nor Latin would be compulsory at the College, and he opened up the “free elective” system so that students could study those subjects which most interested them.

So it was that the Boston Latin School stimulated and inspired Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s greatest President, to undertake relatively ruthless unclassical educational reforms: in spite of which, you still kept sending to our College countless Latinists, and we kept accepting them cheerfully and proudly.

Among those many students whom we shared, were any number who did not obviously or easily fit any identifiable mold — neither yours nor ours. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance; and Samuel Adams, Cotton Mather, John Hancock, Edward Everett, George Santayana, Bernard Berenson, and Leonard Bernstein.

Given this variety — including the admirable idiosyncrasies of every one of these individuals — we should probably conclude, wisely, that there is in fact no “mold,” and that each of our institutions is roomy enough — and also stringent enough — to give both stimulus and succor to our pupils, while we also strive to create an environment which fosters the development of significant values, and important habits of the mind and heart — including the eminently classical habit of self-discipline.

Beyond that, our respective curricula today almost certainly resemble one another more than we might suspect. While our two institutions may not have arrived at the point of perfect synthesis, you are clearly far less relentless than you were in Charles Eliot’s day, and we in turn are rather less laissez- faire than we were in Benjamin Franklin’s day.

We both insist that students study the natural sciences, as well as history, literature, and the arts. We both ask our students to gain some mastery of at least one foreign language. We also insist that our students must be able to use the English language well — and to use our language well means, of course, to be able to think imaginatively, precisely, and critically; to be able to articulate ideas, present evidence, and synthesize — as well as to write with some attention to narrative style, and to the poetics of our native speech.

Whether all of this constitutes a strictly classical education, I will leave to our panel to decide. But that it constitutes a challenging, probing, invigorating, and useable education — which will serve all of our students well — I have absolutely no doubt.

So, let me close by thanking you for 364 years of Boston Latin students who have come to Harvard; for your strong convictions concerning what constitutes excellence in learning; and for your determination to continue such a powerful and enviable tradition into the next century and well beyond.