Stories of learning, teaching, and turning points, in the Experience series.
Gerald Holton, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science Emeritus, was born in Berlin in 1922.
He spent his boyhood in Vienna playing piano, reading Westerns, watching American films, and studying Latin, Greek, and the classics of Western literature in a rigorous Gymnasium. The turmoil of the Nazi era soon overturned his life and that of his Jewish family. In March 1938, as a boy of 16 during Anschluss, Holton watched from a balcony as Hitler passed by in an open car and German troops were feted by joyous mobs of Austrians.
But events — including the eventual salvation of his family in the “heaven” of America, he said — propelled Holton into a series of steps that led to Harvard.
He first arrived at the University in 1943 to work in the war effort and to teach his first class: on radar, to Navy officers. By 1948, Holton was a Harvard Ph.D. in physics and head of a laboratory specializing in the structure of liquids under very high pressure. His career also branched out in ways inspired by his wide classical education as a boy. He explored physics education, textbook writing, the world of journals (as founding editor of the quarterly Daedalus, in 1956), and the history of science, the subject of many of his books.
Holton also ventured into the social sciences, co-authoring books on gender and the sciences; on young immigrants; and on the fate (marvelously accomplished, mostly) of the 30,000 children who escaped the Nazi boot heel in Europe at the same time he did. Sciences and the humanities, he avers, coexist in a continuum of knowledge too often fragmented by the constraints of highly defined disciplines. So Holton often returns to his favorite salving sentiment, a line from E.M. Forster: “Only connect.”
Q: Childhood experiences shape our lives. Take us back.
A: My first experience that resonates to this day is my elementary school, because I had the luck in four years of school to have the same teacher, Hilda, whom I adored.
Q: Then your luck held.
A: At 10 years old in Vienna, you had the chance to get into the so-called Humanistiche Gymnasium — humanistic secondary school — if you passed an exam, which was easy thanks to my first four years of elementary school.
The good thing about the Gymnasium was that it was in a sense also a college at the same time, by preparing you for university or technical institute by giving you the whole range of studies, from Greek and Latin through history, literature, mathematics, science, and preparing you to be a functioning adult at the university level. We had to memorize German poetry by the ream, also 20 lines of “The Iliad” per week. We had to get up suddenly and deliver a five-minute talk on a set subject. I think the hope of the school was to train very cultured persons.
In fact, at the time that school was for me mostly a harsh experience. Yet something lasted. I must confess that last year, being a little impatient with much of the current literature, I systematically reread a lot of those things which I had to do in school. So I did Goethe’s “Faust” — only Part One. [Laughter.] I tried to do “The Iliad” again, although it is so bloody. I did the magnificent “Odyssey.” And many of the other classic books of those dead white men and women which excited me then, and now.
I was into books constantly as a boy. And of course films — Paul Robeson, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin. This was a fascinating look at the Land of Infinite Possibilities. Our idea of America as children was typical of children in Europe of those days.
Q: You escaped from Nazi rule as a child. How did that shape the life you have led?
A: I was born in 1922, in Berlin, to a young Austrian couple — my father a lawyer and my mother a physiotherapist. Berlin in 1922 — that’s more than 10 years before Hitler took over — and already the streets were in the hands of Nazi gangs. Einstein in 1922 fled from Berlin and was away for nearly a year, because he was on the long list to be killed and 300 had been killed already. This sets the tone. I got born into turmoil.
But then what happened after the family had returned to Vienna? Specifically, at about 7 p.m. [on] March 11, a Friday, 1938. I was just coming back from my last piano lesson, easy Chopin, and heard on the radio that the government was giving up and being replaced by Austrian Nazis selected by Hitler. Austria had let itself be taken over by radio.
When the German troops came in their open lorries, they were told to put on their goggles because there were so many flowers thrown at them that their eyes might be damaged by the happy Austrians.
On March 14 I was with my father in his office at the corner of the Ringstrasse, the big boulevard, and we looked out as Hitler and his cavalcade were entering Vienna. I saw him in the open car going to the Heldenplatz, where he was greeted by 200,000 wildly enthusiastic Austrians. So suddenly, everything changed. And as they say, it took five years in Germany but only five hours in Vienna to let the bacchanalia begin. Any “Aryan” could walk into a Jewish office or flat or any property and declare, simply, “You: Get out into the street. I take over, free” — which they did with my father’s office, and he had to go into hiding. Nina, my wife, whom I hadn’t met by that time, of course — her father [was] arrested immediately for no particular reason. It was a free-for-all.
This is where the children suddenly became adults. My younger brother and I had now to try to get our visas, our police certificates, our various permissions to work toward emigrating. You couldn’t do that so easily as adults, because when they were in these long lines outside the offices, including the American Embassy, the trucks of the SS would come in, load them all up, and they were never seen again. So the good thing about being very young was that you could run fast.
Then the question was how to get out. It was extremely difficult to go to the United States, except by some kind of a luck and constant push. Eventually, the Nazis in Europe had roughly 1,600,000 children targeted for various reasons, and only 7 percent of them came out alive. Ninety-three percent of them either died of starvation or were murdered. So I find myself in this small slice of 7 percent.
Q: How did you get out?
A: In my case, I had the immense luck of being allowed to be part of a lottery in Vienna set up by the wonderful British Quakers to get on the Kindertransport. You were selected to come to a certain advertised place to pull from a box a slip of paper. On that slip, there might be nothing — that’s your fate, you stay. It might say “Holland,” because there was a camp where young people would be taught agriculture before trying to get to Palestine. All of those children were killed when the Nazis invaded Holland. But the third possibility was a little slip that said “England.” And both I and my brother pulled out those two pieces of paper. I still have mine.
In December 1938, both of us got on the Kindertransport train, a locked train. Examined by the Nazis first, going through our luggage to see that we don’t take anything valuable out. And then spending a good day and night to get to England. The ages of the kids were from 3 up. I remember that at the last moment, as the parents loaded up the train, one of them reached through the window and put a 3-year-old on my lap, saying, “Take care of him.”
After a few weeks in the camp near Dover — in deep freeze; it was just a summer holiday camp — I happened to be one of 12 boys asked to sit for an exam, to see whether I could be allowed to go on to a school of technology in the city of Oxford. Not a college, but the city school [Oxford City Technical School, now Oxford Brookes University]. Three of us passed the exam. That’s how I got a certificate of electrical engineering a year and a half later.
Q: I have to wonder about the fate of children who didn’t get out.
A: Yes, terrifying. Unforgivable. And even for the non-Jews. Jews were dismissed from the Gymnasium in March 1938. But I am told most of those in my class who were not dismissed signed up for a parachute company. They were all shot down on trying to parachute into Rotterdam.
I somehow managed to get my parents out to England as well, just before World War II. It was just a miracle actually. So we were reunited, although most of our relatives back there perished in the camps.
By June 1940, finally our visa came through to come to America. We got on a ship which had the holes still from the evacuation at Dunkirk, 12 days by way of the northern route to elude the U-boats, and then arriving in America. [Laughter.] It was, of course, like coming into heaven. The first official whom I encountered had just one question: “Sonny, how much money are you bringing in?” We all looked, and we had the equivalent of four dollars and a few pennies. But we had hopes.
First night in New York. Coming from blacked-out Europe, from Nazified Europe, from war, walking down Broadway is unimaginable. It was in my mind like a toy store for children, the great lights, the agitation, the amusements. That kind of America was different from what Karl May’s books had promised. Much better, although no American Indians in sight, unfortunately. I had been looking forward to them. [Laughter.] A completely new life was beckoning.
I heard that, at Fordham University, which was accessible by subway — a new idea for me — there is a man who teaches cosmic rays. Indeed, Victor Hess, the discoverer of cosmic rays, from Austria, himself a refugee.
Since I could not find a job, except possibly as a dishwasher, I managed to take the summer course of Victor Hess on cosmic rays, which I thought would be a fascinating field for me to go into. It was a small class, three nuns and me.
Then a letter from England caught up with me, which changed life again. The letter said, if you come to America, there is a fellowship waiting for you to continue your education at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Tuition will be free, food will be provided by the students. Unbelievable.
It took me many years to figure out how this came about. It really had started at Harvard! The November 1938 pogrom, Kristallnacht — the Nazis gave it a refined name — was so frightening that two students at Harvard, two juniors, Irving M. London and Robert E. Lane, organized a meeting in the Sanders Theatre to bring some young refugees to Harvard [through the Harvard Committee to Aid German Student Refugees].That model was then adopted by many other colleges. One of them was Wesleyan, which decided to have one such refugee boy, because it was a boys’ school. And somehow it was me whom they selected.
I am still not sure how exactly they zeroed in on me, and it’s not important. But it is very important for me to have been there. They gave me exams, and decided I was a senior, so I had one year to graduate. And I had a wonderful time there.
I had already, in Oxford, obviously, been taught some English, by old dons who volunteered. One gave me lessons from the King James Bible. Another gave me lessons from Shakespeare. And it is said that my use of English in those days was very amusing.
Q: Your English was stuck around 1600 or so?
A: Well, if you are young, you can overcome almost everything.
At Wesleyan, I really fell under the spell of two different professors. One of them was that wonderful physicist Walter G. Cady, who had gotten his degree in Berlin. I became his research assistant. The other was Fred B. Millet, a revered teacher of English literature. And yet I really oscillated back and forth between those two fields in my main affection. Until the last week practically, I didn’t know whether to graduate in physics or in English literature. But physics became my choice. I stayed on for another year as Cady’s assistant and got an M.A. at Wesleyan as well.
‘Authority is not always benign, but at least it is a way of seeing the world and one’s place in it, and requires one to fight against it when necessary, as well. Authority does not have to be obeyed, but it has to be encountered.’
Q: The M.A. in 1942?
A: That’s right. So this enormous accident really — of that letter, which could have missed me easily.
The war broke out and the time had come, since I now knew some physics, to have it put it to work. With the recommendation of Cady, I came to Harvard into the war labs. I was put into the section right off Jefferson Lab, the Cruft Lab, into the Electric-Acoustic Research Laboratory under that remarkable leader, Leo Beranek, who was an assistant professor here. (We just celebrated his 100th birthday.) I was also a teaching assistant to teach radar to Navy officers. Radar was top secret. And along comes an alien with a German accent and a swastika on his passport.
Now, this is where the Quakers come in again, because I was also being interviewed by two people from Washington who said, “We would like you to come to Santa Fe for some research.” I said, well, tell me about it. “No, we can’t talk about it here, but we can take you to New York into a safe house, and there we can tell you what’s going on there.”
I did go, I listened to them, and it was clear that this was about building an atom bomb. Most of the physicists at Harvard and elsewhere had disappeared, particularly those who knew nuclear physics, and most had gone to work somewhere. Nobody said they were at Los Alamos in those days, because it was supposedly at Santa Fe, Post Office Box 1663. That was the code for it.
I said no. I am really attached to the kind of spirituality which asks you to do defensive, not aggressive work. In fact, in England, and for a time in the United States, I had gone to the Quakers’ weekly First Day meetings. So I worked at the electric-acoustic lab here to improve sound effects such as that people can more comfortably use oxygen masks and gas masks, and to get rid of the excessive, disorienting noise in aircraft, and so on, trying to make life safer for the troops.
There was a problem, of course. Roosevelt had declared people like me with a German passport as not just enemy alien, but alien enemies. They had some rules for us. No radio, no camera, no travel beyond three miles without authorization. There were other rules like that. Nevertheless, this is a very pragmatic country. Among the 4,000 people that ended up in Los Alamos, there were a lot of people who had German passports, and also roughly 15,000 refugee boys in the Army. This is quite pragmatic again.
Later on I got my Freedom of Information Act file, and I discovered that, although I was given full freedom at the research labs — I was even allowed to visit, on the same floor, the rooms where they were building the first computer, Mark I — I was being followed all the time, perhaps appropriately. It was clear almost every contact that I had was being asked about me, including, I regret to say, a very appealing young lady who seemed interested in me, but turned out to be on the payroll of the FBI. [Laughter.] But this was wartime.
Q: After those war times, were you influenced at all about women appearing for the first time in Harvard classrooms? What, in fact, created your interest in women in science?
A: Oh, sure. I should start with the fact that all my education had been in all-male schools, from age 6 on, from elementary school to a professorship in the brilliant Harvard Physics Department. Maybe because I came from Vienna, I was wondering, “Where are the women?” [Laughter.] There is a song there: Without women, things don’t work. I don’t want to say that I peek around to look for women, but it was obvious that there was something wrong in the life of the university where there are no women as equals in many classes, and I had to go over to Radcliffe and teach physics to women in those early days.
Harvard had one or two women as tenured faculty members. The Faculty Club allowed women only through the back entrance, later called the handicapped entrance, and only into their room, not into the main room. Absolutely absurd.
And we had no tenured woman in the Physics Department from my time here in the 1940s until 1999, when Melissa Franklin finally was asked.
So that was another puzzle. The Physics Department was a beautifully working department. That there were no women tenured seemed to me to be a question that can be researched. I like researchable questions, particularly if they serve some purpose. So together with Gerhard Sonnert, who is an excellent sociologist at the Center for Astrophysics now, we sat down, got a little money, and spent quite a lot of time researching this in American science generally up to the 1990s. We wrote a book that’s called “Who Succeeds in Science: The Gender Dimension” (1995). It’s not like this now, but the book is still useful.
We found generally there was no blatant misogyny, no glass ceiling, but what happened in the case of female scientists — it is now different, in law and so on — they tended to have an accumulation of disadvantage, many small disadvantages that accumulated, even when the quality of their work was as good or better than the men’s. Since then things have changed a lot as far as I can see.
Q: A physicist researching gender inequalities in the sciences?
A: My early education, with its wide-ranging curriculum, prepared me already to look around. I enjoy the whole spectrum of cultural activities, and so I dare to ask questions one doesn’t usually do when one is very narrowly focused on one thing only.
Q: Is there a way to summarize the many facets of your work at Harvard?
A: There are really four elements to it. They look very different, but they are related to each other. The first one, obviously, is physics. After I got my Ph.D. here under P.W. Bridgman — it was awarded in 1948 — I got my own lab space. And for 30 years, I had a busy lab myself, with graduate students and Ph.D.s, postdocs and so on, the usual.
We concentrated on the structure of liquids under very high pressures, which is, high pressures being one of the conditions under which they reveal their structure far more than if you just take a look at ordinary pressures. So we did many, from water to other biologically important liquids, and had many publications.
And then history of science got into the act. I had already been writing about history of science, starting with Kepler and Newton. In 1955, when Einstein died, our Physics Department wanted to do a memorial. I was asked to speak about the history of relativity. But there was practically nothing published about it, except in Einstein’s own autobiographical notes.
So I went down to see his records in Princeton and got along well with his enormously well-informed secretary, who was still there, and had been with him since 1928, Helen Dukas. She showed me his files, which were marvelously huge — some 40,000 documents, but in great disarray. Only she would know how to go through it.
I thought, it’s a moral obligation to try to put this into an archive that scholars can use. I ended up working on and off for two years, with some visits at length at the Institute for Advanced Study, at their invitation, to put all of this together and, on the way, reading Einstein’s material, both the published and the unpublished, the letters, the drafts.
This is when I became a historian of science. Much of my research on the history of science was based on what I found. It became clear to me — to my surprise, I was not prepared — that Einstein obeyed an inner epistemological compulsion, as do so many scientists, of seeing science through certain keyholes, certain lenses. I called them themata — themes — namely, ideas which are so imprinted in them that they may not have been fully aware of them; these determine the basic underlying structure of their work. And they excluded the opposites.
For example, it was very important to Einstein that a scientific theory gives you every detail, in every smallest dimension, of what is happening — unlike Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who allow uncertainty. It led to collisions of opinion based on opposite themata.
To Einstein, there were about seven themata throughout his work on different problems. The primacy of formal explanation instead of mechanistic explanation. Mathematics at the bottom of explanation. (That goes back all the way to Plato.) Then unity and unification; obviously, he wanted a unified theory for all of physics, even on a cosmological scale, from the tiniest particle to the cosmos itself, all to be under one roof, so to speak.
Then logical parsimony, that nothing unnecessary should appear in it, very much like Newton himself, who said nature does nothing in vain. Then strict causality. Then the continuum. To Einstein, the atom was not the explanation, it was the puzzle. He had to try to understand why atoms exist out of the field. And finally, invariance.
I found this concept of foundational themata true for others — for Planck, for Schrödinger, Mach, Heisenberg, for Bohr, for many others: Each had his own set of thematic imaginations, which empowers them, and at the same time keeps them from accepting the opposite. So that launched me into what, in terms of history of science scholarship, is probably a thing that I did, and still do, that may be of some use in the long run.
Q: Didn’t you leave Harvard at some point?
A: There happened a change in my career, or a threat to it, anyway, when the president of MIT, Jerome Wiesner, asked me to come over to MIT and start a history of science department. And this was a challenge. I loved being at Harvard, but I thought it would be an extremely interesting thing, for a great university like MIT, focusing mostly on science and engineering, to have a strong humanities presence as well, which they wanted.
But Dean Henry Rosovsky called me in about 1976, and said I should not leave Harvard: “We need you here.” His idea was to split my professorship, which was just in physics, and make me also part of the History of Science Department here at Harvard, which needed a historian of physics. It meant two departments and two sets of graduate students, and two faculty meetings a week. At that point I had to stop my physics research, the laboratory, after all those decades.
Q: So we have your work on the structure of liquids, and the history of science work. Then there was …
A: My third thing about the direction of my work was of course education and teaching. I have always much enjoyed giving lectures. In fact it is said about me that I have stage fright only if I’m not on a stage. [Laughter.] I much liked teaching in these two departments.
Way back in 1952, I had published an introductory physics book. I wrote it before I got to 30, an adventurous child. In it, I thought you can’t just do science all by itself. I already had this idea of civilization as a spectrum, with science part of the humanities, and there must be also the history and philosophy of science in it, a connective concept. So there were three chapters of philosophy of science in the book, and throughout, the history of science concepts as well, and some technology.
All this was something fairly new. It meant, for example, that when you study Newton’s work, you would see that it comes from some mathematics and physics from the Greeks and gives rise to new mathematics and physics after him. That Newton had an effect on statecraft in America, because his model of the solar system was one that influenced writings of people like Jefferson and Adams — the harmonious universe. You have Adams talking about the law of action and reaction from Newton as the reason he wanted a bicameral, rather than unicameral Congress. He took a physics course at Harvard from John Winthrop, and they read Newton’s “Principia” in the original Latin, learning that the universe was harmonious and that it was understandable.
So the sciences to me are part of a large kind of a tapestry instead of each just being a lot of pearls strung on one strand. That’s a picture I give to my students, who think that physics courses are just one pearl after another, each in its slot.
The Project Physics course came in in 1964 as part of my educational work, when asked to do a national physics course by the National Science Foundation. We worked on it for years, based again on the connective view. We had large numbers of students, eventually 200,000 high school kids per year. And it’s still going. All text material is free on the Net now.
And then the “Nation at Risk” report came in as another educational enterprise. I had to do the final draft, which is in pencil in the Harvard archives. [Laughter.]
Q: Everyone remembers that report.
A: The report told President Reagan: If other nations had forced the current education system on us, you would declare war on them. You know, exaggerating strategically to make him, as commander in chief, look at it. Making it just 36 pages in big type, with an appendix. I’m afraid he did not read it, but some governors of states did use it.
Q: Is American education still at risk?
A: We are at risk. It’s not just history. It’s a contemporaneous dispute, and our nation’s Achilles’ heel.
Q: Physics, history, the business of education. Can you talk about that fourth aspect of your work?
A: With the new online education coming, I am worried that students will not have adequate mentorship and role models during those critical years. That part is going to be either diminished or absent, that face-to-face mentorship over a long time, which each of us remembers as having been crucial in our own careers, that is going to be either very difficult or absent.
And so such “virtual” students might learn factual matters and skills through distance learning — better than nothing, for many — but something has to happen to give them also long-term mentorship, not just a visit now and then.
Q: You are talking about MOOCs and —
A: That’s right. If there is one guiding thematic concept apparent in all my intellectual and scholarly life, I would say it’s really captured by E.M. Forster’s remark, “Only connect.” Connect physics with history, with philosophy, with the social effects, with the Industrial Revolution, technology, and connect students with mentors. When you talk about science, see it as part of culture. See it as part of society. You can’t leave out science. Without its history and its effects, it’s lame.
And conversely, history and the social sciences — without the sciences attended to — they are blind. So connect. And that’s what we did in Project Physics, that’s what we did in my books, and that’s what I do in my teaching, also in Daedalus, which was an adult education quarterly I founded in order to bring together the new-on-the-horizon things and those from antiquity which have been forgotten but need not be. And Gen Ed was equally powerful. We had all those great books, which are now dismissed, as if “Western civilization” is a swear word. We’ll come to that when we talk about [Harvard President James Bryant] Conant, whom I came to know well. Conant is very important, for Harvard and for the lives of those here at his time.
Q: How is that?
A: I highly regard Conant, who is not much remembered anymore, as is true for everything long past, in a forward-looking institution like ours. Conant, to me, was a role model for Harvard as a scientist, as a statesman, as a Harvard president, as a teacher, as a scholar, as a human being.
He changed Harvard in the most profound way during his whole time here. When he was appointed in 1933 at age 40 as a chemist, he saw that Harvard was essentially a New England college chiefly for prep school boys who didn’t work too hard, and he made it into a national university. And afterwards, [25th president of Harvard] Derek Bok, another great model, made it into a worldwide university. Those were the two great institutional changes that I’ve lived through here.
Q: What was Conant like in person?
A: He was not at all the kind of person who, when he gets into a room, no one else is in it. He was, I think, rather modest and very practical. He also had the demeanor of wanting to make the moment count.
Once I asked him, why did you insist on General Education coming to Harvard? He said [that] while he was in Washington during the war, he discovered that the generals knew how to fight the war, but they didn’t know why to fight it. They did not know that it was a clash of civilizations, that it was Western civilization under attack from fascism, and that the ideological and material stakes were extremely high.
One reason then for his bringing General Education back here, with a great deal of emphasis on — in at least some of the beginning courses — the historical achievements of Western civilization, including much history even in sciences classes: Gen Ed was to prepare future leaders to understand what is worth fighting for.
So it wasn’t just simply teaching them more history of physics or chemistry or biology, but it was to give them a reason to treasure the moral dimensions of Western civilization. This, I think, was deeply inside him.
Q: This goes back again to your own training as a boy in school, where the sciences and technology and the classics were seen as equally important as foundations to being a learned person.
A: Well, they were preparing us for anything that we might become, whether a professional or an academic or in industry. And to keep valuing the rest of culture.
When I came to Harvard, to the Physics Department, whenever I could spare any time, I would take an hour of a day or every other day and sit in on one of those non-science courses — such as philosophy and history — because I still had a longing for it. And I always advised my students to do the same, because here we are in a cornucopia of remarkable scholars gathered from all over the world, the best people in the best fields, and students just walk by the door and don’t notice. So that was part of my mentorship, so to speak, to try to persuade them to perhaps miss one of the games and instead take a course on the epic with John H. Finley Jr., Harvard classicist and lead author of “General Education in a Free Society.”
Q: What about the early Cold War period? Not long after the war, for instance, physicists seemed at the epicenter of debate over the bomb. How do you remember it?
A: We have to wait for history to sort it out, because there are very many strands. For example, The New York Times, on the day after Hiroshima, look at the editorial page. It says this was the triumph of American science. It’s a eulogy, a euphoria, in that not only is it showing that our science is the best in the world, but it even shows how science should be done in the future, namely, the military should tell you what it needs and the scientists will obey.
Q: A very 1945 editorial.
A: And so now it has become more complicated, because there have been so many countries that have atomic weapons and the dangers of them. And when we look back on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we also have in mind the possibilities [of] the new terrifying things that might happen.
Q: Were there clear lines of debate at Harvard over the bomb in those days, circa 1950?
A: No. Scientists as a whole tend more to look forward, not back. I remember only two times when scientists in this department went outside the usual preoccupations. One of them was the debate about radioactive fallout — the debate about fallout, where we all chipped in and had a New York Times page against people like [Edward] Teller, who were propagating in favor of above-the-ground nuclear explosions.
The other one was about Professor Wendell Furry. Wendell was one of our three theoreticians in the department, before World War II. E.C. Kemble, Wendell Furry, and John H. Van Vleck: The three of them, and their students, trained one-third of all American theoreticians in physics up to World War II. This was a very powerful group.
Wendell was an important scientist but, as a human being, very sweet and harmless. He was easily confused on simple matters, whether it’s driving or whatever. And he stumbled somehow into a cell meeting of communists and then felt forced to take the Fifth Amendment when the McCarthyites got after him. The Harvard Corporation wanted to have him fired. At that point, our department, completely unified, stood up against that.
Q: Questioned loyalty, political division, protest. Sounds like a prelude to Vietnam, in a way.
A: On Vietnam, there is of course, in our memory here, the April 1969 takeover by the students of University Hall. Illegal. Had to be punished. A committee was set up, I was a member of it, a committee of 15, to decide what the punishment should be. A very divided committee. But in retrospect, again, history counts. What happened in Harvard Yard on an April day in 1969 was minuscule compared to the Vietnam War itself, a tens-of-thousands-times more illegal offense. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was a lie, the equivalent of the Iraq War’s “weapons of mass destruction.”
It was chiefly thanks to the White House that the trouble was going on at Harvard. The punished students had been essentially objecting to unpunished war crimes. There is a remark by Goya: “The sleep of reason begets monsters.” That was true for the whole Vietnam era.
Q: Did the Vietnam War do lasting harm of any kind to the ideals, let’s say, of Conant and General Education, or the idea even of the university as a place of reflection and quiet deliberation?
A: I think that, historically, the Vietnam War and its absurdities decreased the reign of authority in America. It was true in so many different ways. For example, I think a good deal of postmodernism in the arts and literature and philosophy, and structuralism, depends on the saying that there is no canon, there is no authority. A return to Nietzsche, at its extreme: Everything is equal to everything, and a matter of opinion.
Some people to this day are of course very happy with the loss of an authority that is often mishandled. Authority is not always benign, but at least it is a way of seeing the world and one’s place in it, and requires one to fight against it when necessary, as well. Authority does not have to be obeyed, but it has to be encountered.
Q: As a youth, you encountered an extreme kind of authority. What led you and Sonnert to study the fate and influence of European child émigrés in the United States?
A: As I said, I’m vulnerable to becoming preoccupied with researchable problems. And it seemed to me that there was [such] a problem in the fact that 30,000 or so children fled to the United States in the 1930s and very early ’40s, mostly through New York, coming usually with one suitcase, half of them not having any parents that they ever saw again. They were regarded, as at least one of the books said at that time, as a danger to society, because they would spin down into anomie and would just be a burden on the state.
But then I looked around at the list of people that I knew about who came out of this group, many of whom I had met, a highly achieving group when they grew up here.
So how did it happen? That was our research project. It took six years. We found about 2,000 former refugees to work on, including face-to-face interviews with 100 of them in different parts of the country.
The result, as you know from our book, “What Happened to the Children Who Fled Nazi Persecution” (2008), was rather astonishing: In terms of achievements, in terms of employment, in terms of education, and in terms of standard of living, on average, they vastly outperformed, both the boys and the girls, their native-born American equivalents, when we compare them.
That was in a way a celebration of America, and this was more easily possible during a time of a huge positive bubble, if you wish, or positive slope, for America after 1945. For example, the boys who had been drafted into the Army, technically enemy aliens, got a chance of GI Bill as a result.
It must also be said that there was a sieve at work. Those who made it had a lot of luck and pluck compared to those who didn’t. That has to be part of the equation.
Q: You first arrived at Harvard in 1943. Help us imagine what Harvard will be like in 2023.
A: That is very worth thinking about, particularly for somebody who has seen the changes over so many decades. And without extrapolating from them, without nostalgia, you have to put it into the present context. . . . Harvard is going to have many, many more students because of the online way of teaching. It will have students all over the world, something that even Derek Bok couldn’t have foreseen — how much more worldly Harvard is going to be than it already is. That is one of the givens.
The other side of that is that there will be very much less mentorship, because students will be in Appalachia, or India, or China, or Bangladesh.
Q: So that’s a worry.
A: Every institution has a soul. And Harvard has had a good track record for much of its existence when it comes to the quality of its soul. But it does not automatically transfer into the future.
It’s very important for everyone, particularly in this political period, to become aware that we, maybe undeservedly, are here just as a remarkably preserved slice from major vicissitudes. But as for the future, our institution is not immune from the possibility of large negative changes. So there is work to be done.
Interview was edited for clarity and length.