Harvard President Biography Puts Today’s Headlines in Perspective

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/10/03/harvard-president-biography-puts-todays-headlines-in-perspective/

Sometimes the best way to understand the news is to put down the newspaper, or cellphone, or close the Internet browser, and pick up a history book.

It has a way of putting things in perspective.

Jennet Conant’s new book, Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, was my weekend company recently.

I had picked it up thinking that the biography of Conant, who was president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953, might offer some ideas about Harvard itself, which is in the early stages of a search for a new president, and which has been in the headlines lately in connection with some recent hires. Sure enough, Conant’s idea of focus on “men, not buildings” in the aftermath of a president who had overseen a construction boom might be worth discovering anew.

But the insights of Conant and the people of his era, and their relevance to today’s challenges, extend well beyond the specifics of university management.

Man of the Hour quotes a 1915 article by Theodore Roosevelt in the Harvard Advocate, a student publication, denouncing “peace-at-any-price” pacifists as cowards, whose “place is with the college sissy who disapproves of football or boxing because it is rough.” A hundred years ago, research on the effects of football on the brain had not advanced to present levels. But the issue was nonetheless a live one, even then.

In a March 1940 speech adapted into an Atlantic magazine article headlined “Education for a Classless Society,” Conant warned about declining “social mobility.”

As a solution, he rejected “a radical equalization of wealth at any given moment,” preferring instead “a more equitable distribution of opportunity for all the children of the land.”

In a follow-up Atlantic article, the 1943 “Wanted:  American Radicals,” Conant spoke admiringly of an American radical who “believes in equality of opportunity, not equality of rewards; but, on the other hand, he will be lusty in wielding the axe against the root of inherited privilege.” 

In the same article, Conant bemoaned “the waves of distorted facts and beguiling half-truths with which our eyes and ears are daily saturated.” The “fake news” of the era?

In a 17-page letter to Thomas W. Lamont, a Harvard alumnus and donor who had complained about the 1943 Atlantic article, Conant warned that “the clash between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ will destroy freedom in the postwar world unless a majority of the American people believe in the reality of the American dream — equal opportunity for all,” regardless of “accidents of geography and birth.”

Though Conant wanted to expand access to college to those from nonprivileged backgrounds, he also “did not believe everyone should attend a four-year college and was a staunch supporter of junior colleges and vocational programs,” the book reports.

Jennet Conant is James Bryant Conant’s granddaughter. She uses her status as a family insider to air some sad family history — the suicides of two siblings of James Conant’s wife, and the mental illness and physical deterioration of one of his sons. 

The author also probes her grandfather’s “unrepentant” views about the use of the atomic bomb that he helped to develop as a U.S. government scientific adviser during World War II. Nuclear weapons are in the news again now because of North Korea.

And the book recounts Franklin Roosevelt’s visit to Harvard’s tercentenary celebration. Roosevelt reminded the crowd that a hundred years ago, Andrew Jackson was president, and Harvard alumni, celebrating the university’s 200th birthday, were “sorely troubled concerning the state of the nation.” Fifty years ago, Grover Cleveland was president, and “alumni were again sorely troubled.” Roosevelt concluded, “Now on the three hundredth anniversary, I am president ….”

The audience laughed. President Donald Trump could make the same joke today.

The point is that all these issues Conant and those of his time were grappling with — social mobility, college access, distorted facts, football, mental health, the atom bomb, Harvard alumni being worried about the state of the nation — are still with us, almost a century later.

Dealing with them isn’t necessarily hopeless. Conant climbed mountains for fun on his vacations. He helped defeat the Nazis, widen access to college education, and unleash the power of the atom. He would be the last to counsel despair.

But they aren’t easy issues, either. One would be wise to temper expectations about rapid progress.

The best chance for advances made or problems solved may come from the view Conant sketched in the interview that, in the book’s telling, won him the Harvard presidency. He complained that the faculty was being filled with “mediocre men.” Now, as then, a strong stance against mediocrity risks offending people. But it may be precisely what both Harvard and the country need.


Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.