Even in academe, the pendulum returns

November 28, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- In the spring of 1973, the Harvard Crimson asked Elliott Perkins, a recently-retired professor from the Class of 1923, to write a little memoir about how the university had changed in the 50 years since he graduated. And so he did.

His perspective was really longer than 50 years, for his father had been in the Class of 1891, and he'd grown up hearing Harvard stories about those days, which in some respects seem farther away from 1923 than 1923 does from 1973.

In the 1890s, for example, although central heating and indoor plumbing were certainly available to those who could afford them, they were considered comforts and ''conveniences,'' not necessities. Most Harvard undergraduates lived in rooms heated only by fireplaces. Rich students who wanted more amenities had to rent lodging off the campus.

But by Professor Perkins' time, Harvard had installed electric lights, central heat and modern plumbing. (There was also maid service for all the rooms, a practice that lingered, believe it or not, into the 1950s.) The automobile was well-established in Cambridge by 1923, even though there were no traffic lights there yet, and the subway to Boston ended at Harvard Square.

About 100 women graduated in 1923 from Radcliffe, Harvard's still-tentative experiment in the education of females. They had matriculated in the fall of 1919, the year Congress sent the 19th amendment to the states for the ratification that would give women the vote, and they were a serious and determined group.

More than half of the Radcliffe Class of '23 went on to graduate study, mostly in law and medicine. By an interesting contrast, a far smaller proportion of the class graduating in 1948, 25 years later, was interested in professional education. That may have had something to do with the war, or with the fact that by 1948 college education for women no longer seemed such a rare and special opportunity that it absolutely had to be put to its highest and best use.

By the time he retired from Harvard in 1969, a year when a great many American institutions seemed to be dissolving like sandcastles at the edge of a turbulent sea, Elliott Perkins had become known as conservative, at least within the Cambridge context. He alluded to that indirectly in his 1973 comments for the Crimson.

Experience to be lived

''To me, and to a long line of successors,'' he wrote, ''Harvard was an experience to be lived, and to be lived traditionally.'' But by that watershed year of 1969, it had become something different, ''an opportunity to be exploited, and tradition was irrelevant. Where we had come to be educated, they had come to get an education. It was interesting, and puzzling, to watch.''

I didn't know Professor Perkins, who is no longer living, but I was reminded of his comments last week when I was in Cambridge in order to visit, among other people, his nephew, who was also my college roommate. And I thought of how, over time, the tides of change slowly wash over even the greatest of institutions and alter them profoundly, but not necessarily permanently.

By the late '60s and early '70s, Harvard and other elite American universities had become, to outsiders as well as to some veteran insiders like Elliott Perkins, very different places than they had been only a few years earlier. They were not traditional, they were vociferously anti-traditional. They were not intellectually inquiring, but intellectually tyrannical.

But just as campuses changed dramatically from 1923 to 1948, and again from 1948 to 1973, they are still changing, and by the end of the century in fewer than 40 months they won't be the places they might have been predicted to be 25 or 50 years ago.

It would sadden the students to hear it said, probably, but to 55-year-old eyes, the majority of them today look more, well, normal than they did 25 years back. And while the tide of militant political correctness is still high, it has quite obviously begun to recede.

The ideological commissars on the faculty now tend to be gray-haired, and more students than ever mock their rigidities and join groups advocating less-than-correct philosophies. The '60s and '70s couldn't sterilize the academic soil forever; even at Harvard University, such perceived weeds as pro-life groups and Republican clubs can be found today springing up exuberantly, to the fading older generation's dismay.

A century ago, Elliott Perkins '23 recalled, Harvard students sang a song that went: . . . the Seniors line up at Commencement,/ Like ducklings in a row,/ And their eyes as they stare before them/ Look like pee holes in the snow./ And the Corporation murmurs,/ ''Place's going to hell, you know./ Things aren't the way they used to be/ Just 50 years ago.''

Some traditions don't die, even if they go into hibernation for a while. And that's cause for thanksgiving, which, come to think of it, is why I started writing about all this in the first place.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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