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Why Don't Harvard Graduates Join the Military Anymore?

An important subplot in Harvard’s Civil War: The History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (UPNE, 2005) was the issue of why Northern elites, especially the cultural, commercial and old Federalist elites of Massachusetts, supported the Union during the Civil War. Many in these intertwined classes vehemently opposed the Lincoln administration. By their lights, it stood guilty of mismanaging the war, suspending civil liberties, and eventually including abolition as a war aim. Yet despite the availability of draft avoidance techniques such as foreign travel and the $300 exemption (chump change to most of these families), when war came many willingly sacrificed their most precious assets—their children—to the Federal cause. Using Harvard credentials as a stand-in for class membership, 578 officers and men with Crimson connections served in the Federal army. Of these, approximately 30 percent became combat casualties—killed-in-action, mortally or seriously wounded. If deaths from disease are included, Harvard’s overall casualty rate rose to over 36 percent. The best indication of Harvard’s commitment to the war is found in the percentages of the eve-of-war graduating classes that served in the Federal army and navy: 42 percent of the Class of 1859, 55 percent of the Class of 1860, and 68 percent of the Class of 1861.

As I wrote this book our country became engaged in a war against Islamic terrorism. Like most historians, I use my best efforts to excise any presentism from what aspires to be a strictly historical work; admittedly, the temptation to write a “useful” history was strong as I was repeatedly struck by the sharp contrasts between the 1860s Massachusetts upper classes and today’s cultural elites whose almost monolithic opposition to the war on terror—as well as every other war since and including Vietnam—has become virtually reflexive. The issue was doubly interesting because of my belief that today’s Harvard, like so many nationally-ranked American universities, has become something like a spendthrift heir, living off prestige—of the intellectual and moral variety—inherited from its ancestors, of which the Civil War generation is one of the most important.

Consider the distance between the Harvard of 1865, 1945 and 2005. Before the Civil War had ended proposals circulated to build a memorial to Harvard’s fallen, whose obituaries filled the newspapers. This sentiment eventually produced Memorial Hall. And more recent graduates have answered their country’s call—the columns of Memorial Church are inscribed with the names of 695 university-connected dead from World War II. Yet today, Harvard’s “sacred soil” refuses to bear an ROTC program (interested students must commute to MIT) and the law school agreed to allow recruiters on campus only after its federal contracts with the Pentagon were put in jeopardy. Today, it’s the military’s policy on homosexuals; in the past, it was the Vietnam War. In 2005 the disconnection between Harvard and the military is virtually complete—even if the university wanted to honor recent graduate-veterans, it would have relatively few to name. And what is true of Harvard is equally true for a cultural elite of which Harvard University is emblematic.

One reason for this is the distance that Harvard has traveled from an American public to which it was once vitally connected. During the first six decades of the nineteenth century Harvard arguably contributed more to American culture than any single institution, save the churches and government—and Harvard contributed substantially to both of these. Cultural icons, a usable past, respected histories, national myths, heroes, villains, poetry, novels, theology, political reform, legal theories, scientific discoveries and medical advances poured forth from a wide variety of Harvard-connected men, many of whose names were household words throughout nineteenth century America. Poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier; historians Jared Sparks, John Gorham Palfrey, George Bancroft, and Francis Parkman; legal theorists Emory Washburn, Joseph Story, Lemuel Shaw and Joel Parker, physicians Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (also poet and writer), Jacob Bigelow, and Jeffries Wyman; scientists E.N. Horsford, Asa Gray and Louis and Alexander Agassiz—to name a very few.

What are striking about many of these names are the intimate connections between Harvard and what today would be dismissively termed “popular” (read American) culture. Examples include James Russell Lowell’s enormously popular Bigelow Papers, Holmes’s The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and almost any of Longfellow’s poems; Sparks’s Life of Washington, Palfrey’s History of New England, Bancroft’s History of the United States and Parkman’s The California and Oregon Trail, could all be found on the bookshelves of the middle class as well as in the Boston Athenaeum. When the war came their families contributed their relations, including Longfellow’s nephew, Holmes’s son, three of Lowell’s nephews, Harvard’s Instructor of German, its Professor of Engineering, and a crowd of hoary New England names including Reveres, Paines, Crowninshields, Ropes, Bigelows, Dwights, Welds, and Masons. Arguably, at this time Harvard was never more relevant to America’s life; the university was just as likely to produce soldiers for America’s wars, as it was doctors, lawyers, businessmen and citizens for America at peace. (The soldiers also included a reported 257 Harvardians who served in the Confederate army.)

The Paradox

But there is a paradox about Harvard’s antebellum relevance. At no time in modern times was Harvard less diverse, less meritocratic, and a less stimulating place to learn. Classes often consisted of recitations; daily chapel attendance was compulsory, and a complex grading system that combined personal behavior with academic performance determined rank. Class snobbery was pervasive; Boston newspapers frequently inveighed against the cruelty of Harvard’s hazing rituals. Periodic student rebellions were legendary; students’ records reveal that individual rebellions were even more frequent. Nevertheless, this deeply flawed system somehow managed to produce not only graduates who volunteered for a duty that after 1861 was understood to be quite dangerous, but also produced generations of American leaders in the arts, sciences and government.

The paradox is sharpened by another consideration, almost unthinkable in our more narcissistic time: since most of the Harvard volunteers were drawn from deeply conservative backgrounds of Cotton Whigs, Democrats, and old Federalists, they remained bitterly opposed to the Lincoln administration. In letters home many of these soldier-boys fulminated against the administration’s mismanagement of the war, which they blamed for the heaps of corpses (which included those of many classmates) strewn on every battlefield. They lauded Gen. George B. McClellan as a fellow gentleman, counted as friends (and former classmates) many Southerners who served the Confederacy. Yet these men remained in service even after their beloved McClellan was sacked, and emancipation became a war aim. Despite disagreements as profound as any experienced by today’s dissenters, they felt a general duty to support their democratically elected government.

I believe that the paradox is partially explained in the 1860 edition of the Statutes and Laws of Harvard College. Admission to Harvard required a test but also “a good moral character, certified in writing.” Once admitted, the Statutes expressed the hope that “the students may be influenced to good conduct and diligence in study by higher motives than the fear of punishment; and they mainly rely, for the success of the institution as a place of liberal education, on moral and religious principle, a sense of duty, and the generous feelings which belong to young men engaged in honorable pursuits.” The Harvard Faculty, according to the Statutes, was responsible for morals as well as academics, “to enforce the observance of all laws and regulations for maintaining discipline, promoting order, virtue, piety, and good learning in the institution.” What this amounted to was character education. And what lent force to the Statutes was that the values they articulated—good moral character, virtue, piety, good learning—were shared, either in practice or with lip service, by most Americans.

In the 1950s, Harvard President James Conant laudably placed admission to Harvard on a more meritocratic basis as measured by grades and test scores. Why then has Harvard deteriorated so much in prestige among its fellow Americans? Part of the answer is the abandonment by Harvard (and other universities) of any responsibility for character education. University enforced personal discipline was virtually scrapped along with the parietal rules; despite its avid pursuit of “diversity,” the university has created an intellectual version of Fortress Harvard, whose surrounding moat keeps out offending opinion. Within its walls, the university hosts behavior that most Americans find baffling—grade inflation remains rampant because a college that once set the standard can no longer set standards for itself; celebrity faculty plagiarize to winks and nods while students can be expelled for the same offense; Harvard students pose for and sell online pornography and justify their profit making enterprise with the usual appeals to free speech while a Harvard president is nearly sacked for exercising the same right—but on a forbidden topic. (He ultimately saves his job by tossing millions at the interests which threatened him.) Thus is Harvard’s moral authority squandered as the university transitions from leadership to public spectacle.

To retain its exalted position any elite must ultimately base its status on a utilitarian premise—it is accorded the right to lead because it is able and willing to lead. The Harvard of 1861-1865 demonstrated anew, as it had during the American Revolution that it could produce a class fit to lead. By contrast, at today’s Harvard, the endowment swells as its moral authority shrinks. The university’s disconnection from the “Common Defense” is symbolic of Harvard’s larger alienation from American life. If Harvard plans to become something more than a mutual fund with students attached, it cannot have things both ways—it can continue its march to the margins or it can lead—but it cannot do both.