This field is a university because we said so

Engraving of Harvard College by Paul Revere, 1767 (Wikipedia)

It’s easy to poke fun at Harvard. When I was at UT Austin we used to call it “the UT of the North”. Not, you understand, from any sense of insecurity. But however that may be, I want to tip my mortarboard today to its first graduating class… on September 23, 1642. That was fast.

Well, in some ways not. Harvard was actually founded in 1636 so the six-year BA is evidently not entirely a 20th-century slacker invention. But what was fast, bold and inspiring was that the first major wave of settlers only arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, Puritans fleeing Charles I’s dissolution of Parliament and effort to impose Laud’s Liturgy on the church.

Six years later they started a university that not only still stands, it towers. Everybody has heard of Haaaavaaaad and not just in the United States.

Now I said it was bold. And I mean partly because when the “Great and General Court,” the precursor to the Massachusetts legislature, voted the thing into existence in 1636 it didn’t have any students. Or professors. Or buildings. Though in 1638 it did acquire the first known printing press in North America. But it was bold in a much deeper and arguably equally reckless sense.

The Great and General Court had no formal authority to establish a university. In Britain you needed permission from on high. But the settlers figured that as Englishmen they were free and would do as they liked.

I have a lot of problems with Puritans including their feeling that freedom to do as you liked included freedom of communities to meddle in the affairs of individuals. (The “visible saints” of early New England are still highly visible in the mavens of PC today.) But I do like their devotion to individual initiative and the right of citizens to manage their own affairs.

I even like their devotion to education. Even if I still laugh at the joke about the Texas freshman at Harvard going up to a senior reading Nietzche under a tree and saying “’Scuze me, where’s the library at?” only to be favoured with a withering glare and a haughty, “My dear fellow, this is Haaavaaad, and at Haaavaaad we do not end sentences with prepositions.”

“Oh. Thanks. Where’s the library at, you jerk?”