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Harvard University: The Birth of America's Higher Learning

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The History of Harvard University

Today, Harvard is known as one of the most, if not the most, prestigious universities in the country and worldwide. Harvard University is also the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Its history stems from nearly 400 years ago, when the university was founded in October 28, 1636.

Early Puritanical Beginnings

Harvard was founded initially to provide training for clergymen due to the influx of Puritan immigrants in the sixteenth century to New England. The university was born from the vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Initially called “New College”, the university was renamed to “Harvard College”. Its namesake was given after John Harvard, a Puritan, donated his library and a large portion of his estate to the university.


In the 1600s, there was conflict within the university regarding its religious affiliation. Such conflict first began with the inception of Harvard College’s first president Henry Dunster, who chose to follow the Baptist faith rather than Puritanism in 1654. The colony’s Puritan leaders disapproved of his religious approach and fought to restore the college’s religious affinity to Puritanism.


Increase Mather, a Puritan, became president of Harvard in 1692. He restored Christian ideologies into the institution by replacing pagan books and requiring students to prove their knowledge and understanding of the Old and New Testament. Half of the graduates became ministers, and most of the presidents were ministers as well.


During the initial years of Harvard College, the town of Cambridge provided economic support and order on campus. Also, the local Puritans oversaw Harvard’s educational operations. However, by 1700, Harvard was able to self-regulate, a well as provide support to the local area’s infrastructure improvements. The level of support the town provided to Harvard College diminished, and the level was arguably reversed towards aiding the local areas in healthcare, transportation and education.


After Mather’s presidency ended in 1701, Harvard College began to become increasingly secular, moving away from its initial Puritanical affiliation. John Leverett became Harvard’s first secular president in 1708. Although the curriculum was held intact, Harvard was independent of any particular religious affiliation.

Harvard University Presidents 1829-1862

Harvard University Presidents 1829-1862

Addition of Graduate Schools

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Harvard began to expand its education program beyond its offering of bachelor’s degrees. In 1782, Harvard founded the Massachusetts Medical College. It was the third-oldest medical school in the United States. The medical college was initially located in Cambridge, but relocated to Boston in 1810. Harvard’s medical school developed a strong reputation over the twentieth century for its scientific research.


In 1817, Harvard Law School was established. The school was the oldest law school in the United States that operated continuously. The belief in a need for meritocracy and public service aided the school’s reputation. Still, enrolment was low because of the little value that was perceived at the time for legal practice. However, such a concept changed in 1870 under the guidance of Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell, who set a national standard for the new curriculum that was copied nation wide. The case method of teaching law adopted over the traditional lecture method, since the former used the inductive method and provided a sound theoretical basis in scientific research. The Association of American Law Schools promoted the case method in law schools.


Harvard further divided its faculty into departments and included more graduate programs including the PhD. Such programs were influenced by the German model of higher educational institutions. Harvard’s then-president Charles William Eliot set up the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1890.


Harvard Business School, now esteemed as a top business school worldwide, was founded in 1908. From the beginning, the school has had a close relationship with corporation. The Harvard Business School had notable business alumni within a few years of inception, who then returned to the school to hire other alumni.

Harvard University Campus

From Newfound College to Institutional Powerhouse

The Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century gave rise to the ideas of reasoning and logic, placing tension between the more liberal Congregationalist ministers and traditional Calvinists. When Samuel Webber was appointed as president in 1807, this influenced Harvard from its traditions to a more liberal institution.


In the mid-1800s, Harvard became a “privatized” college. This affect the school’s funding when Democractic-Republicans blocked state funding of private universities. Consequently, Harvard’s board of overseers changed from politicians and ministers to Harvard alumni that were Boston’s affluent businessmen and professionals. As a private college, Harvard’s private endowment grew and allowed Harvard to create a large fund, unlike any other university in the United States. Harvard became known as the university to send one’s children for all the advantages it could offer.


Although Harvard was a school that educated mainly wealthy Protestants in the Boston area, it was at the same time more liberal than Princeton and Yale in terms of ethnic diversity. Richard Theodore Greener was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard College in 1870.

Education in the Modern Era

Harvard’s reputation continued to growth in the twentieth century as it increased its endowment funds and attracted prominent professors. The school continued to expand its undergraduate and graduate programs.


Harvard College’s sister school Radcliffe College was founded in 1879 as a prominent school for women in the United States. Specialized research centers were created to bring in funding and perform research in a vast array of areas.


James Bryant Conant, Harvard president from 1933 to 1953, viewed education as a means of providing opportunity to those with talent as opposed to wealth. He set up programs that would identify and attracted talented students. Conant implemented a devised curriculum that focused more emphasis on general education at the undergraduate level. Such a curriculum would resonate and influence American curriculum amongst other universities.


After World War II, Harvard changed its admissions policies to attract students from more diverse backgrounds. Now, there were increasing numbers of international and working-class students, compared to the previously dominant New England upper-class students. Women were gradually admitted to Harvard’s graduate schools since the late nineteenth century. For the first time, both males and females attended classes together during World War II. Radcliff and Harvard reached a series of agreements, until Radcliff formally merged with Harvard University in 1999.


Today, Harvard University attracts bright students from within the United States and around the world, purposely creating a diverse student body so that its students may learn from one another’s experiences.



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