Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Fair Harvard Sixty Years Ago
By Andrew Preston Peabody (18111893)
[Born in Beverly, Mass., 1811. Died at Boston, Mass., 1893. Harvard Reminiscences. 1888.]
THE LAST sixty years can hardly have wrought greater changes, whether superficial or radical, anywhere else than in Harvard College. In my time a students room was remarkable chiefly for what it did not have,for the absence of all appliances of elegance and comfort, I might almost say, of all tokens of civilization. The feather-bedmattresses not having come into general usewas regarded as a valuable chattel; but ten dollars would have been a fair auction-price for all the other contents of an average room, which were a pine bedstead, washstand, table, and desk, a cheap rocking-chair, and from two to four other chairs of the plainest fashion, the bed furnishing seats when more were needed. I doubt whether any fellow-student of mine owned a carpet. A second-hand-furniture dealer had a few defaced and threadbare carpets, which he leased at an extravagant price to certain Southern members of the senior class; but even Southerners, though reputed to be fabulously rich, did not aspire to this luxury till the senior year. Coal was just coming into use, and had hardly found its way into college. The students roomsseveral of the recitation-rooms as wellwere heated by open wood-fires. Almost every room had, too, among its transmittenda, a cannon-ball supposed to have been derived from the arsenal, which on very cold days was heated to a red heat, and placed as a calorific radiant on a skillet, or on some extemporized metallic stand; while at other seasons it was often utilized by being rolled down-stairs at such time as might most nearly bisect a proctors night-sleep. Friction-matchesaccording to Faraday the most useful invention of our agewere not yet. Coals were carefully buried in ashes over night to start the morning fire; while in summer, as I have elsewhere said, the evening lamp could be lighted only by the awkward, and often baffling, process of striking fire with flint, steel, and tinder-box.
The students life was hard. Morning prayers were in summer at six; in winter, about half an hour before sunrise, in a bitterly cold chapel. Thence half of each class passed into the several recitation-rooms in the same building (University Hall), and three-quarters of an hour later the bell rang for a second set of recitations, including the remaining half of the students. Then came breakfast, which in the college commons consisted solely of coffee, hot rolls, and butter, except when the members of a mess had succeeded in pinning to the nether surface of the table, by a two-pronged fork, some slices of meat from the previous days dinner. Between ten and twelve every student attended another recitation or a lecture. Dinner was at half-past twelve,a meal not deficient in quantity, but by no means appetizing to those who had come from neat homes and well-ordered tables. There was another recitation in the afternoon, except on Saturday; then evening prayers at six, or in winter at early twilight; then the evening meal, plain as the breakfast, with tea instead of coffee, and cold bread, of the consistency of wool, for the hot rolls. After tea the dormitories rang with song and merriment till the study-bell, at eight in winter, at nine in summer, sounded the curfew for fun and frolic, proclaiming dead silence throughout the college premises, under penalty of a domiciliary visit from the officer of the entry, and, in case of a serious offence, of private or public admonition.
This was the life for five days of the week. On Sundays all the students were required to be in residence here, not excepting even those whose homes were in Boston; and all were required to attend worship twice each day at the college chapel. On Saturday alone was there permission to leave Cambridge, absence from town at any other time being a punishable offence. This weekly liberty was taken by almost every member of college, Boston being the universal resort; though seldom otherwise than on foot, the only public conveyance then being a two-horse stage-coach, which ran twice a day. But the holiday could not be indefinitely prolonged. The students who were not present at evening prayers were obliged by law to register their names with the regent before nine oclock, under a heavy penalty, which was seldom or never incurred; for the regents book was kept by his freshman, who could generally be coaxed or bribed to take no note of time.
The price of board in commons was a dollar and three-quarters, or, as was then the uniform expression, ten and sixpence. The dining-rooms were on the first floor of University Hall. College officers and graduates had a table on an elevated platform at the head of each room, and the students occupied the main floor in messes of from eight to ten. The round windows opening into the halls, and the shelves set in them, still remaining in some of these rooms, were designed for the convenience of waiters in bringing dishes from the kitchen in the basement. That kitchen, cooking for about two hundred persons, was the largest culinary establishment of which the New-England mind then had knowledge or conception, and it attracted curious visitors from the whole surrounding country; while the students felt in large part remunerated for coarse fare and rude service by their connection with a feeding-place that possessed what seemed to them world-wide celebrity. They were not the only dependents upon the college kitchen, but shared its viands with a half-score or more of swine, whose sties were close in the rear of the building, and with rats of abnormal size that had free quarters with the pigs. Board of a somewhat better quality was to be had at private houses for a slight advance on the college price; while two or three of the professors received select boarders at the then enormous charge of three dollars a week. This last arrangement, except when known to be peremptorily insisted on by some anxious parent, exposed a student to suspicion and unpopularity; and, if one of a professors boarders received any college honor, it was uniformly ascribed to undue influence catered for on the one side, and exerted on the other, in consequence of this domestic arrangement.
From what has just been said, it may be inferred that the relations between the faculty and the students were regarded, as has been already intimated, on one side at least, as those of mutual hostility. The students certainly considered the faculty as their natural enemies. There existed between the two parties very little of kindly intercourse, and that little generally secret. If a student went unsummoned to a teachers room, it was almost always by night. It was regarded as a high crime by his class for a student to enter a recitation-room before the ringing of the bell, or to remain to ask a question of the instructor; and even one who was uniformly first in the class-room would have had his way to Coventry made easy. The professors, as well as the parietal officers, performed police duty as occasion seemed to demand; and in case of a general disturbance, which was not infrequent, the entire faculty were on the chase for offenders,a chase seldom successful; while their unskilled manuvres in this uncongenial service were wont to elicit, not so much silent admiration, as shouts of laughter and applause, which they strove in vain to trace to their source.
The recitations were mere hearings of lessons, without comment or collateral instruction. They were generally heard in quarter-sections of a class, the entire class containing from fifty to sixty members. The custom was to call on every student in the section at every recitation. Each teacher was supposed to have some system, according to which he arranged the order of his daily calls. Some, like Dr. Popkin, openly adopted the direct, some the inverse, alphabetical order, some the two alternately. As for the key to the order adopted by the others respectively, there were, generally, conflicting theories, the maintenance of which brought into play a keenness of calculation and a skilful manipulation of data fully adequate to the solving of deeply involved algebraic equations. Of course, the endeavornot always unsuccessfulwas to determine what part of a lesson it was necessary for each individual student to prepare.
The leading feature of the college at that time was the rich provision made for courses of lectures. It may be doubted whether so many lecturers of an exceptionally high order have ever, at any one time, been brought together in the service of an American college .
As regards the amount of study and of actual attainment, it was, I think, much greater with the best scholars of each class, much less with those of a lower grade, than now. I doubt whether such students as used to constitute the fourth quarter of a class could now reach the sophomore year. A youth who was regular in his habits, and who made some sort of an answer, however wide of the mark, at half of his recitations, commonly obtained his degree, though his college-life might have been interpolated by an annual three-months suspension for negligence. But the really good scholar gave himself wholly to his work. He had no distractions, no outside society, no newspapers, no legal possibility of an evening in Boston, no probable inducement to spend an hour elsewhere than within college-walls, and not even easy access to the college library. Consequently, there remained for him nothing but hard study; and there were some in every class whose hours of study were not less than sixty a week.
The range of study was much less extensive than now. Natural history did not then even profess to be a science, and received very little attention. Chemistry, under auspices which one does not like to recall, occupied, and utterly wasted, a small portion of the senior year. French and Spanish were voluntary studies, or rather recreations; for the recitation-room of the kind-hearted septuagenarian, who had these languages in charge, was frequented more for amusement than for anything that was taught or learned. Italian and German were studied in good earnest by a very few volunteers. There was a great deal of efficient work in the department of philosophy; and the writing of English could not have been cared for more faithfully, judiciously, and fruitfully, than by Professor Channing. But the chief labor and the crowning honor of successful scholarship were in mathematics and the classics. The mathematical course extended through the entire four years; embracing the differential calculus, the mathematical treatment of all departments of physical science then studied, and a thoroughly mathematical treatise on astronomy. In Greek and Latin, the aim, as has been already stated, was not so much to determine grammatical inflections and construction, as to reach the actual meaning of the author in hand, and to render his thought into perspicuous and elegant English. This aim was attained, I think, to a high degree in Latin; and with the faithful and searching study of the Latin text, there grew up inevitably the sort of instinctive knowledge of Latin grammar, which one conversant with the best English writers acquires of English grammar, without formal study. Such grammatical tact and skill were acquired by a respectable number of Latin scholars in every class; and the number was by no means small of those who then formed a life-long taste for Latin literature, and the capacity of reading it with all desirable ease and fluency. Greek, for reasons given in my sketch of Dr. Popkin, was studied with much greater difficulty, and, when with similar, with much less satisfactory and valuable, results. The best scholars were often discouraged in the pursuit of knowledge under hindrances so grave, and had resort to contraband methods of preparation, which required little labor, and were of no permanent benefit.