James Conant
James Conant; drawing by David Levine


James Bryant Conant was made president of Harvard in 1933, when he was forty. He had been a professor of chemistry, and was sufficiently untested as an administrator to have been passed over, not long before, by his own high school, Roxbury Latin, during its search for a new headmaster. But he proved an active and modernizing educator. Conant had supervised the production of a poison gas (never used) called lewisite during World War I, and shortly after the outbreak of World War II, he was invited to join a government body created to oversee scientific contributions to military research. In 1941, he was appointed head of a subgroup known as S-1, which was the code name for the atomic bomb, thus becoming the chief civilian administrator of American nuclear research and, eventually, a principal figure in the decision to drop the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. He continued to play a role in the articulation of nuclear policy after the war, and in 1953 left Harvard to become Eisenhower’s high commissioner, later ambassador, to Germany. After his return to the United States, in 1957, he undertook a series of widely circulated studies of public education, underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation. In 1965, his health began to fail, and he gradually withdrew from public life. My Several Lives, an autobiography notable for its reticence, appeared in 1970. He died in 1978.

It’s a career that touches on many areas—science, government, education, the cold war, the national security state, the politics of the atom. But it doesn’t touch on that many areas, and it is a little disheartening to pick up James Hershberg’s book on Conant, which runs to nearly a thousand pages, and read, on page seven, the words, “I have not attempted a full biography.” The impulse is to respond, “I’ll just wait for the full one, then,” but the thought is stifled by the prospect of a volume even more massive.

Hershberg’s disclaimer is not, as it turns out, quite accurate. James B. Conant is a full biography; it’s just an unevenly proportioned one, and this is the consequence of the project’s genesis. It began as Hershberg’s senior thesis, at Harvard, on Conant’s role in nuclear policy from 1939 to 1947, which then developed into Hershberg’s doctoral dissertation, at Tufts, on Conant’s role in nuclear policy from 1945 to 1950. These rather specialized studies constitute the core of the present book, to which the material needed to make it presentable as a life has been added: the story of Conant’s service as postwar emissary to Germany, which is fairly detailed, and an account of his work as an educational administrator and policy-maker, which is cursory.

Well, relatively cursory. For although Hershberg has many strengths as a historian, concision is not among them; and it is hard not to feel that a more succinct account of the nuclear Conant, together with a more informative (and also succinct) account of the educational Conant, would have made for a superior book. It’s not a question of doing justice to the chronology of Conant’s life; it’s a question of doing justice to its meaning. For Conant’s educational philosophy—which, since it was the educational philosophy of the president of Harvard University, once commanded a large and attentive audience—and Conant’s political philosophy were reciprocal things. Conant believed that admissions policy was a weapon in the battle against communism; and he believed that the existence of a Communist state in possession of nuclear bombs was a factor in the formulation of admissions policy.

Hershberg is perfectly aware of this connection. But (as he more or less confesses) he isn’t particularly interestedin the admissions side of the business, and this is, I think, because he underappreciates the extent to which American educational doctrine in the postwar period was just as historically conditioned as American military doctrine, and no more inevitable or permanent. The educational views of people like Conant rose to prominence at the beginning of the cold war, and their authority began to dissipate around the time of its demise. Those views had as much effect on life in the bipolar world as big defense contracts did. Conant helped to create the atomic bomb; he also helped to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Americans born after 1945 were raised in the shadow of both.

Conant was not, on the evidence of Hershberg’s book and of his own writings, an especially colorful character. He seems to have cultivated, even as a Harvard undergraduate, the personal style dictated by the First Commandment of university presidency: Offend no one. He liked committees; he liked to chair committees; and when he wasn’t being invited to serve on or to chair someone else’s committee, he was likely to be starting up a committee of his own. In a time when consensus was the official face of public policy, he was the consummate stage manager of consensus.


He was therefore much more successful as an administrator than as a politician: he preferred to work his will anonymously, and the prospect of public division invariably made him pull in his horns. If he was compelled to cast a vote on a controversial matter, he took every care to keep his ballot a secret one—a cautiousness that could sometimes be ridiculous. In 1961, the journalist Carl T. Rowan was nominated to join the very establishmentarian Cosmos Club, in Washington, DC. Conant, as a longtime Washington insider, belonged to the Cosmos, and he agreed to write a letter on Rowan’s behalf. Rowan would have been the club’s first black member; when he was rejected by the admissions committee, in 1962, there was an embarrassing public scandal, in which some distinguished gentlemen threatened to resign and some equally distinguished gentlemen vowed to stay on and fight segregation “from within.”

Conant, Hershberg tells us, was tortured by indecision: when the ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, took opposing stands, what was the ex-president of Harvard to do? He was deeply relieved when the matter was resolved, by a vote of the membership in favor of nondiscrimination, before he had to declare his own position. In 1962, Conant was no longer a Harvard official; he was no longer a public official; he believed in racial integration wholeheartedly. But the thought of breaking ranks made him miserable. This was not a man well-equipped to face the 1960s.

The two-word ideological gloss on Conant is “liberal anti-Communist,” but he was a liberal anti-Communist of a particular mid-century stripe—one of those high establishment figures for whom, at the deepest level, “liberal anticommunism” was an oxymoron. Liberalism is about the tolerance of ideas and practices; anticommunism, as Conant interpreted it, is about the intolerance of one idea and one practice. These views can co-exist much of the time; but at certain moments the anticommunism asks the liberalism for a concession, and then a conflict comes into view, and the liberalism is in danger of being trumped, if ever so hesitantly and apologetically, by the anticommunism. Hershberg is exceptionally good—it is the principal excellence of his book—at discovering these moments in Conant’s career. He discovers a lot of them, and examines them intelligently. Two are especially interesting.

The first has to do with the bomb. In 1945, Conant became a member of the Interim Committee (“so-named,” says Hershberg, “to forestall congressional charges of executive usurpation of authority”), which had been formed to advise Truman on atomic issues. On May 31, the issue was the use of the bomb against Japan. According to the minutes: “At the suggestion of Dr. Conantthe Secretary [of War, Henry L. Stimson] agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.” Conant’s suggestion became, of course, atomic reality. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, Nagasaki on August 9 (before Japanese officials had had time to inspect the damage from the Hiroshima explosion). There were 300,000 casualties. On August 14, Japan surrendered.

Conant seems never to have doubted that the destruction, without warning, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the wisest thing to do, and he never publicly expressed regret for it afterward (though Conant’s grandchildren told Hershberg they remember him admitting privately, very late in life, that the Nagasaki bomb had been a “mistake”). Tactically, the decision involved a calculation, subsequently much disputed, about the number of lives it would have cost to win the war by conventional means (which would undoubtedly have included the continued firebombing of Japanese cities). But Conant’s reasoning wasn’t only tactical. He was given to geopolitical speculation anyway, and as one of the few people privy to knowledge about the bomb from the inception of the nuclear program, he had had plenty of time to contemplate its usefulness in strategic terms.

The consideration that dominated his long-term thinking was the need for international control of atomic weapons. Conant believed that unless the American government was willing, after the war, to share nuclear information with the other powers, and to submit to the authority of an international atomic energy commission, it would sooner or later find itself engaged in a ruinous arms race. (Conant’s friend J. Robert Oppenheimer believed the same thing; they were right about the arms race.) But Conant also believed that unless the American public was convinced, by some kind of demonstration, of the bomb’s terrible power, it could never be persuaded to accede to international regulation, for it would be unable to imagine what an indiscriminate holocaust a nuclear war would inevitably be. He may have thought, too, although here the evidence is not so clear, that the Soviets, while still without a bomb of their own, required a similar demonstration to draw them to the arms control bargaining table.


Was Conant’s advice to bomb Hiroshima therefore influenced by a desire to show the world, by the instantaneous incineration of several hundred thousand Japanese citizens, how monstrous a weapon he had helped to produce? And was the decision of the administration as a whole dictated by a desire to impress the Soviets, with a view either to persuading them to agree to international atomic regulation, or to chilling any postwar expansionist intentions they might have harbored?

It must be said that Hershberg’s guidance on these questions is not altogether satisfactory. The story of the decision to use the bomb has been his greatest research interest, and this is therefore the richest section of his book; but it is also the densest. On the one hand, he appears to credit revisionist historians, such as Gar Alperovitz, who have suggested that future relations with the Soviet Union were in the minds of the men who decided to use the bomb against Japan. But he cites very little in the way of written evidence to support this claim, and he concedes that the Interim Committee’s decision-making was dominated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible and with the least loss of life. In Conant’s case, Hershberg trails his coat a bit, sometimes seeming to suggest that Conant was motivated fairly directly by his “demonstration” logic, and even by thoughts about postwar relations with the Soviets. But his single definitive piece of evidence comes from after the war.

In 1946, Conant thought he perceived the beginnings of a backlash against the bomb—something he feared, because he felt it could lead to atomic paralysis on the part of the American public, and therefore to an end to any strategic usefulness the bomb might have.If we couldn’t bring ourselves to drop the bomb, what was the advantage of having it? John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which appeared in the New Yorker on August 31, 1946, is the best-known sign of this backlash, but there were rumblings elsewhere, as well, and Conant felt obliged to orchestrate a response. True to form, he kept his own role hidden, and Hershberg is the first historian to have uncovered it.

The response Conant conjured up was the famous article by Stimson (then retired) called “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” which was published in Harper’s in February 1947. Stimson introduced the article as “an exact description of our thoughts and actions as I find them in the records and in my clear recollection”; but it was in fact, as Hershberg shows, an exact description of some of the Truman administration’s thoughts and actions, and a few of the recollections were Conant’s.

The piece was initiated entirely by Conant, who got (as was his custom) an intermediary, Harvey Bundy, to persuade Stimson to write it. In his letter to Bundy, Conant expressed dismay at the argument he saw being circulated that the decision to drop the bomb was immoral, and said he felt no cause to second-guess his reasoning as a member of the Interim Committee, which was that the use of the bomb was justified “on the grounds (1) that I believed it would shorten the war against Japan, and (2) that unless actually used in battle there was no chance of convincing the American public and the world that it should be controlled by international agreement.” (This is as much of this passage as Hershberg quotes.) There is ample evidence that Conant continued to use this ex post facto argument to defend the Interim Committee’s decision; but the letter to Bundy seems to have been the only place in which he acknowledged that the desire to provide an admonitory example was a factor in his own thinking at the time. Still, it is a striking admission.

Stimson accepted his assignment reluctantly: “I have rarely been connected with a paper about which I have so much doubt at the last moment,” he complained to Felix Frankfurter. The article was ghosted by Bundy’s son McGeorge, who presented his drafts to Conant for editorial advice—which was, according to Hershberg, extensive, and which included the insertion of a passage written by Conant himself. Specifically, Conant was insistent that a discussion about modifying surrender terms to permit Japan to retain the emperor be deleted (it “diverts one’s mind from the general line of argumentation,” as he put it), and that the article be couched not as an argument against nonmilitary alternatives, but as the neutral account of a decision dictated solely by military needs.

As, in the end, it was: “No man, in our position,” it concludes, “and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibility for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.”1 There is no explanation for the second bomb; the Soviet Union, needless to say, is never mentioned.2

Henry Stimson had been secretary of war in the administration of William Howard Taft, secretary of state under Hoover, secretary of war under Roosevelt and Truman. There was no more credible witness, and “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” stood, as Hershberg says, “for almost two decades as the authoritative historical record of the events of 1945.” What is remarkable is not that a statesman should wish to fix the record to reflect most favorably on himself: that was, of course, exactly what Conant had counted on when he approached Stimson to put his name to the piece. What is remarkable is that the president of the country’s leading institution of liberal learning, having set in motion a process leading to the publication of the facts about an event, should intervene in order to censor details he judged it undesirable for the public to learn.

Hershberg’s account of the manner in which Conant handled the postwar issue of Communists in the teaching profession is revealing, too, though the lesson can be misread. Harvard was celebrated at the time for its refusal to cooperate with McCarthy; but the university’s reputation for resisting the intrusion of government loyalty hounds has been challenged since, most recently by Sigmund Diamond in a book on the collaboration of universities and intelligence agencies in the early cold war period, Compromised Campus.3 Diamond suggests that Conant may have acted, while president of Harvard, as a confidential informant for the FBI. Hershberg considers the claim, and feels unable to refute it. But his whole picture of Conant suggests a somewhat different interpretation of the evidence Diamond finds so inculpatory.

It’s true that Conant’s position on loyalty issues was never exactly heroic. In 1935, he led a drive against a bill in the Massachusetts legislature mandating a loyalty oath for teachers, but when the bill was passed, he pledged Harvard’s cooperation. His general view seems to have been that an administrative inquiry into a teacher’s political beliefs was a violation of academic freedom, but that the state had a legitimate interest, which universities must respect, in exposing “subversives.”

His position on Communists, therefore, was that they should not be hired as teachers (since they were, in his view, subversives by definition), but that no effort should be made by universities to ferret out Communists already on the faculty. Ferreting, he felt, was the kind of thing the government ought to do. He also maintained that any faculty member who invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about Communist associations was, ipso facto, disloyal, and should be fired. (Membership in the Communist Party, it’s worth remembering, was not illegal.)

This sounds like a pretty hard line. But it’s clear from Hershberg’s account that Conant’s chief aim was to avoid having to follow it in any particular case. He conceded its inconsistency (it was, basically, a prototype of “don’t ask, don’t tell”: political beliefs are irrelevant to academic merit, but teachers whose politics are discovered to be subversive should be fired), and he was not disposed to clarify it; for he had a presidential yearning to send a signal that would be comforting to everybody. He wanted his faculty to think that the university was committed to academic freedom, and would not pursue investigations into the politics of its members; and he wanted the government to think that Harvard was staunchly anti-Communist, and would not act as a shield for teachers who were manifestly disloyal. It was a very shaky contraption, and fortunately for his reputation as a champion of academic freedom, Conant left for Germany before he was ever required to fly it.

So that when Diamond and Hershberg cite, as circumstantial evidence that Conant acted as an FBI informant, a memo to J. Edgar Hoover from the Bureau’s chief agent in Boston noting that Dr. Conant has “indicated his respect for the Bureau’s work and his understanding for its many and varied interests,” they are surely eliding two points. The first is the innate desire of intelligence operatives everywhere to assure their masters that they enjoy access to the very highest levels of whatever it is they’re supposed to be gathering intelligence about. (“Who? Oppenheimer? Oh, yes, he passed us lots of information. Most cooperative.”) The second is the innate desire of men like James Conant to express solidarity of purpose when there is nothing to be gained by appearing uncooperative.

That he might have cooperated secretly seems contradicted by the fact that in 1953, Hoover (as Diamond himself reports) ordered a “thorough investigation as to character, loyalty, reputation, associates, and qualifications of Conant,”4 and by the additional fact that McCarthy (as Hershberg tells us) was dissuaded from blocking Conant’s nomination to be high commissioner to Germany only by the personal intercession of President Eisenhower.

Still, Conant’s position wasn’t all rhetorical balancing. It was substantive balancing as well. By the time of the Korean War, Conant’s views on the Soviet Union had hardened permanently. He believed in the Communist juggernaut: he thought that “the Russian hordes,” as he called them, were prepared to overrun Western Europe at the first opportunity, and that Communist propaganda was a threat to the Free World from within. His response to the military threat was to advocate the re-arming of Germany, the institution of a peacetime draft, the containment of Soviet expansion, and similar cold war policies. His response to Communist propaganda was liberal propaganda. He thought that the best defense free societies had against communism was to advertise their freedoms. This is why he campaigned publicly for the principles of academic freedom, and why he was also (much less publicly) willing to countenance the exposure of American Communists and their expulsion from the academy. Communists were the exception that made the principles necessary.

It is the logic that governed his supervision of Stimson’s article on the bomb, and it is a logic responsible for a great deal of folly, some of it criminal folly, in American political life in the cold war era: the belief that the survival of the open society depends upon concealment, and that the protection of rights in the general justifies their abrogation in the particular. Still, when Oppenheimer was hauled before a kangaroo court of the Atomic Energy Commission on security charges, in 1954, Conant (though John Foster Dulles threatened to fire him for it) testified on his friend’s behalf. The evidence against Oppenheimer was hopelessly inconclusive, but he lost his clearance anyway. He was, as Hershberg rightly says, a victim of the very national security mentality he and Conant had helped to create for the nuclear age.

Conant hated the atomic bomb. He had, he once said, “no sense of accomplishment” about his own part in bringing it into existence, and although by the early 1950s he had come to believe, quite presciently, that if war could be avoided the Communist system would collapse of its own inefficiency sometime in the 1980s, he dreaded the interim. In concert with Oppenheimer, he opposed, unsuccessfully, the development of the hydrogen bomb, which he regarded as an instrument of genocide. He distrusted the military, and barred classified research at Harvard. He despised right-wing anti-Communists like McCarthy. But he thought the Communist threat was real, and that the public must never be permitted to relax its vigilance against it. He was even prepared to engage in deliberate hyperbole about the imminence of the danger to prevent this relaxation from happening.

Hershberg is very acute on the temptations to illiberalism implicit in this world view: the sanctioning of secrecy, the willingness to engineer public opinion, the compromises entailed in presenting a united front with antiCommunists of a less scrupulous stripe. Still, if the Communist threat could serve as a standing argument for the suppression of dissent, it could serve equally well as a standing argument for taking the principles of freedom and democracy seriously. The cold war obsession with communism helped make American society more conformist, but it also helped make it more liberal, and Conant was a representative figure in this phenomenon as well.


At the Harvard of his youth, Conant was a boy from the other side of the tracks. He was a townie, raised in Dorchester, and though his parents, by virtue of success in local business affairs, were reasonably well off, he took school very seriously—not only academically (he was, evidently, a gifted chemist), but as a way of bettering his lot in life. He was highly critical, even as an undergraduate, of anything suggestive of a class system in which wealth and position were handed on unearned. He believed in equality of opportunity, and in the role of education in uncovering talent and bringing it to the fore; and this belief dictated his sense of the sort of people who ought to get to go to college, and the sort of people who ought to get to teach them.

The university Conant inherited in 1933 had been created largely by two men: Charles William Eliot, who became president in 1869 and transformed Harvard into a modern research university, and A. Lawrence Lowell, who succeeded Eliot in 1909 as the candidate of forces who thought that Eliot had gone too far. Conant essentially represented a return to the educational philosophy of Eliot (who was also, as it happens, a chemist—although, as Alfred North Whitehead noted in lamenting Conant’s appointment, he was, at least, a very bad chemist). But Conant also reinforced the effect of certain innovations that had been instituted by Lowell.

Eliot revolutionized American higher education in two ways. He created the free elective system for undergraduates, which allowed them to choose the course of study suited to their intellectual and vocational interests; and he established (on the model of Johns Hopkins) the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which was designed to train and accredit the scholars who would teach the undergraduates. Lowell rose to the presidency on a wave of reaction against the free elective system. His supporters wanted a return to the centrality of the liberal arts—to a less professional, less specialized, less vocational educational ideal.

To limit the tendency to smattering inherent in the elective system, therefore, Lowell required undergraduates to choose a major and a minor field. The effect of this reform, though, was to place control over undergraduate course work in the hands of the specialists—the professors within the disciplines. Whatever Lowell’s intentions, he actually ended up taking Harvard some further distance in the direction of academic professionalism.

Conant went the rest of the way. He did this by instituting an “up or out” tenure system, designed to insure that Harvard departments were staffed by the most credentialed specialists available—that is, by professional scholars rather than by career teachers. Instead of promoting automatically from within, departments were expected to undertake national searches in filling tenured positions, and ad hoc committees were set up to monitor hiring and promotion. Conant himself intervened in several cases, a few of which became fractious, to let go junior faculty he considered academically underqualified. His preference was to farm out junior professors after their six-year stints, and to make them earn their way back, by scholarly toil subsidized by some lesser school, to Cambridge.

Conant thought that professors selected on merit ought to be teaching students selected the same way. One of his first acts as president, Hershberg tells us, was to assign two of his deans, William Bender and Henry Chauncey, to examine the newly created Scholastic Aptitude Test. Their favorable report led to Conant’s campaign to introduce standardized testing into both the college and the graduate school admissions process—a campaign which culminated in the establishment, in 1946, of the Educational Testing Service, with Chauncey at its head. To make the emphasis on aptitude meaningful at Harvard, Conant created a “National Scholarships” program, which provided financial assistance to students from outside Harvard’s traditional geographic and socio-economic regions of recruitment.

Conant was, in short, as Nicholas Lemann has called him, “the Big Daddy of the American meritocracy.”5 The educational system he helped put into place is the system we have today. In its ideal form: students are admitted to college on the basis of aptitude, where they are instructed in an academic speciality by experts who have been appointed on the basis of scholarly achievement. Successful performance in this arena, determined by grade point averages, commendations from teachers, and further standardized test scores, qualifies the able to proceed to graduate or professional school, where a final round of accreditation takes place. The reward for the student is a professional career that it is impossible to buy or to be born into. The reward for society is the enhancement in productivity that comes from matching talents more accurately with careers.

We now take the theory of this model virtually for granted. But it has governed the educational and socio-economic reward system for only a few generations, and creating it involved a profound adjustment of traditional expectations. How profound this adjustment was is reflected in two striking articles Conant published during the war in the Atlantic Monthly: “Education for a Classless Society” (1940) and “Wanted: American Radicals” (1943).

In a pure meritocracy, everyone must begin de novo: no one can be allowed an unearned head start, and this means, logically, that wealth should not be inheritable—which is, in fact, precisely what Conant believed. He felt, he complained in 1943, the need for a new American radicalism, which he defined as a commitment to the ideals of Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and which he imagined as a stimulus to social and economic progress. “To prevent the growth of a caste system,” he says of this figure, “the American radical,”

he will be resolute in his demand to confiscate (by constitutional methods) all property once a generation. He will demand really effective inheritance and gift taxes and the breaking up of trust funds and estates. And this point cannot be lightly pushed aside, for it is the kernel of his radical philosophy.6

This was a fairly stunning thought for the president of an institution heavily dependent on testamentary bequests to commit to print, and the article actually inspired a brief but unsuccessful coup attempt, soon after it appeared, by members of the Harvard Board. Putting the idea in the mouth of a hypothetical “radical” gave Conant enough wiggle room to placate his trustees; but the idea was clearly his own.

The war was the best thing that could have happened to the theory of meritocracy, for two reasons. The first was that large-scale social disruption had already taken place through mass conscription; so that there was (as Conant argued) a real-life opportunity to start everyone de novo by seeing to it that the eleven million American soldiers returning from the war were placed on the career ladders suited to each. This opportunity was cashed, in the end, by the GI Bill, which opened higher education to millions of men, and which essentially created the postwar middle class.

But the war was also useful because it provided an immediate justification for egalitarianism and social mobility. “A caste-ridden society is one of potential danger,”7 Conant warned in 1943; for a society stratified by class is exactly the kind of society in which communism takes root. This became the theme of all Conant’s postwar educational writings, from Education in a Divided World (1948) to Slums and Suburbs (one of the Carnegie studies, published in 1961). “What can words like ‘freedom,’ ‘liberty,’ and ‘equality of opportunity’ mean for these young people?” Conant writes of innercity children in Slums and Suburbs. “With what kind of zeal and dedication can we expect them to withstand the relentless pressures of communism?” Communism here is the license for liberalism.

The picture has one more piece. Equality of opportunity does not, as Conant conceived it, mean equality of result; and when the talented tenth goes off to law school, a gap opens between it and the nine other tenths, who are left behind to become office managers and civil servants and hamburger flippers. This is what is known as the problem of “general education”: in a system designed to track students into the specialties appropriate to each, there must be some common core of learning appropriate to all, or social antagonisms will simply get reproduced in every generation.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Conant convened a committee of twelve Harvard professors (which included I.A. Richards, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and George Wald) to address this issue. They labored two years, and the book they produced, General Education in a Free Society (1945), commonly known as the Red Book, is one of the landmark documents in the general education movement. It’s not a landmark because Conant’s committee had anything especially original to say: “seldom has such an effort,” as one educational historian has recently put it, “been devoted to reinventing the wheel.”8 The Harvard report is a landmark because it is the Harvard report, and thereby constituted an influential endorsement of a solution that had already been adopted elsewhere, notably at Chicago and Columbia.

The solution was a core curriculum, nonspecialized, in which classic texts of the Western tradition are read for what they have to say in themselves, rather than through some disciplinary matrix (as one would expect, for example, in an “Introduction to Literature” or an “Introduction to Political Science” course). These texts serve, in theory, as a vocabulary of ideas shared by all the members of an otherwise highly diverse and mobile society: social tradition, which stratifies and divides, is replaced by intellectual tradition, which provides what the report refers to as a “binding experience.”9 The belief that free societies are in danger from an external political threat is obviously a great argument on behalf of such a program: people with no common set of beliefs are vulnerable to ideologues peddling, if nothing else, coherence.

The whole system of meritocratic selection and general education is now under attack for what many people perceive to be glib and self-serving reasons. No doubt some of the reasons are self-serving; but it is not hard to see that the system is extraordinarily vulnerable on many points, and that it was probably fated, in certain respects, to become a victim of its own success. The greater the variety of people it accommodated, the greater the strain on the impersonal and abstract notions of “merit,” “objectivity,” and “greatness” which underwrite it.

For there is, in the end, something culturally tone-deaf about this system—as there was about Conant himself, a man who could never understand what the study of art and literature was doing at a research university, who attempted while president of Harvard to close Harvard University Press and to cut loose the Divinity School, and who confessed that the whole subject of higher education for women made him uneasy. The scientistic standards he imposed on the selection of students and faculty at Harvard (and, through that example, on much of the rest of the country’s institutions of higher education) reflect a certain impercipience about the variety of forms that contributions to knowledge and to the cultural life can take. He largely drove imagination out of the university, and he helped to quantify talents—such as “verbal aptitude”—which it is meaningless to assess in quantitative terms. You don’t have to be an enemy of logocentrism to have doubts about the system Conant helped to create. You only have to look around you at the people who have “made it.”

The twelve authors of the Red Book are far more attuned to the holistic nature of intelligence and ability than the man who appointed them was. But a certain deafness persists. The report speaks continually of the “diversity” of the student population, but it never mentions differences of ethnic background, religious belief, or even gender. When the authors use the term, they mean only diversity of socio-economic station; and the assumption that socio-economic station correlates with some rank order of abstract aptitudes is still central to the meritocratic system the report presupposes.

This complaint about the Harvard report’s definition of diversity is not anachronistic. The President’s Commission on Higher Education for Democracy, headed by George Zook, whose report appeared just two years after Harvard’s, in 1947, gives considerable attention to the inequalities in educational opportunities available to African Americans. Yet the commission perceived the solution to the heterogeneity of the student population and the proliferation of specialized courses in the same terms the Harvard team did. “The failure to provide any core of unity in the essential diversity of higher education,” it concludes,

is a cause for grave concern. A society whose numbers lack a body of common experience and common knowledge is a society without a fundamental culture; it tends to disintegrate into a mere aggregation of individuals. Some community of values, ideas, and attitudes is essential as a cohesive force in this age of minute division of labor and intense conflicts of special interests…. Colleges must find a right relationship between specialized training on the one hand, aiming at a thousand different careers, and the transmission of a common cultural heritage toward a common citizenship on the other…. This purpose calls for a unity in the program of studies that a uniform system of courses cannot supply.10

As appealing as it understandably is to many people, the idea that a core curriculum of great books is the solution to the diversification of ability and occupation among students and future citizens in a democracy is surely the weakest point in the general education program. For the “great books” don’t, taken together, express anything like a coherent world view. They don’t even express a set of coherent individual world views. Skepticism about such coherence is precisely one of the things in which, in many cases, their greatness consists. It is probably enlightening for students to encounter this kind of skepticism; but it is not (whatever the term is supposed to mean) “binding.”

Still, the Harvard report’s sensitivity to socio-economic diversity (a sub-ject rarely addressed in discussions of higher education today) is the frankest and the most admirable thing about it. It is only the invocation of a homogenized conception of “culture” as the palliative to class difference, and the belief (elaborated on at length in the report) that educational institutions can replace the family, the church, and the community as the means of acculturation, that seem misconceived.

For there is great merit in the idea of “general education” when it is not circumscribed by a “great books” program. American colleges do fail to provide a common core of learning. Most students graduate without any exposure to knowledge about American political, legal, and commercial institutions: they are no better equipped to petition a congressman, or to write a will, or to buy stock than they were when they left high school. What they have received, for the most part, is specialized training in a scholarly discipline—the consequence of the curriculum having been handed over to the departments, whose members are selected on the basis of professional attainment, rather than their commitment to teaching or to “general” learning. Despite the widespread call for it in Conant’s time, general education has seldom been tried, even in the “great books” format. Where it has been, it has commonly taken the form of “distribution requirements”—that is, mandatory smattering.

People like Conant did have a remarkable confidence in their beliefs, though: it’s one of the things that make them seem so remote to most Americans on this side of the cold war. One of the stories Hershberg tells involves Conant’s request to the Harvard librarian to undertake secretly an appraisal of the costs of microfilming the printed record of Western civilization, which Conant proposed to bury in various places around the country, thus preserving it for the survivors of a nuclear war. The librarian advised that the costs would probably be huge, and Conant dropped the project, having convinced himself that university libraries outside major cities would escape destruction in a nuclear exchange.

But he stuck with the idea. “Perhaps the fated task of those of us now alive in this country,” he wrote in Education in a Divided World, “is to develop still further our civilization for the benefits of the survivors of World War III in other lands.” He had what seems today an almost naive faith in the virtues of the society for which he fought. It does not seem to have crossed his mind that the great works of a civilization that had ended in an act of self-destruction might not be the first thing the survivors of a nuclear holocaust would think it worthwhile to have

This Issue

July 14, 1994