JAMES BRYANT CONANT
AND THE MERITOCRATIC UNIVERSITY
T he Harvard that James Bryant Conant inherited when he became president in 1933 was the creation of his Boston Brahmin predecessors Charles W. Eliot (1867–1908) and Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1908–33). Under Eliot, Harvard became a university, and not just a college with some ancillary professional education. As he said of the various fields of higher education in his inaugural: “We shall have them all, and at their best.” The Law and Medical schools became world-class. Major scholars began to be more than an occasional fluke in the faculty lineup. And Eliot was the first American university president to become a significant public figure.
No less revolutionary was what he did with undergraduate education. His elective system replaced the former tightly regulated curriculum, a laissez-faire approach to education in full accord with the prevailing beliefs of the Gilded Age. It was also a brilliant piece of educational politics. At one stroke it freed students and teachers from the tyranny of each other's presence. It lulled the undergraduates into thinking that they were free to choose their curriculum when in fact most of them rushed, lemminglike, into a few massively popular courses taught by faculty crowd pleasers dubbed “bow-wows.” This freed research-minded professors to pursue their work relatively unencumbered by undergraduate obligations. 1
At the same time the social character of Harvard College became increasingly “Brahmin, ” in the sense of domination by Boston's social and economic elite rather than by Unitarian or Congregational ministers. Much of Eliot's Harvard was seriously intellectual; more of it was socially snobbish. Its faculty consisted of a few major figures such as the Law School's Christopher Columbus Langdell and Philosophy's William James and Josiah Royce, and a majority who were gentlemen first, teachers second, scholars (perhaps) third. Its student body, over-