The Faculty Weighs In, circa 1899

Whether a new millennium and century have arrived or not—let it pass—Dean Jeremy R. Knowles made the last Faculty of Arts and Sciences...

Whether a new millennium and century have arrived or not—let it pass—Dean Jeremy R. Knowles made the last Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting of 1999, held on December 14 in University Hall, an occasion to reflect on changing academic fashions. He noted that he had asked John B. Fox Jr., secretary of the faculty, to investigate professorial concerns at the last faculty gathering a century earlier. Debate then raged (genteelly, of course) over attempts by scholars in the emerging disciplines to broaden the body of knowledge expected of entering Harvard students beyond the realm of “imaginative literature”—an effort then successfully resisted by the panjandrums of the English department.  A précis of the Knowles report follows.


The discussion on December 18, 1899, focused on the list of set texts on which applicants to the College were to be examined. From the list of more than 50 items, a professor of economic history moved to delete two poems by Browning, and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” A professor of physics wanted to add White’s Natural History of Selbourne and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, for obvious reasons, and the professor of physical geography proposed Parkman’s Oregon Trail and Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast—to introduce the concept of lands beyond Cambridge. Ultimately [in January 1900], the English department agreed to delete the three English Romantic poems, and to replace them with As You Like It, Hamlet, and Pilgrim’s Progress or Robinson Crusoe. This motion passed 41 to 10, with two not voting. I leave it to the faculty to assess what progress we may have made in the last hundred years.


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