They Do It So Much in New England

He was an admiralty lawyer whose second career was to effect improvements in public affairs—“meddling,” as he put it. CCB: The Life and Century of Charles C. Burlingham, New York’s First Citizen, by George Martin ’48 (Hill and Wang, $35), tells of the role played by the high-spirited CCB, as everyone called him, in keeping peace on Commencement day in 1935. As president of the Harvard Alumni Association, CCB, A.B. 1879, LL.D. ’34, presided over the afternoon speechifying, and the situation was tense. He had proposed as speakers William Allan Neilson, president of Smith, and Henry A. Wallace, secretary of agriculture, both of whom would receive honorary degrees that morning. Speeches by President James B. Conant and James Michael Curley, governor of Massachusetts, were preordained. Rumors of an honorary degree for a New Deal official raised protests and predictions of a political storm at Commencement. Hearst newspapers had called for loyalty oaths for teachers, Curley was strongly in favor of legislation to require them, and Neilson was strongly opposed. CCB orchestrated the order of speakers to be as little incendiary as could be and began the proceedings, Martin relates, as follows:

On Commencement Day, in his brief introductory speech, he said genially that he personally had “no contribution to make on higher, or any other, education.” Instead, “I will venture to tell you what Gertrude Stein [A.B. 1898] said when she recently revisited” New England:

Education is thought about and as it is thought about it is being done in the way it is thought about, which is not true of almost anything. Almost anything is not done in the way it is thought about but education is done in the way it is thought about and that is the reason so much of it is done in New England and Switzerland.…

Charles C. Burlingham in New York, 1930.
Courtesy of Charles Burlingham Jr.

In New England they have done it, they do do it, they will do it and they do it in every way in which education can be thought about.

I find education everywhere and in New England it is everywhere, it is thought about everywhere in America everywhere but only in New England is it done as much as it is thought about. And that is saying a very great deal. They do it so much in New England that they even do it more than it is thought about.

The predominantly New England audience, feeling somehow flattered by this modernist talk, smiled, though later one alumnus, in congratulating CCB on his ability to quote Stein “so comprehensibly,” confessed: “I do not feel quite sure what all of it meant, but I expect that is my own stupidity. At any rate, it gave me much pleasure at the time.”

CCB touched lightly on one of the day’s sore topics….Before closing with a general statement about freedom and truth, CCB offered his own opinion:

I see no reason why a good teacher or student should be dropped from the rolls of any college because he is a pacifist, a communist, an atheist, or any other form of “ist,” provided he sticks to his last in the classroom and is a propagandist only extra mures…I have no fear of Fascism in this country, but I confess that I look with some apprehension on the successes of self-styled patriotic societies in putting on the statute book laws…requiring teachers in private as well as public schools to take a loyalty oath.

…The next month the Alumni Bulletin reported, “Throughout the addresses…ran an [undertone] of tension.” But CCB’s handling of the day won praise on all sides, not least because he had spoken forthrightly yet not given offense. Within the university he was now considered a graduate worth consulting, and Harvard officials began to seek his thoughts on troublesome issues.… One problem [Joseph R.] Hamlen [publisher of the Bulletin] took privately to CCB concerned preparations for the university’s tercentenary celebration in September 1936. Former Harvard pres-ident [A. Lawrence] Lowell was refusing to introduce or even sit on the dais with either Governor Curley or President Roosevelt. His reasons had more to do with ego and misunderstanding than politics, and CCB had a part in restoring peace. A disagreement between Conant and the faculty over salaries and retirements threatened to be more divisive, but it, too, was resolved successfully. And in June 1940 the alumni association inaugurated an “Alumni Medal” for service to the university by awarding it to CCB.

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