The Long Shadow of James B. Conant 4

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 rearming 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 principle 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 an 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 a victim of the very national secu¬rity 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 anticommunists 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.
There are many 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 development 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 although his parents, by virtue of success in local business affairs, were rea¬sonably 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; and he established (on the model of Johns Hopkins, which got there first) the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which was designed to train and accredit the scholars who would teach the undergradu¬ates. Eliot felt that the college experience should be nonutilitarian—that undergraduates should pursue their interests without vocational anxiety—but his notion of higher education as a whole was utilitarian, in the sense that he imagined a posttheological university whose students were being prepared for productive lives in a modern, industrialized society, and whose faculty were commit¬ted to research programs that kept social benefit in mind. 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 ensure 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 af¬ter their six-year stints and to make them earn their way back to Cambridge by scholarly toil subsidized by some lesser institution.

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