The life and opinions of a college class

I always thought of pre-WWII Harvard as a place that paid some lip service to educating the common man while mostly functioning as a finishing school for preppies.  But was it so?  The very interesting Life and Opinions of a College Class, which reports the results of an extensive survey offered to the Harvard Class of 1926 on the occasion of their 25th reunion in 1951, tells a more complicated story.  I learned there that:

  • Only 54% of the class had fathers with a college degree; 26% of the class had fathers who had not finished high school.
  • Only about half the class went to private high school.
  • 17% were Jews.  (But only 8% were Catholic!)
  • 29% of the class worked at an outside job during the school year to support themselves.

(But note:  in the appendix, we learn that while half the class came from public high schools, the officers and class marshalls were entirely drawn from the preps.)

Nothing here really tells us whether the families of the Harvard students had money, though the fact that 70% of those families were Republicans might offer some clue.  Certainly they were rich by 1951, with a median income almost four times the national median.  (That would amount to about $180,000 today — I wonder how that compares with the current incomes of the class of 1988?)

Already in 1951, proponents of the liberal arts were anxious about becoming antique in a world ruled by science:

Only 13 percent were sufficiently prophetic of the shape of things to come to prepare in any of the physical or human Sciences; another 10 percent chose Engineering and/or Mathematics.

But one alum stuck up for tradition:

Admitted this is an age of specialization, then a boy should go to M.I.T. and do it up brown.  If he is going to Harvard, let him get a good liberal grounding which I think will make him a better citizen, and then concentrate later when he can put his whole mind on it.  He will undoubtedly be surpassed by many of the trade school boys but he will have something they will never have and to hell with his dinner pail.

One of my favorite moments in the book is the list of responses to the question, “What is the biggest mistake you have made in life?”

The catalogue of miscellaneous major blunders includes:  ill-advised speculation in 1929; getting back into the market too soon after the crash; failure to sell short; overeating; starting to smoke; neglecting the home for business; voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt and not voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt; wasting time; taking too little part in community life; too much diversification of interests; relying too much on the advice of older people; placing too much confidence in business associates; joining the Communist party; too much sex in earlier years; buying too large a house; drinking too much; a youthful indulgence in arson; and, in one instance, misappropriation of funds.

5 thoughts on “The life and opinions of a college class

  1. Jason Starr says:

    “Youthful indulgence in arson” makes it sound like eating paste! I wonder if arson was viewed differently in the 1950s (maybe only if you were a Harvard graduate)?

  2. Thads says:

    “Who among us can honestly say that at one time or another he hasn’t set fire to some great public building? I know I have.” (Monty Python, for those untrained in the classics)

  3. Bobito says:

    My grandfather attended Harvard in the 1930’s. He was the first in his family to attend college and had been educated in a public school. His father was a carpenter.

    The egalitarian ethos that existed at Harvard in the 1930’s was due in some important measure to James Conant. His vision has obviously been lost.

  4. Peter says:

    “Only 54% of the class had fathers with a college degree; 26% of the class had fathers who had not finished high school.”

    Today, these numbers would certainly be a good sign of an egalitarian admissions policy. Is it possible, though, that in their fathers’ generation, even the upper classes (for some definition thereof) were less consistently educated, and so this isn’t such a sign of social mixing? (Of course, this should have a look-uppable answer; unfortunately I don’t know where, and brief googling doesn’t find it.)

  5. Mary says:

    Prior to the beginning of the Harvard house system in 1930s, one-third of Harvard students were commuters and very much marginalized second-class citizens. Even after the house system started up, Harvard admitted a significant number of local students from blue collar backgrounds but told them they had to live at home and commute (though students from affluent but equally close suburbs such as Belmont were admitted as resident students.)

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