“Harvard was founded to prepare ministers of upright character,” Derek Bok, president at Harvard University (1971–1991), penned these words in his annual letter to the Harvard Board in 1987. Candidly, he examined the storied history of America’s most prestigious university.
Harvard’s founders created the school in 1636. They held students to the highest of ethical standards, emphasizing character, values, and faith above all else. Its mission was unambiguous: “To be plainly instructed and consider well that the main end of your life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ.”
The mission reads like that of a seminary or Christian college. It’s hard to reconcile such overt religious language with the secular university we know as Harvard today. But many of our country’s most prominent universities, including Yale, Brown, and Princeton, started with a similar mission.
Some of Harvard’s early architecture has stood the test of time far better than the mission. Based on curriculum and course content, Harvard’s founders would scarcely recognize the institution today. I loved my experience as a grad student at Harvard’s Kennedy School. But, other than the Latin on my diploma reading “Christo et Ecclesiae” surrounding “Veritas” (meaning “Truth for Christ and the Church”), I never would have guessed Harvard had any Christian foundation.
Some might argue Harvard’s secularization is a healthy evolution. We believe the opposite. Like trading family heirlooms, Harvard has sold its most valuable assets.
To be clear, I loved my experience at Harvard. Never before or since have I had such an enjoyable or engaging time of study. Throughout my graduate school experience, there was surprising receptiveness to issues of faith. My classmates were incredibly intelligent and driven. They were not bombastic or belligerent, but rather open to thoughtful conversation on issues of faith and how to help build a better world.
But I wonder: how did such significant mission drift happen at Harvard?
By World War II, Harvard’s moral vision had “largely evaporated,” wrote Bok in his board report. A study of 1964 and 1965 Harvard graduates concluded with a depressing note: “The college had relatively little lasting effect on [graduates’] moral and ethical views.”
Bok understood the void left by removing Harvard’s faith foundation. In her book Finding God at Harvard, Kelly Monroe reports that when Christian evangelist Billy Graham asked Bok, “What is the biggest problem among today’s students?” Bok replied, “Emptiness.”
There are many reasons that faith-based universities like Harvard drift. For some, it’s money. American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, gave a secular “carrot” in the early 1900s. Carnegie offered exorbitant donations to universities that would sever ties with church denominations. Brown and Dartmouth were two of the first universities to accept his funding and sever denominational ties.
Some universities hired staff or administrators who felt their institutions should focus on hard skills and academic credentials, not faith. Regardless of the reasons, these universities drifted slowly and often without conscious deliberation.
What has happened in these schools is what Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith describes as functional secularism. They have fully abandoned Christian distinctiveness. This hasn’t happened at all American universities, of course. Exemplars like Wheaton, Taylor, Biola, Asbury, Messiah, and Baylor have retained a robust Christian heritage as they have matured and grown.
The steady course Harvard has taken over the past few hundred years away from the values of its youth has meant the abandonment of many of the university’s most treasured contributions.
“In these circumstances, universities, including Harvard, need to think hard about what they can do in the face of what many perceive as a widespread decline in ethical standards,” wrote Bok. “Several studies have found that undergraduates are growing less altruistic and more preoccupied with self-serving goals.”
In a culture starving for selfless leaders, many of our universities are instead producing entitled graduates more concerned with country clubs and selfies than they are about solving the great problems plaguing our society. We need universities to recapture the soul of American education. Our country needs schools that value cultivating character and grit, not just academic prowess.
In How Children Succeed, The New York Times bestselling author Paul Tough writes about the “hidden power of character.” He posits a compelling case for why America’s schools need to concern themselves less with cognitive skills and more on soft skills like grit, curiosity, perseverance, and self-control.
David Brooks has written extensively on the importance of rediscovering the importance of virtues in our universities: “Highly educated young people are tutored, taught and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave them alone.”
What Bok, Brooks, and Tough acknowledge is that Harvard’s founders were right. Training students with “upright character” is the most popular trend in modern educational theory. Perhaps this vision isn’t so antiquated after all.