VERITAS by Andrew Schlesinger


Harvard College and the American Experience
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Journalist and filmmaker Schlesinger, son and grandson of Harvard professors, charts the history of the college in Cambridge from its founding days to the present.

At its best, Veritas shows how America changed Harvard and how Harvard changed America. Take the American Revolution: Harvard luminaries played key roles in the fight for liberty, yet, because of a concomitant drop in enrollment and in funds, the Revolution imperiled the college’s very existence. Throughout, Schlesinger follows a few intriguing themes: the increasing dependence of the university on federal funds, the expanding place of African-Americans in Harvard Yard, the school’s struggles to define the appropriate role of religion in the Harvard experience. And he’s to be commended for refusing to paper over some of the uglier aspects of the Harvard past. He describes, for example, the anti-Semitism harbored by many students and administrators during the 1920s. But his interest in the extracurricular activities of future American presidents—that Theodore Roosevelt rode horses and “got intoxicated at least once,” that FDR didn’t make the football team and golfed instead, that JFK served as chairman of the committee to organize the Freshman Smoker—adds little. Moreover, Schlesinger often misses opportunities to present a sustained interpretation, instead simply stringing together related anecdotes. Consider the chapter called “Harvard and the War Against Slavery.” Rather than making an argument about the impact Harvard as an institution had on the political debates of the antebellum era, the author offers a laundry list of alumni and faculty activities during the years before and during the Civil War: several grads helped found the Free Soil party, alum Robert Gould Shaw served as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, President Lincoln’s son enrolled at Harvard in 1860 and spent the war years studying Dante and smoking. The result is an exercise in antiquarianism.

Still, a nice commencement gift, if, say, your neighbor’s kid happens to be graduating from Harvard.

Pub Date: May 27th, 2005
ISBN: 1-56663-636-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2005


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