Last week witnessed two events, both involving Harvard University and the enigma of ethnic diversity. On October 15, the trial of Harvard College began in a Boston federal courtroom. The institution stands accused of racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in admissions. On the same day, in the courtroom of public opinion, former Harvard Law professor, now US senator, Elizabeth Warren released a DNA report supposedly corroborating her claim to Native American heritage.
Both events are surrounded by controversy, with partisans lining up along predictable lines. And both events take on added significance when viewed against the background of Harvard’s first experiment in what might today be considered affirmative action: the establishment of an “Indian College” in 1655.
But before looking back at the 17th century, a few words on the contemporary scene.
In the federal case, a confidential study by Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research analyzing ten years of admissions data was made public, thanks to the plaintiffs’ efforts. It shows that if college admissions were based solely on academic factors, the percentages of black, Latino, and white admissions during that period would have been smaller, and the percentage of Asian American admissions would have been higher. Much higher: 43.21% instead of the actual 18.66%. While no one contends that Harvard should consider only academic factors, compelling evidence has emerged that when it comes to considering non-academic factors, Harvard admissions personnel, who do not actually meet the applicants, use their discretion to block Asian Americans. These officials assign Asian Americans the lowest score of any racial group on such traits as “positive personality” and “others like to be around him or her,” has “character traits” such as “likability … helpfulness, courage, [and] kindness,” is an “attractive person to be with,” is “widely respected,” is a “good person,” and has good “human qualities.” By contrast, alumni interviewers, who actually do meet the applicants, rate Asian Americans at the top on these same qualities.
On another front, Harvard Law School found itself defending its decision to hire Elizabeth Warren before she entered politics. In a remarkably tone-deaf gambit, the Senator released a DNA report which she hoped would put to rest President Trump’s constant attacks on her claims to be part Cherokee and part Delaware Indian. The report did exactly the opposite. It revealed that she may have had an indigenous ancestor somewhere between 6 to 10 generations ago, meaning that she is, at best, somewhere between 1/64th and 1/1024th Native American, less than the average white person. Chuck Hoskin, Jr., Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation, called Warren’s use of the test “inappropriate and wrong,” and blamed her for “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” Even usually supportive media outlets described the release as having “totally backfired.” The Warren misstep was embarrassing for Harvard because it had touted its hiring of Warren as proof of its commitment to affirmative action.
These two stories, while interesting in their own right, encourage one to revisit Harvard’s first attempt at achieving racial diversity, an attempt that took place in the mid-17th century, when the young institution was in its second decade.
According to Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, a “persistent delusion” of the School’s early administrators was “the notion that the proper way to civilize an Indian was to catch him and send him to college.” So catch some they did. In 1655, Harvard’s first President, Henry Dunster, supervised the construction of a two-story brick structure known as the Indian College, with rooms and studies for 20 Native Americans, in Harvard Yard next to where Matthews Hall stands today. About a dozen Indians were found and somehow cajoled to attend Cambridge Latin School to prepare them for college. Most just left, but four or five persevered and entered Harvard. Of that small group, only one, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, took his degree. Sadly, he died of tuberculosis within a year.
A classmate, Joel Iacoomes, would have graduated had he not elected to visit his home on Martha’s Vineyard shortly before Commencement exercises. His vessel ran aground on Nantucket, where the local Indians plundered the ship and murdered Joel.
By then, President Dunster had passed on. The new President, Charles Chauncy, decided to take a personal – but not kindly – hand in tutoring what he called “the nasty savages” himself. Perhaps because of this attitude, the experiment did not thrive. Harvard could not induce any more Indians to enter. After about ten years, the experiment ended. The Indian College building was converted into a printing press, which, coincidentally, housed John Eliot’s Indian translation of the Bible.
In 1708, John Leverett became President of Harvard. One of his first acts was to secure the funding set aside by the General Court (the name of the Massachusetts legislature) for the Indian College, and to renew the campaign to educate Native Americans. But only one Indian, Benjamin Larnel, could be persuaded to enter Harvard, and he didn’t remain long. According to contemporary college accounts, Mr. Larnel fell into “dreadful snares of sin” – probably strong drink – and died within his first year. With his death, the last effort to induce Native Americans to enter Harvard College ended, at least until modern times.
It is tempting to look back at these ancient efforts and scoff at the unbridled sense of superiority they reveal. What entitled Harvard to believe that it was in any position to “civilize” the neighboring indigenous peoples? Yet to focus on the founders’ condescension would be to miss a key element of the episode.
When the English colonists first encountered Native Americans, the event must have been like inhabitants of different planets meeting for the first time. The Indians and the Europeans had evolved for thousands of years along different historical courses, isolated from each other. There were vast, seemingly unbridgeable divisions in history and culture, in religion, and in diet, clothing, and physiognomy.
But the founders of Harvard, like those of most of the Ivy League colleges, were religiously motivated, and they believed that there was an essential sameness uniting all peoples, a sameness of souls.
Harvard was more interested in engaging with and including Native Americans than it was in reaching out to the strange but much less alien Catholics and Jews. After President Dunster built the Indian College, another twelve years would pass before Harvard admitted its first Jew, the Italian Judah Monis, and he was admitted not as a student, but as a teacher, for the sole purpose of instructing the students in Hebrew. In return for this post, he was required to convert to Christianity, which he did in a well-attended public ceremony.
Not until 1804, about 150 years after construction of the Indian College, did Harvard admit its first Catholic and Jewish undergraduate students. They were not required to convert. Instead, they were excused from class on their respective religious holidays.
At first glance, Harvard’s current commitment to diversity might be considered an extension of its early 17th century efforts. In the federal trial, for example, there is no doubt that Harvard’s blatant discrimination against Asian Americans does not arise out of pure bigotry. Instead, Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans, at least in part, to allow more room for other minorities. The touting of Elizabeth Warren as the Law School’s first Native American professor – however ridiculous from a genetic standpoint – was also part of a campaign to promote racial diversity.
But there is a signal difference between the new and the old. The premise of Harvard’s current commitment is that racial differences are valuable assets, so valuable that they are worth fighting for in the courts of law and in of public opinion. So valuable that they will induce the School to insist that a white woman whose DNA report reveals about 1/10th of one percent Native American genetic material is, in fact, a racial minority. In today’s increasingly homogenized world, Harvard struggles to preserve and emphasize racial differences in any way it can.
The Harvard of the 17th century had a different view of humanity. The founders, in encountering Native Americans, saw far greater differences, and viewed those differences, not as assets, but as hurdles to be overcome, divides to be bridged. If they had bumper-stickers in those days, theirs would have read: Celebrate Universality.
It is not an easy thing to say which viewpoint is the more advanced, and who are the real progressives.