The College

“Veritas (Truth)” – Motto of Harvard University

Old Harvard College

Old Harvard College

THE history of Boston’s connexion with higher education stretches back to 1636, six years after the founding of the city. That most venerable and ancient institution, Harvard University, known then simply as the “New College” has become one of the foremost universities in the world. It was the first college founded in the English colonies, and would go through difficult and tumultuous years before it became the school that we know it as today. While true that Harvard was founded in Newtowne, later Cambridge, three miles from Boston’s centre and thus not in the limits of the 16th century colonial city, the tie between Boston and Harvard are undeniably strong and have a strong association with each other.

IN setting up Harvard her founders envisioned a school based on those of the great universities of Old England, namely Oxford and Cambridge.

Old Harvard Yard

Old Harvard Yard

As many of the Puritan leaders were educated at one of these two universities they desired to establish a college along the lines of their alma maters. They were not setting out to reinvent the system put in place, but rather to colonise the New World with it.

AS with the grammar schools there were those boys who did not have the mental faculties to attend college. In “The Puritan Pronaos: Intellectual Life in New England in the Seventeenth Century” Samuel Eliot Morison discussed the fact that the language of the classes was Latin, and those who did not have a mastery of the tongue from their grammar school education were not cut out for college. He discussed the relative financial availability and noted that many students bartered a few farm goods to cover tuition fees. Morison also noted that the relatively egalitarian system of education ensured potential wide availability among the colonists of a college education.

IN order to emphasise their new college as being in-line with the English and other great European universities they were attempting to emulate, the Puritans founders set up Harvard’s curriculum along the traditional path, the Seven Arts (Grammar, Logic, Arithmetic, Rhetoric, Geometry, and Astronomy), the Three Philosophies (Ethics, Natural Sciences, and Metaphysics), as well as Hebrew, Ancient History, and Greek, according to Samuel Morison.

Harvard College Charter of 1650

Harvard College Charter of 1650

CONTRARY to what many people today may think, the college was not strictly religious in its teaching habits. A prevailing line of thought, as stated above, is that the Puritans were so fixated on God that they wouldn’t teach classical thought in their schools. This argument, I hope, has been sufficiently refuted. Harvard College, and its feeder schools like Boston Latin, were beacons of European intellectual thought long before comparable institutions were established in other English colonies. Indeed Morison recounts the commonplace notebook of Seaborn Cotton, an alumnus of the College who later became a minister. According to Morison, it was a shock to look over the minister’s commonplace book to find marriage and birth records about his parish on one page and extracts of highly erotic poetry just a few pages before.

ONE might ask where such stereotypically non-Puritanical subjects of study stem from. The obvious answer, again according to Morison, is that it was inherited from their English culture. Humanism and its tradition in England was very strong and sufficiently diffused amongst the educated populace. It is an amusing thing to see how, on one hand

Harvard Seal

Harvard Seal

the Puritans brought their beliefs of a church state to the New World in order to establish a holy kingdom devoted to God, and yet on the other see how they also imported their English cultural traditions and Renaissance humanist thinking to that same kingdom. One is able to see that at one point the two would eventually clash, for they seem to be at odds. However, the Puritan intelligentsia thought otherwise and continued to support and integrate these two systems into the fabric of their new holy society.

THIS transfer of knowledge flowing from Old England and Europe gave birth to and stimulated the rise of higher education in the English North American colonies. The tradition established at Harvard and the other eight Colonial Colleges of enacting a system of higher education in the future United States facilitated an independence-minded attitude amongst the colonists, one that would flourish during the Enlightenment having been based on rational thought and scientific inquiry, that would eventually lead to a demand for democratisation by colonial-college educated gentlemen in the form of American independence.


  1. Cameron Murphy :

    I found your in-class presentation very interesting, especially when you mentioned that Harvard, though founded by the Puritans, had a distinctly English, classical curriculum. I also appreciated that you broke up the levels of education into three parts in order to thoroughly explore each one.

  2. It’s very interesting to read about the William and Mary of the North. We all know that Harvard is the only college older than our alma mater, so it was very interesting to read about it’s roots and the early days of its existence.

  3. William Maas :

    I very much enjoyed your presentation and getting to see your website brought it all home for me. My favorite part was getting to see the foundations and roots to so many of what is considered the roots of our society today.

  4. Priya Ponnapula :

    It’s interesting how puritans mixed Christian thought with other subject areas. It’s a testament to how the renaissance changed the way the world was perceived. I wonder if the fact that the colony in America was relatively new and geographically distant from the crown affected what was taught and how it was taught.