Separatism, Defeated

College students have returned to the classroom. Still selling briskly, at least in Cambridge, Mass., is “The Puritan Dilemma,” Edmund S. Morgan’s short and highly readable biography of John Winthrop.  Nearly fifty years after Morgan wrote it, the story of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the man who declared in a famous sermon in 1630 that the settlement in and around Boston would be “as a city set on a hill,” a model for the rest of the world, is a poignant reminder of what’s at stake every time a story about Harvard University or the Big Dig or the latest presidential candidate from Massachusetts appears in the papers.

“[T]he eies of all people are uppon us;” wrote Winthrop, “so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and so cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

No wonder, then, that the resignation last spring of university president Lawrence Summers was so widely attended to. Whatever had been his vision of the challenges facing Harvard, a consensus has emerged among the leaders of the university that he lacked the managerial skills to put it into practice.

Nor was it surprising that interim President Derek Bok swiftly chose to end the practice of granting early admission to certain highly qualified applicants, a custom, he said, that further advantaged the already advantaged. “Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out,” he explained.

Without going into the complicated strategic ins and outs of the competition among elite schools for the best students, the new policy was clearly meant to signal an attempt to return to Harvard’s roots. “The college admissions process has become too pressured, too complex, and too vulnerable to public cynicism,” said Bok. “We hope that doing away with early admission will improve the process and make it simpler and fairer.”

The decision to end early admissions was only the most conspicuous in a series of recent attempts to subtly alter the atmosphere of unilateral advantage-seeking, especially among those attempting to convert the Harvard name to their own use.  Last summer the university threatened legal action against a pair of students who, having learned to give university tours as members of the undergraduate Crimson Key service organization, opened a for-profit tour in competition with it. The football coach fired a player for presenting during a team skit night a derisive list of 20 reasons Harvard would never move up to play big-time college football — an ambition the university conclusively disavowed sixty or seventy years ago. 02138, a fledgling magazine (named for the university’s postal code) aimed at glamorizing “the Harvard brand” appeared last week, to disappointing reviews.

Meanwhile, the university administration is still debating what to do about economics professor Andrei Shleifer, who sought to convert his public position to private gain while leading Harvard’s Russia Project on behalf of the US government in the 1990s.

All this finds a distant mirror in the story of John Winthrop. Historian Morgan relates the intricacies of Winthrop’s decision to leave England for the New World.  Unlike the Pilgrims, religious dissenters who founded the Plymouth Colony in 1621, the Puritans who settled around Boston in 1630 were worldly people. “They did not dress in drab clothes or live in drab houses or speak in drab words.” They did not wish to create a purely religious community, nor a purely commercial one. They were not prohibitionists. They discouraged drunkenesss, not alcohol.

Nevertheless, writes Morgan, the Puritans labored under a sort of paradox, none more than Winthrop, the well-to-do lawyer who led them.  “Puritanism required that he work to the best of his ability at whatever task was set before him and partake of the good things that God had filled the world with but told him that he must enjoy his work and his pleasures only, as it were, absent mindedly, with his attention fixed on God.” Puritanism also required that Winthrop and the other leaders of the colony, ride herd, as best they could, on the members of their community, and not let selfish private motives interfere with their overall “special commission” to create a godly kingdom in the wilderness — a commonwealth.

What was true of Massachusetts then is still true today.  The name of the Deity has changed many times. But the most serious transgressions today are still the ones that Winthrop battled more than 350 years ago, under the heading of separatism. Separatism then had a mainly religious connotation — dissolution of the bonds with the Anglican Church, the intolerance of Roger Williams, the mysticism of Anne Hutchinson, the authoritarianism of Robert Child — such “dreams of perfection in this world” chronicled to good effect by Morgan. Separatism today is mainly political.   It is Larry Summers against the Harvard faculty, Gov. Mitt Romney, a Harvard Business School alumnus, against the political culture of the Bay State, Andrei Shleifer against the US Civil Code.

However well-intentioned it may be, separatism is still an offense whose ultimate consequence is expulsion, at least in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.