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Books and the Hidden Harvard

September 14, 1986|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

When I arrived at Harvard in 1967 to begin a doctorate in Near Eastern languages, I was told that my classes would be held in the Semitic Museum. Much to my disappointment, that museum turned out to be a few steamy, windowless rooms in the basement of a building occupied in some splendor by the Center for International Affairs--or, as an older student characterized them for me, by "Kissinger's people." In my classmates' eyes, what we were doing was scholarship. What those hurried fellows in their dark suits with their gleaming attache cases were doing was--well, who knew what it was? Ours, it was understood, was a period of occupation.

When Derek Bok was appointed president in 1971, the year I graduated, the mood in the Semitic Museum was not initially cheerful. Bok was a lawyer, so the usual analysis went, not a scholar. His emphasis would predictably be "public service," which we heard as code language for a broadening and leveling of the road that led from the Yard to the Capitol and back. Public service? Call it rather public servitude, we thought: the transformation of a once-proud citadel of learning into an imperial academy.

A year later, when Bok appointed Arthur Rosenthal director of Harvard University Press, the reaction in our precincts was approximately: "It figures." Rosenthal, founder of Basic Books, was best known as a publisher of social science and psychology. He would fit only too well into the social scientization of Harvard. In 1975, when Rosenthal handed over the venerable Harvard Semitic Monographs to tiny Scholars Press (proving, if nothing else, that you don't have to be anti-Semitic to be anti-Semitica), our worst fears seemed to be confirmed.

Fifteen years later, however, it is clear that our fears were mostly groundless. A graduate student in Near Eastern languages arriving at Harvard today and wending his way to the Semitic Museum will find the Center for International Affairs gone. The ivy that "Kissinger's people" (or whoever) had allowed to grow over the lintel has been hacked back. The words SEMITIC MUSEUM, still carved into the stone, are visible once again. The museum itself has ascended from the basement and occupies its ancestral home in dignity and style.

As for Harvard University Press, I am pleased to report, having just conducted a title count of every seasonal catalogue from three years before Arthur Rosenthal's appointment down to the present, that the ratio of two humanities titles for every three social science titles has been constant throughout this period. The change that most strikingly has occurred under Rosenthal's direction is not a desertion of the humanities but rather the pursuit of a lay readership for Harvard books of all kinds.

It is just this change, however, which prompts an otherwise unlikely juxtaposition of two books published in this, Harvard's 350th anniversary year.

The most original, most interesting chapter in Bok's own sesquitricentennial offering, "Higher Learning" (Harvard University Press: $15; 201 pp.), is the one entitled "New Developments," in which the author records his astonishment on discovering some few years ago that Harvard's non-traditional, "continuing education" enrollment was three times its traditional, matriculating enrollment.

Before Bok, this hidden Harvard of summer programs, workshops for executives, seminars for physicians, crash courses for congressmen-elect, etc., was regarded as, at best, a source of income and, at worst, an inconvenience for the real Harvard. In "Higher Learning," Bok now makes the radical suggestion not only that, all unrecognized, these second-class citizens have been bringing Harvard's future with them but also that traditional forms of education, especially in the professional schools, should be cut back to make more room for them.

Nothing Harvard said about itself during its recent anniversary celebration and nothing anyone else has said about it lately--from the Prince of Wales on down--has witnessed more eloquently to the university's eminence than this proposal from its president. I have, I admit, a longstanding fondness for irregular students. Harvard admitted me to its doctoral program without a bachelor's degree (I still do not have a bachelor's degree), and I wondered at the time: Would another university have been so indifferent to credentials? It was both exhilarating and intimidating to discover that what counted at Harvard was what Harvard thought of you. If that institutional self-confidence can be insufferable at times, it does create a climate in which key decisions may be made without too anxious a calculation of prestige. Bok's decision to back Harvard's "extension" programs even at the expense of some of its traditional programs is one that few, if any, other university presidents at his rank could risk.

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