Charles W. Eliot, the youngest and longest-serving president in Harvard’s history, revolutionized Harvard’s approach to education. He was an articulate, staunch believer in a liberal education for everyone (well, for men, but that is another story), the successful outcome of which was to be free human beings who knew how to use their minds and were able to think critically. The content, less important than the outcome, was to be original sources (reluctantly agreeing to translation of non-English-language works – a concession pushed by his able collaborator Professor Allan Neilson, the future longest-serving president of Smith College, who pointed out that you could read the extant Greek literature in less time than it took to learn ancient Greek). President Eliot believed that the education and training for a profession should occur after a broad undergraduate immersion in the arts and sciences. Equally important was that the undergraduate years occur in a culturally rich environment peopled by “artists” and scientists who provided easy, informal access to depth in the arts and sciences and could serve as potential mentors and teachers for the students. We of the class of 1965 were exposed to a basically unaltered version of President Eliot’s vision for a liberal education, which he began to implement in 1869.
I had no idea of what lay ahead when I arrived at South Station in September, 1961, following a 36 hour train trip that began in Lawton, Oklahoma. Born six months after my biological father died at the age of 19 in a Texas basic training camp for the Army in 1943, I was subsequently adopted by my step-father, who despite 28 years of effort never rose above the rank of Staff Sergeant in the Army. My mother was 4 months into her 17th year and a high school junior when I was born; family lore claimed that I was the first member of my extended family to graduate high school on time. My sole exposure to the east coast had consisted of a week in Orange, NJ in 1947 with my step-father’s family.
My classmates, the great majority of whom were sophisticated products of elite private and public prep schools, mostly knew the content of the introductory courses in the arts already. They and the faculty correctly perceived me as a country bumpkin with an unfortunate accent. I quickly corrected my accent, in favor of an inauthentic clipped Boston style. But I had not come to Harvard for an education, I had come to be prepared for medical school – and I had been reassured that Harvard had a good medical school.
As President Eliot intended, there was little choice of courses in the first two years, and I quickly discovered my inner ADD when exposed to the riches of an excellent liberal education. My deal with the devil was to get the boring pre-med stuff out of the way in the first 2½ semesters, and then indulge my curiosity for the remaining time. Taking challenging courses in the arts did not help my GPA, but they nourished the soul and continue to do so. And then there was the Harvard University Band, a haven for public school proles and a pleasurable distraction from studying. My friends from college were and still are Bandsmen; only a few of the Bandsmen had prominent families or wealth to fall back on, so most were dead serious about what college meant to them.
In the third year I might have veered off course into something better than medical school, but it was too late. One does not easily walk away from a mother’s expectation that her son will become a doctor, and I did not have the courage to do so.
In the autumns of our lives, we are encouraged by the organizers of our class reunions to reflect on the events of the half century since our graduation to assess what we have done with our educations. I did achieve most of my professional goals. I became a full professor of medicine at five medical schools, and reached the professorship milestone well under the goal of twenty years that I set for myself. I published books and scientific monographs, more than 300 scientific papers and book chapters, and was elected fellowship in my two professional societies – because that is what you are supposed to do if you expect to get promoted in academics. I taught countless medical students and residents, many of whom still remember me (a neutral comment, at best), and saved more than my fair share of lives, including those of two loved ones (really). Although I came close, I never achieved the elusive goals of deanship or chairmanship of medicine at a medical school, which proves the existence of guardian angels.
The significance of career achievements has now faded into relative unimportance and irrelevance, however – much to my surprise. Nobody really cares what I did now. I am not sure what I expected – it is not exactly a secret that the end of one’s career is the end of one’s career. Vergil, by way of Dryden: “Time is loft, which will never renew.”
My son Jonathan, a fellow physician born on my birthday, has rewarded my negligent parenting many, many times over and made me a grandfather twice with Meredith and Harrison. My other three children through marriage have allowed me to reap the benefits of fatherhood without the work involved: Jessica (successful artist, specializing in wine labels) presented me with Sam – grandson #2; Ravi is a San Francisco firefighter; Natalia is a businesswoman and jewelry designer. My wife Cynthia fiercely holds all of them close to the bosom of the family and helps me appreciate the power and beauty of fatherhood. And not to forget Trixie the intrepid Tibetan Terrier, who demands more attention than all the rest.
Thank you President Eliot and Harvard for my liberal education. It still amuses and nourishes me every hour of every day, and will continue to do so, I hope, for many years more. Memento mori – but not yet. There is too much music to hear and there are too many books to read, places to see, people to meet, wines to drink, museums to wander, and dogs and children to play with.