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Harvard at Dumbarton Oaks

Text of a public talk given at Dumbarton Oaks on April 20, 1943 by John Calhoun Baker, Associate Dean of the Harvard Business School and member of the Dumbarton Oaks Administrative Committee.

John C. Baker

Public lecture: "Harvard at Dumbarton Oaks," followed by an illustrated talk with moving pictures by Mr. Thomas Whittemore on "The Mosaics of Santa Sophia," April 20, 1943.

Ever since it was publicly announced in November 1940 that Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss had transferred Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University the question has arisen in the minds of many – “Why Harvard at Dumbarton Oaks?” Certainly since we started the series of lectures this winter for friends of the University in Washington, the question has been addressed to us very frequently. For this reason it was decided by the Adminis­trative Committee to devote our last meeting to answering this question. First, Mr. Whittemore was invited to speak about Byzantine art, one of the great interests of Dumbarton Oaks and of that division of Harvard University known as the Fogg Museum. Secondly, I was “selected” by the Administrative Committee to answer the question “Why Harvard at Dumbarton Oaks” from an educa­tional point of view. After you hear Mr. Whittemore’s talk end see his pictures you will understand the reason he is here. My selection for the second task may puzzle many, particularly my friends. My own interpretation of this riddle is that I was chosen because I was the latest addition to the Administrative Committee and as such am being given an oral examination by my seniors.

Let me hasten to add, however, that I welcome the oppor­tunity of speaking to this group. Since becoming a member of this Committee I have discovered that Dumbarton Oaks is a truly great and an imaginatively conceived educational undertaking. It is a stimulating experience to be associated with it.

In the preparation of this talk I quickly learned that the most difficult problem was the selection of topics to be discussed which meant that many important subjects would be neglected. If I fail to stress adequately acquisitions both to the library and museum, rare books, the collection, the possibil­ities in the gardens as well as other significant features I hope I shall be forgiven. What I want to do is not to stress things or objects but rather their uses.

As a text for my remarks I take brief extracts from Mr. and Mrs. Bliss’ letter to President Conant at the time Dumbarton Oaks was conveyed to Harvard. This letter, more clearly than any document I have read explains the hopes and wishes, both of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss and Harvard University for Dumbarton Oaks, now and in the future.

“It is our expectation end desire that this gift shall be used for study and research in the Humanities and Fine Arts with special emphasis upon Byzantine Art and the history and culture of the Eastern Empire in all its aspects.

…..“we envisage Dumbarton Oaks as a vital center of distinguished and productive scholarship, a useful ornament to Harvard University and a continuing haven for seekers after Truth.”

What is Dumbarton Oaks?

To appreciate fully what Dumbarton Oaks is today one must know many different people.

First you must become acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss

Secondly, you must understand the contributions made by Dr. Edward Forbes and Professor Paul J. Sachs, Directors of the Fogg Museum, and by the Senior Fellows.

Thirdly, you must understand the unique positions held by the educational advisors known as the “Board of Scholars.”

Mr. and Mrs. Bliss have spent most of their lives in the foreign service of this country. After being abroad for nineteen years they returned to the United States from France in 1919, decided they had been away long enough and that they wanted to take root in their native land, Mr. Bliss particularly hoped to live as he said “in a country place in the city” and before long discovered a property called “The Oaks” in Georgetown. It was very much down at the heel and with little charm, except for the magnificent trees.

Even though many of their friends felt that they were exhibiting strange taste in settling in Georgetown, they purchased “The Oaks” in 1920. Two years later they again were sent abroad, just after the house had been remodeled. What was subsequently done to the grounds and to the house was accomplished by correspondence, blue prints, and in fleeting visits every few years. In 1933 Mr. Bliss retired from the Foreign Service as he had informed President Hoover two years before he hoped to, and soon he and Mrs. Bliss were spending full time perfecting their dreams. Also it is important to point out early in this talk that the decision to make Dumbarton Oaks what it is and then convey it to Harvard University was not a sudden or unpremeditated idea. As early as 1930 [sic] this proposal was discussed and welcomed by Mr. Forbes, Professor Sachs, and President Lowell. When President Conant succeeded Mr. Lowell he also visited Dumbarton Oaks, and approved enthusiastically the plans for the future.

As the visions for Dumbarton Oaks became realities there was a constantly increasing flow of visitors, students and scholars. So many activities were projected and set in motion that before long it was decided that Dumbarton Oaks had reached a point where it was ready to contribute its share to the intellectual life of this country and so the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection was deeded to Harvard University.

From the text quoted above one realizes quickly that Dumbarton Oaks is not simply a school, a hostel, an art museum, nor a library. It includes some part of all of these, but much more has been added. As many organizations may he greater than the sum of their various parts, so with this institution. Here a dream has come true with arrangements made to have it continue as a living entity in the years ahead.

Dumbarton Oaks, as you all know, includes beautiful grounds, the spacious mansion we are now in and numerous other buildings, a magnificent library, and a Museum which at present is closed and its collection of art treasures removed for the period of the war. All of these are significant and important, and almost speak for themselves, but must not overshadow the program outlined for their use. This I particularly want to stress

All institutions are the tangible expression of the mind of an individual or a group of individuals. Dumbarton Oaks is the creation of two thoughtful and imaginative people. I venture to say, after spending some time here, that not one square yard of this estate has failed to receive their personal attention; – nor has one rare object been added to the Library or Museum without their personal approval. Enthusiasm for their project, exceptional advice from their co-workers, and discriminating and experienced judgment in planning the physical layout and in selecting rare objects and important books have brought their proper reward.

In this country of great energy and rapid growth fine arts and the humanities are often neglected. Potential scholars in the daily struggle to make a living neither have time to contemplate nor to complete their scholarly work. Able students for want of funds turn to college or secondary school teaching or business instead of scholarship. In many universities pupils and teachers are unable to work together chiefly because of the large number of students a professor must teach, or because physical conditions are such as to make association impossible. Often Scholarship is forced to exist in narrow, sectional grooves rather than in a friendly international atmosphere. All of this was and is known by Mr. and Mrs. Bliss as well as by Harvard authorities and Dumbarton Oaks was planned and is being operated to offset some of these almost insuperable handicaps to American scholarship.

Out of these conditions grew the major concept back of Dumbarton Oaks. It was to bring scholars together in a central place like Washington, with its cosmopolitan society, with its world-famous libraries and museums, and to do everything possible to foster scholarship and place it all under the aegis of a great university. These various objectives were for the most part achieved at the time Dumbarton Oaks was conveyed to Harvard. From then on the administration of this institution and its program became the University’s problem and results and achievements Harvard’s responsibilities. One very important source of help to the University in carrying out its plans was the continuing presence and interest of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss.

Dumbarton Oaks is to be closely related to the humanities in our national and individual life. Here is one spot where the University hopes true scholarship can be kept alive during these troublous times. However, scholarship can not be preserved in a vacuum or in the frequently referred to ‘ivory tower’ of scholars. We do not want Dumbarton Oaks and its scholars to be a counterpart of the experience in Ireland, a haven of scholarship during the dark ages. The following story I secured in Athenrae many years ago from an elderly lady steeped in Irish folklore. Three of the wisest philosophers in the world were invited to Athenrae by the King of Connaught. There was too much confusion in the Court so these three wise men petitioned the king for permission to go to the top of the highest of the Five Pins, (the name of five mountains outside of Athenrae). Here they deliberated in silence. At the end of the first year the youngest philosopher said, “Isn’t this fine?

At the end of the second the middle aged philosopher said, “It is” and at the end of the third year the oldest remarked, “If this racket keeps up we might as well go back to Athenrae.”

Let me repeat, these silent nebulous results are not the ones desired here at this period in human history. What we do earnestly desire was expressed as follows by the Directors of the Fogg Museum after Dumbarton Oaks was conveyed to Harvard. “By intelligent research we may preserve the Spiritual heritage of the past and so fulfill in a measure our responsibilities to the future; we may add to our understanding of the forces that made men what they were and by wise interpretation of the experiences of the past contribute in even a small way toward a better ordered life in the future.”

What Has Harvard Done to Achieve The Objectives of Dumbarton Oaks?

Many of the achievements here by Harvard can be attributed to Mr. Forbes, Professor Sachs, the Senior Fellows who are at present Dr. Blake and Dr. Koehler, and to the Board of Scholars. Lieutenant John Thacher, formerly assistant director of the Fogg Museum and now executive assistant here deserves great credit for the physical transformation of a private estate into a smoothly functioning educational institution. All of these men have played an active part in the development of Dumbarton Oaks.

From the start one important fact faced all of those helping transform Dumbarton Oaks and it must not be overlooked. Although a part of Harvard, Dumbarton Oaks is physically separated from Cambridge by hundreds of miles. For obvious reasons no direct integration could conveniently be made, either with the College or the Graduate School. About the only way to incorporate Dumbarton Oaks into the University was to consider it as a special division for advanced scholars allied with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Mr. and Mrs. Bliss agreed and thus the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection became an independent division of the University administered by two Committees appointed by President Conant. The one is a Board of Scholars previously referred to, entrusted with the educational program and similar problems and the other an Administrative Committee which is charged with the management of this institution and responsible to the Corporation for the budget and operations. The former committee is composed of scholars representing Harvard and various institutions in different parts of the United States. The members of the second committee are all connected with Harvard. Professor Sachs acts as Chairman of both Committees.

The University here as elsewhere places great responsibility upon special committees and expects satisfactory results. Little will be said from this point on about the Administrative Committee because most of the main developments in which you are interested were inaugurated by members of the Board of Scholars.

Following the decision to make Dumbarton Oaks a special division of the University it soon became evident that there was little reason why it should follow the traditional University pattern. An early and very important decision was not to restrict admission to Dumbarton Oaks simply to Harvard students but to widen it to include properly prepared students from other institutions. Of equal importance was the adoption of a policy to admit only students with experience in graduate work. Neither a doctor’s degree nor the lack of it, nor an appointment as a professor was to rule out a man or woman from being appointed to Dumbarton Oaks for study. Merit, ability and fitness are the sole tests. Furthermore, the number of scholars was to be limited to from ten to fifteen to avoid the curse of bigness and no one was to be under the pressure of attempting to secure a degree. There are no examinations and Fellows make reports on their work orally at weekly meetings exposed to cross examination by their colleagues.

Such extraordinary requirements suggest that the founders of this novel program had a definite aim in mind – they had – it was the development of scholars who possess both culture in its broadest sense and expert knowledge in some special area.

These plans naturally required special titles for those normally classified as ‘students’ and ‘professors’. Students are called “Junior Fallows” and are invited here on an annual basis with no financial obligations for tuition or for living accommodations. Professors are known as “Senior Fellows”.

The program of study followed by the Junior Fellows is unique. Each individual is not struggling full time with a project of personal interest unrelated to anyone else, as he might be with a thesis leading to an advanced degree. He is, however, working at least half time with an assigned project that fits into the tasks outlined in advance for the entire group. There is a definite research program that is the backbone for all scholarly activities. At the present time this is the formation and development of Early Byzantine Art. So far scholarship both here and abroad in this area has only resulted in the development of a number of contradictory theories. It is unnecessary to say more about details of this project than mention that real progress has been made by Junior and Senior Fellows as indicated both by important published and unpublished materials. Dr. Koehler, an exacting scholar, who is in charge, is pleased with the results so far secured.

This program for Dumbarton Oaks led to many physical changes in the various buildings. The carpenter and work shops were turned into what is now termed “quarters” for the Junior and Senior Fellows. The garage was changed into Mr. Thacher’s very attractive living quarters, the “dog house” became the surprising apartment occupied by Mrs. Clark. The most important change was the transforming of the second floor of this building into an exceptionally fine working library, conference rooms, and offices.

Senior Fellows entrusted with the supervision of the entire educational program are also invited here on an annual basis. They usually live in the Quarters with the Junior Fellows or on the third floor of this building. They work on their own projects and also cooperate on the main research program now under way. In my opinion one of the most far reaching parts of the whole program is the close association between Junior and Senior Fellows. Here may be the roots of a modern counterpart of the extraordinary Greek classical education.

In addition to the Junior and Senior Fellows it is expected that visiting Fellows – scholars with interest in the Humanities – will spend months or even a year here developing and completing their own special studies which will have no direct connection with our main research program. Such persons, professors on sabbatical leave or others, will in this way be able to complete their life’s work; they also should enrich the scholarship of the entire group.

Finally, Dumbarton Oaks is not living completely in the past. It is participating in the war effort in two ways. Since the end of last May a substantial portion of this building has been used as headquarters for a section of the National Defense Research Council. Also, the Junior Fellows in their free time are working on a special research project for which they are eminently fitted.

Of Broader Educational Significance

Harvard University, like most educational institutions, is under constant pressure to conduct “business as usual”. Professors often remark in Cambridge and elsewhere, “The trouble with this University is we have too many students.” Operating under pressure and attempting to educate a substantial number of young people means that few experiments in educational methods are tried.

Dumbarton Oaks connected with Harvard may well become a laboratory at the graduate level and be a real center of experiment, and thus invigorate graduate study throughout this country. Dean Buck of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Professor Howard Mumford Jones and others have, for this and other reasons, taken a great interest in the present and future possibilities of Dumbarton Oaks. They all agree that graduate education in the Humanities badly needs revolutionary treatment, that inert ideas and pedantry are the rule, and that changes although indistinct in form are already on the horizon. Will the program of study here be the “shadow of graduate education to come?”

President Conant at a recent meeting in the Quarters attended by both Senior and Junior Fellows and others, to review critically the whole program asked two pointed questions. “Has this program been tried elsewhere in the Humanities? Can it be adopted in other departments of the University?”

Professor Jones is particularly hopeful of having a similar experiment of group graduate study tried in English. His analysis of the development of graduate work in English is enlightening and should be mentioned. Such study started wisely and soundly with the Philological approach, then turned to the Historical method, and now is deeply entangled in the Critical Approach. In all of these phases students struggled almost alone with their individual tasks. No definite specifications or broad programs of work existed, so that a complete integrated cultural edifice might have been built from their individual work. The “bricks” of knowledge which they formed in most instances did not fit together. The futility of this can only be realized when one examines a group of theses in almost any field of graduate study apart from the sciences.

The program at Dumbarton Oaks breaks down departmental lines too. At present there are two distinct groups of Fellows. One represents monuments or archaeology, the other written sources or history. “If”, as Professor Jones remarked, “one of the functions of a University is the guardian of past culture why isolate English literature, music, or art, or for that reason any of the other fields of culture?”

From this very sketchy outline you can readily see the great inherent possibilities in the relationship of Dumbarton Oaks with Harvard from an educational point of view. The two institutions fit together.

The Dangers

In these days when we all are subconsciously pessimistic, I can’t help but reflect as I study the carefully developed plans back of Dumbarton Oaks – What are the dangers in this perfect setting for the study of the Humanities? There are, I believe, three serious ones.

  1. Human beings, scholars included, thrive as well as fail on handicaps, rigorous requirements, goals to be achieved and competition. Many of those elements are not present here. Dilettantism may well creep in if high standards of scholarship are ever relaxed. There is nothing much worse anywhere than “soft characterless scholarship.”
  2. The distance from Cambridge is great. Dumbarton Oaks is a subsidiary rather than an integral operating unit of Harvard, Neglect in the form of a weak administrative or scholarly committee would lead quickly to unfortunate consequences. Absentee management some day might well kill a most promising educational experiment.
  3. The tendency to conform and to cling to inert ideas is a stultifying human weakness. Conformity to an educational pattern may become the trend here but should be avoided like the plague. Our present program probably is not the perfect one, but Dumbarton Oaks is a breath of fresh air in a rather stale and uninteresting educational world, particularly at the Graduate level. This freshness in the form of educational experiments should be preserved at all cost. We should experiment and perhaps make mistakes here in this laboratory for the teaching of the Humanities. Scholarship should not be permitted to stifle novelty or exploratory ventures. Only thus can Dumbarton Oaks and Harvard be best served. It is better to learn from mistakes than to be faultless and therefore have no opportunity to learn.

Those of you who visit Dumbarton Oaks in daylight will see here and there in stone a Latin inscription, “Quod severis metes.” Roughly in Biblical language this is “Whatsoever ye sow that shall ye also reap.” Following strictly the spirit of this quotation, there has been excellent “sowing” here for twenty years which places great responsibility on those who will reap the harvest. Harvard University recognizes this challenge. Dean Buck recently wrote to the Administrative Committee, “The foundation of Dumbarton Oaks is one of the best things that has happened in Harvard during the past generation. Its continued development will mean much to the Humanities and I need not stress to you the necessity of keeping the Humanities alive in this crisis.

In no area of human learning even during this war period has Harvard a greater stake than in the Humanities which are the main concern back of Dumbarton Oaks. The University appreciates beyond expression the great interest of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss in American scholarship and the contributions of all who are helping develop Dumbarton Oaks into a great institution for the perpetuation of culture and will devote all the time, attention, and energy necessary to aid them in achieving its proper objectives.