Harvard College European Society

Harvard CollegeHarvard College

Founded in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard was the first institution of higher learning in England’s American colonies and has remained a preeminent center of education in the United States for almost four centuries.

From the beginning, Harvard was an intrinsically Puritan institution. It reflected the Calvinists’ commitment to biblical literacy and was founded so that New England could train its own ministry. The General Court of Massachusetts chartered the college on October 28, 1636. It was in Newtown, which was subsequently renamed Cambridge as tribute to the English university where many Puritans had been educated.

Harvard’s first master was Nathaniel Eaton, who began teaching classes in 1638, although his tenure lasted only a year. As Governor John Winthrop noted, Eaton was guilty of providing his boarders with “ill and scant diet” and of beating one student with “a walnut tree plant big enough to have killed a horse.”

Nevertheless, many early New Englanders placed their faith in the college, including a young man named John Harvard. When Harvard died in 1638, he left his library and half of his property to the college, leading the General Court to rename the school in his honor.

In 1640, Henry Dunster was named the college’s first president and he placed Harvard on firm footing. Within two years, the college constructed “Old College, ” Harvard’s first college building. At this site, on September 23, 1642, the college hosted its first graduation.

Nine “young men of good hope” received their bachelor degrees according to Winthrop, seven of whom left to fight for the Puritan cause in the English Civil War. In 1655, Harvard built an “Indian College” to educate and evangelize Native Americans, although this experiment was largely abandoned after King Philip’s War. The building subsequently became the site of the first American university press.

Although founded to train ministers, Harvard provided a far broader education from the start. The charter of 1650 (under which Harvard still operates) stated that the college’s purpose was “the advancement of all good literature artes and Sciences.” Accordingly, Harvard provided a liberal arts education, heavily emphasizing the Greek and Latin classics, rather than vocational training.

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