Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz
In the circles of Harvard Dr. Bailyn is platinum. That's not saying much
since there are many in the crowd with numerous honorifics. Dr. Bailyn is
an expert on early American Colonial history. He has written a score of
books on pre-industrial New England, exploring the development of
republicanism, how mercantile activity affected the development of
Anglo-American ideology, and what led to the formation of the American
Revolution and its aftermath. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes in history
attest to that.
Professor Bailyn was one of the old time instructors at Harvard, the type I
steered toward in my studies. This talk all the time about grade inflation at
universities and the course curriculum's being intellectually suspect are
real problems on campuses. If pupils sought out educators of Bernard
Bailyn's sort there would be no worries of getting ones moneys worth---
and a guaranteed grade one deserves.
Dr. Bailyn was born in Connecticut in 1922. He studied undergraduate at
Williams College and subsequent graduate degrees were taken at
Harvard. He served in the Army Signal Corps and the Army Security
Agency in WWII before returning to Harvard as faculty. He was the
epitome of a Yankee Brahman and I was lucky to catch him as a
professor, one in a long line, on the outer edge of his tenure. He had
been at it full time for more than 40 years.
Many people have Hollywood perceptions of Harvard professors. They
think they speak in stilted quasi-British accents while chewing on their
pipes, and wear tweed jackets; that they all teach in the Socratic method.
It's all fiction. Dr. Bailyn was a soft spoken professor except when
lecturing and spoke standard American english. I never met an educator
at Harvard who spoke with the pretentious, affected John Kerry accent, or
the Ted Kennedy invented accent of whatever lineage. Those who went
to private schools and came from wealth spoke the same english as
Walter Cronkite. It was their mannerisms and polish that defined
Dr. Bailyn was concentrated and trim, every action was deliberate and
pointed. Efficiency and excellence were clearly unspoken goals. He might
as well have had a sign on his door, "No Loafers Allowed". This did not
mean he was an unkind man. As a matter of fact he was very generous.
At the time, Dr. Bailyn had his office in Robinson Hall which was next to my
building. I would see him on a daily basis but never really talked to him.
Professors don't like being accosted in The Yard. When I decided to take
a class with him I had to go to his office to seek special permission to
attend the course. The class was on the formations of the Constitution
and was being offered at Harvard Law School, obviously an advanced
level graduate course. As an undergraduate this was a bold request on
my part. After a short interview, while sucking on one arm of his glasses
as he thought, he granted permission and signed the paperwork. I will
always appreciate that because he had to know I was over my head at
that point, but he was not going to deprive me of an opportunity to try. My
arguments as to why I needed the course must have been pretty feeble
since the course was outside my major of studies. He very easily could
have turned me away.
And so, I spent the semester attempting to keep up with some sharp Law
School students. I wasn't the brightest but I wasn't the worst. Dr. Bailyn
was enormously expert on the subject of Colonial ideological development
and gave no quarter to sloppy scholarship. When I think back to the
course, Dr. Bailyn was like the images of Ground Control when the U.S.
was guiding the lunar landing project. He was one of those efficient,
non-emotive engineering types that put us on the moon. In the end, I
didn't get an honors grade, in fact, I barely survived, but I didn't sink in the
deep waters. It was the grade I deserved. If an ordinary seaman were
dropped in the water with a SEAL/UDT team and managed to come away
alive he would be content. I was.
As it stands now, in the tradition of old Harvard, at 84 Professor Bailyn
(Emeritus) still teaches. He does not lecture any more but still plugs away
at his research. He is a working professor but has limited his classes to
one-on-one tutorials for doctoral students at the highest level of research.
Many of these students have gone on to publish significant pieces on
Colonial history and at least two have won Pulitzer Prizes. I would have to
guess, Dr. Bailyn has found satisfaction in not only being an exemplar to
the young throughout his career, but also as a mentor in his senior years
where he has found sparks of talent that need nurturing and guidance.
As a history professor his actions have created more history and
enhanced the continuum of Colonial scholarship.
Since this web sight has to do with Yankee history I would recommend
three books meticulously written by Bernard Bailyn:
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967);
The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (1955);
Voyagers to the West (1986).