A Higher Education

Hanna Holborn Gray '50 fled Hitler's Germany in the 1930s and, like her parents, pursued a life of the mind.
Open Book

Armed with a Harvard Ph.D. in history, she launched an academic life: as the first woman to serve as Yale's provost,  the first woman president of a major research university when she was appointed to lead the University of Chicago, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Most recently, Gray has written An Academic Life, a candid self-portrait that traces the arc of her life from childhood to her trailblazing career in academia. Along the way, she writes about the value of the  liberal arts, women's colleges, and her time at  Bryn Mawr.  

On October 5, Gray will be on campus for an author's event. In the meantime, here are excerpts from her book, published by Princeton University Press this spring. 

It is often thought that mine was, in the fifties, the “silent” generation, characterized by a passivity and conservatism and acceptance of the status quo that stood in stark contrast to the activism that followed in the sixties. It is true that we were not usually marchers and public protesters in the style of the sixties and that many young women of my generation were not particularly engaged with politics and/or with the reformist movements of the time at all. But a significant number were highly critical of the trends, dilemmas, and developments they discerned in their contemporary world. Nor were all simply quiet observers, as witness those who stayed committed to movements like nuclear disarmament or world federalism in an environment where those came under heavy suspicion and attack as potentially “subversive.” Our student forums and publications, and much of our discussion with faculty and with visiting speakers, returned again and again to these debates, to the need for supporting academic freedom, and to the threats now posed to the essential imperatives of higher education in both teaching and research. The students preoccupied with such issues tended to congregate around a liberal center, as did the faculty. One huge change marking the sixties lay precisely in the fierce attack mounted by radical protesters against that center and the broad consensus it had represented, to the bewilderment of liberal academics who had regarded themselves as sympathetic to the protesters’ concerns.

It is often thought, too, that feminism was born only in the sixties and with the civil rights movement. But that is true only if you neglect the feminism of earlier generations that had in fact built a lasting foundation for the multiple feminisms of the sixties and afterward, and that had created the distinctive forms and aspirations of the women’s colleges. Those institutions now require new or renewed defenses of their existence in a world almost entirely devoted to coeducation. Such reflections have in turn again helped revive interest in thinking about the purposes of liberal education itself.

My first assignment in English Composition was to read General Education in a Free Society, the report known as the “Red Book” written by a Harvard faculty committee that outlined the goals, and a curriculum to fulfill them, for Harvard College in the postwar age. I was so clueless that I failed to discern why we should be studying this official report, decked out in fulsome prose, rather than reading some great literary work as we embarked on serious collegiate study. Only gradually did I come to understand it as a historical document that expressed much of the hope, optimism, openness to wider intellectual horizons that characterized thinking about education at the time of its composition. The report embraced the acquisition of a common, largely Western and democratic, culture. Its recommendations for general education looked to shaping the citizens and leaders of an improved society.

“I suddenly realized that I could be happy to do this every night for the rest of my life, and that I was, and would now hope to become, an academic despite myself.” 

Those recommendations were not, in the end, fully accepted at Harvard despite its introduction of general education requirements, but they had a considerable influence on the wide-ranging discussions of liberal education that were taking place elsewhere as well. And the Red Book has continued to serve as a classic text in the endless battles over the curriculum that have recurrently roiled discussion of higher education in the decades that followed. Those debates have come to include subjects and opinions that were scarcely at issue in 1946—for example, the place of global and non-Western studies, of ethnic and gender studies, of internships and community service, of online learning. Nonetheless, they remain at heart debates, conducted in changing contexts, about the aims of education, about the outcomes to be hoped for, about the balance of general and specialized learning, about the relative weight of free choice and required learning in the process of becoming educated, and, finally, about the things that are most worth knowing or pursuing intellectually over the course of a lifetime. In the end, they look to defining the kind of culture and society we want, and the kind of human models we construct as ideal persons to be shaped through education.

The faculty clearly thought we should start getting educated by learning to think about education and its goals, an excellent purpose that initially went right over my head. The faculty did not think we should necessarily accept what the Red Book said, and indeed its prescriptions were quite different from those represented by our own curriculum and by the general spirit of the college that assumed the liberal arts to be first and foremost a good in themselves, even if they had a social benefit as well.

There is some irony in the fact that the women’s colleges could be (and, I think, can continue to be) in some sense the best or most single-minded advocates for the liberal arts in their purest form. In the case of women’s education, after all, the colleges did not then believe it their first priority to talk, as did the Ivy institutions, about the preparation of “leaders” or, in the first instance, about the professional benefits of such an education. We were not expected to be busy building résumés. Women were not, it was assumed, necessarily being prepared for vocational or worldly success, or for going out into the world to run it. Not that such outcomes were unthought-of or entirely neglected, but the two priorities were reversed, and the claims of liberal learning as an educational value in itself were seen as paramount, a much-debated tradition that has lasted under what are now very different circumstances.

In my college days we talked a great deal about the purposes of the education we had chosen, both in terms of learning itself and in trying to define the ultimate value of education for women. Most of us were looking toward marriage but also toward careers. Some of my contemporaries knew exactly what they wanted, whether medicine or law or graduate school or school teaching or journalism or publishing. Many of us had less specific ideas about the future but hoped to be finding satisfying jobs, and many of us thought that the world of publishing would be the right place to start, whether at a magazine like Time or at a publisher like Alfred Knopf (in either case as intelligent assistants serving the coffee and carrying around the glue pots that were understood to be essential to the higher journalism and to literary production, and then rising in the organization). Such jobs were thought especially appropriate for female college graduates, in part because they would be dealing with, or at least close to, writing and books and ideas, in part because these were seen as genteel occupations, something to do before marriage intervened. A surprising number found such jobs.

We were a little vague about how we were going to combine careers and families. We imagined that we would need to drop out of the workplace for a time, but we were by no means unaware that there were difficult choices to be made, and that not all young men of our acquaintance would be sympathetic to our aspirations. We knew, of course, that the world in general was certainly not prepared to deal with us as we would like to be dealt with, that at least some pioneering might be necessary. We saw ourselves as empowered by our education and encouraged by our teachers to gain effective independence and resilience, and as able to act on the incontestable knowledge that we were intellectually equal to men. Looking now at the lives of my classmates, I see that a very large percentage went on to substantial careers as well as continuing to perform important volunteer service, a good number at later stages of life. We tended to get married fairly soon after graduation, much earlier than is customary nowadays, and often to get some specialized or advanced training later. At the same time, we believed that freedom of choice as to what kind of life we might lead, let alone the unforeseeable directions or pressures of individual circumstance, meant that the domestic path and the work of volunteer service were equally valuable outcomes. That view has frequently put people on the defensive as the next generation’s view of women’s liberation came all too often to suggest that only one choice could be considered correct or laudable.

The newer freedom for women, which has so greatly enlarged their realm of choice and opportunity, has not, of course, simplified women’s lives. But this modern condition has surely enriched their lives, so long as it is not used to rationalize new conformities, or to encourage unproductive resentment or passivity in the face of the perceived difficulty of its consequences, or to suggest that the individual is defined by a single choice, like that of conventional career success, rather than by the deeper measures contained in those qualities of mind, perspective, sympathy, and imagination through which women may realize their independent natures. And those, I hope, may be at least in part an outcome of a liberal arts education for men and women alike.

Entering the library on a winter evening of my second year at Bryn Mawr, I underwent a kind of epiphany. The heavy doors closed behind me with their usual solid thump, the familiar worn wooden steps gave off their usual creak, the distinctive odor of books was in the air, and before me lay the reading room with its green-shaded lamps and individual reading carrels. I suddenly realized that I could be happy to do this every night for the rest of my life, and that I was, and would now hope to become, an academic despite myself.

The apex of my undergraduate education was to study Tacitus, Livy, and Lucretius with Lily Ross Taylor. Every one of my teachers was highly competent, every one of them a scholar, each one knew his or her students and wanted to help them succeed. What set Lily Ross Taylor apart was a singular and vital connection to her subject, her distinctive breadth of intellectual curiosity, and her passionate, rigorous, and effective way of communicating the essence of Roman history and literature, and of demonstrating the relationships among seemingly disparate texts, subjects, and events. Our advanced Latin classes were small (I think six was the largest) and held in her apartment. At some point tea would be served. By the end, whenever that happened (time was not kept), the floor by Miss Taylor’s armchair would be strewn with books she had pulled off her shelves in order to read out some favorite passage or answer some question or make some new observation that had just occurred to her. She taught us to read, which is to hear, Latin poetry as it should be read and heard, and had us memorize and recite quite a bit of Lucretius; those lines are still etched in my memory.

To honor its former board chair, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation created the Hanna Holborn Gray Research Fellowship program to support undergraduate research in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. Each year, up to 15 fellows are named to spend their summer conducting independent research relevant to their intellectual interests.

The 2018 Hanna Holborn Gray Fellows

  • Simon Balukonis HC ’19 (Growth and Structure of Cities): Investigating the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Club Culture in Chicago
  • Leah Borquez ’20 (Classical Languages): Take Care Not to Catch the Madness: Celsus’ Definition and Diagnosis of Madness
  • Rebecca Chang HC '19 (Growth and Structure of Cities): Navigating Adolescent Ethnic Identity: A Case Study of Second-Generation Chinese-Peruvians in Heritage Schools in Lima, Peru
  • Isabel Gellert ’19 (History): Women Left Behind
  • Leah Grams ’20 (Archaeology and Classical Languages): Papyrus as Text, Papyrus as Artifact: Finding a Unified Approach to Papyrology
  • Emily Haller ’19 (Growth and Structure of Cities): Mapping Nature in Philadelphia
  • Abigail Lua ’19 (History of Art): Piña: Weaving the Fabric of Philippine Identity
  • Elena Luedy ’19 (Growth and Structure of Cities): From the Ashes We Will Rise: Building a Sustainable Detroit
  • Annika Lutzenhiser ’19 (Anthropology): A Good Queer or a Good Christian? The Intersections of Acceptance, Faith, and Sexuality in Seattle
  • Aayzah Mirza ’19 (Psychology and History): Indian Female Convicts: Resistance in Colonial Singapore
  • Ekaterina Olson Shipyatsky ’19 (Philosophy, Politics, Economics): Remembering as a Political Practice: An Examination of Museums as Responses to and Representations of Genocide
  • Xinyi Shen ’19 (Sociology): A qualitative study of the extent of accepting the new teaching methods of rural high school teachers in China
  • Ananya Sinha ’19 (Growth and Structure of Cities): Variations in Urban Temporalities: Creative Placemaking and Renewal in Baltimore's Arts and Entertainment Districts
  • Clara Wright ’19: Isis and Cleopatra in Rome
  • Ruoli Yang ’19 (Growth and Structure of Cities): City Planning Museums in Relation to Urban Developments in China