The Origins of the Center for Hellenic Studies

The Origins of the Center for Hellenic Studies

by Eric N. Lindquist


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A case study in American philanthropy, this book describes the beginnings of the Center for Hellenic Studies, a research institute established in 1961 in Washington, D.C. as an outpost of Harvard University. Each year eight post-doctoral fellows come from all over the world to live at the center and do research in ancient Greek literature, philosophy, or history. The idea behind this arrangement began with the preeminent philanthropist Paul Mellon's interest in finding a project to advance the humanities. Eric Lindquist traces the ten-year evolution of the center from Mellon's first general notion. In the process he portrays some of the hopes and fears for the humanities, especially the classics, in America during the period following World War II and the climate of opinion that led to the establishment of the center. The study concludes with a short account of the subsequent development of the center. This is the first published account of the origins of the center.

Originally published in 1990.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691600017
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1174
Pages: 100
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.40(d)

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The Origins of the Center for Hellenic Studies

By Eric N. Lindquist


Copyright © 1990 The Center for Hellenic Studies
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03174-3


Since 1961 the Center for Hellenic Studies has offered a haven for young scholars of ancient Greek literature, history, and philosophy to spend a quiet year, free of distraction, to reflect and write. The center is located, somewhat improbably, on Whitehaven Street in Washington, D.C. It stands in what has been described as a "sylvan enclave," in a part of Washington that is heavily populated with foreign embassies. How the center got there is an interesting and instructive story. It was created at a time when the humanities, and especially the study of ancient Greek, seemed in serious decline, and in a city that was not known then as a center of culture and learning. It began as one idea and ended up—after many years of discussion—as something quite different. An account of the evolution of the center offers a case study of American philanthropy in action and also contributes to an understanding of the place of the humanities in national life.

The story begins with the philanthropist Paul Mellon, who initiated the train of events that led to the establishment of the center and has given it nearly all of the funds it has ever received. Paul Mellon's father was the Pittsburgh banker Andrew W. Mellon, who arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1921 to serve as secretary of the treasury, an office in which he continued for eleven years. Andrew Mellon's tenure had important consequences for the city's (and the nation's) cultural life. Washington, he felt, lacked the cultural institutions that distinguished the other important capitals of the world. To help remedy this, in 1936 he presented to the American people his great collection of European and American paintings and sculpture to form the nucleus of a national collection, along with the promise of funds sufficient to construct a building to house it. The National Gallery of Art, the fruits of his generosity, opened in 1941, four years after his death.

Paul Mellon meanwhile had been educated at Choate School, Yale University, where he studied literature, Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied history, and, just before World War II, at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, whose strict course of study in the liberal arts, required of all students, included the study of ancient Greek. He was thus thoroughly grounded in the humanities. Mellon settled on a farm in northern Virginia, close to Washington, in the 1930s and later acquired a house on Whitehaven Street. (As we shall see, the fact that the center was also established on Whitehaven Street was coincidental.) In Washington he was involved, among other things, in the National Gallery of Art, of which he served as trustee (1945–1985), president (1963–1978), and chairman (1979–1985). While president of the gallery, he and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, gave the gallery funds to construct a new building, which was completed in 1977. The East Building, as it was called, housed additional exhibition space and a new Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, an institute for the scholarly study of art history.

Mellon also devoted a great deal of time to the work of several philanthropic foundations, including the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, which his father had established in Pittsburgh, and two foundations that he himself had established in New York City in the 1940s These were Bollingen Foundation, whose chief activity was book publication, and Old Dominion Foundation (its offices located in New York but named after his adopted state of Virginia), a general-purpose foundation which supported programs in education, the arts, mental health, and conservation, among other things

Bollingen and Old Dominion foundations were concerned, in the words of a report issued by the latter, with promoting the "general understanding of our cultural heritage"—Bollingen Foundation through its books and Old Dominion Foundation through its grants, especially to colleges and universities "to strengthen liberal arts teaching and the role of the humanities in the curriculum" This emphasis reflected Mellon's own predilections, which seemed increasingly out of step with the times National interest in the humanities—the classics, history, literature, and related subjects—was not very high and appeared to be declining

First of all, there was the long-term decline—or even general disappearance—of traditional liberal arts education, in which the humanities, mainly in the form of the classics, played a central role By the time Mellon attended St John's Collegejust before World War II, its curriculum, which was actually highly traditional, had become an innovation, it was even called the "New Program" Once, all educated persons had learned classical languages Now, such knowledge was becoming rare As a sign of the times, Yale abandoned its Latin requirement in 1931 Instead of liberal education, the elective system and vocational training came to prevail in American higher education The humanities meanwhile became specialized concerns Not all students studied the humanities, a few students (and fewer and fewer over time) "majored" in them And the professional teachers of the humanities pursued scholarship that seemed increasingly esoteric, not necessarily because it was, but because the audience capable of comprehending it was shrinking. Since the humanities, especially the classics, were no longer studied widely in schools and universities, they had less and less to do with the formation of national culture.

By the 1950s the decline of the humanities was underlined further by the rise of science and technology. World War II, the Cold War that followed, the growth in the postwar period of a prosperous consumer society—all put scientific and technological advance at the forefront of national concern. The National Defense Education Act, passed in 1958, was the chief effort in the period to boost American education; it was concerned chiefly with scientific and technical education. Congress passed it in a state of alarm after the Soviets had launched the first space satellite, which appeared to be a grave threat to American security. (The act also encouraged foreign language study, but modern foreign languages.) In this atmosphere, the humanities seemed more and more neglected, a situation that seemed to some observers to be leading to a grave imbalance in national beliefs and values. The educational reformer Abraham Flexner complained that science "is ... running away with our national culture."

National neglect was reflected in the level of financial support the humanities received relative to the sciences. In a report on the state of the humanities in America, published in 1959, the literary scholar Howard Mumford Jones noted that the annual budget of the American Council of Learned Societies, then the chief organization for promoting humane learning in America, was only 1/280 of the 1958 proposed budget of the National Science Foundation. "We think too meanly of the humanities in this country," Jones lamented. In those years, before the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the federal government gave little for the support of humane learning According to Flexner, the private sector was not supportive either He complained that "neither individual philanthropists nor the foundations have made any systematic effort to develop the humanities"

Paul Mellon was one of those who deplored the decline of the humanities in American life, and he resolved m effect to take up Flexner's challenge Bollingen and Old Dominion foundations were contributing already to support the humanities, but Mellon wished to do more By 1953, he recalled later, he and some of his advisers had became interested in "formulating a special project which would act as a general stimulus to Humanistic thought and education" He wanted to do something substantial and innovative "The question is," Huntington Cairns, one of his associates, noted m April of that year, "what is the best way to do it" Mellon's first idea was to use the balance of funds held by the A W Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, a sum of $25 or $30 million Soliciting ideas from others, he wrote A Whitney Griswold, who had been his classmate at Yale and now was Yale's president, "we have an obligation and an opportunity to do something in a very creative way for the humanities and the arts, or perhaps even toward a beginning of a synthesis of humanities and sciences" Mellon asked for Griswold's advice and said that he had already spoken with others, including Flexner and Cairns Their thinking, he wrote, ran to a new foundation or "some sort of Institute," such as the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, of which Flexner had been the first director

Nothing came immediately of these consultations, but a year or two later an idea for an institute proposed by Huntington Cairns began seriously to engage Mellon's attention Cairns was a lawyer by profession who served from 1943 to 1965 as secretary, treasurer, and general counsel of the National Gallery of Art. He also served the Treasury Department for many years as a censor of imported literature. Cairns's interests, however, were not confined to the law. He was a man of wide learning and impressive energy, who befriended many writers—including H L Mencken, Henry Miller, and Ezra Pound—and himself wrote or edited a number of books During most of its existence he was a trustee of Bollingen Foundation, which published two of his books, a literature anthology entitled The Limits of Art (1948) and The Collected Dialogues of Plato (1961), which he edited with Edith Hamilton For his erudition, Cairns was known among some of his friends "affectionately as The Sage" In October 1954 Cairns submitted to Mellon a memorandum proposing an institute he called the "Residence" as the best means to promote the cause of the humanities Two further memoranda on the Residence followed in June 1955 and December 1956

Cairns modeled his Residence in part on such existing scholarly institutes as the Institute for Advanced Study, All Souls College at Oxford (he once referred to the Residence as "an Hellenic All Souls") and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D C , an institute for Byzantine and pre-Columbian studies that was part of Harvard University The Residence would house a small number of senior fellows with permanent tenure and an equal number of junior fellows with temporary appointments It would be concerned with ancient Greek civilization initially—or Hellenism, as Cairns called it—although it might concern itself with other subjects in time The Residence would be located in Washington, D C, where the fellows would have access to Dumbarton Oaks and the Library of Congress

The Residence may have resembled the Institute for Advanced Study or Dumbarton Oaks, but apparently Cairns was not interested in merely establishing another "ivory tower" scholarly institute In a wider sense, the humanities could be advanced by promoting a larger role for them in national culture; in a narrower sense, they could be advanced by promoting the research of professional humanists. Cairns wanted to do both, but apparently the former more than the latter. In fact he disapproved rather strongly of academic scholarship as it was then practiced. What Cairns evidently wished to create was a mission rather than a scholarly retreat, with the ambition of influencing national life more broadly. The Residence might sponsor scholarship, but that was not to be its only concern; it should be "an enduring institution of wide influence ... exerted towards the reassertion of humanism in the arts, in the academic world, and in the nation as a whole." Cairns even thought that the Residence might train men "to guide public affairs."

Cairns's ambitions were prompted by a more extreme view of the problem Mellon wished to remedy. Mellon thought that there was a disturbing neglect of the humanities in American society; Cairns feared that the fate of civilization was in the balance. Cairns told the poet and critic Sir Herbert Read that if the next generation did not embrace what he called Hellenism, "we are faced with re-barbarization." To prevent this re-barbarization was "the whole point of the Residence." One critic of Cairns's views, Jacques Barzun, was to call them "apocalyptic." The Residence, Cairns hoped, would help rescue the world from the "organized vulgarity" of popular entertainment and the modern philosophical and intellectual maladies which threatened to corrupt it irretrievably. He was interested in what he called Hellenism not as a field of academic research—not because it would yield a rich harvest of scholarly books and articles—but because of the "view of the world" which he thought Hellenism embodied, a view that had become essential to saving civilization The whole undertaking, Barzun commented, "has all the aspects of founding a church rather than an intellectual enterprise"

Cairns did not want the Residence to be affiliated with a university He distrusted universities, admitting later that the Residence represented "an implied criticism" of them 14 He held the universities at least partly accountable for the current plight of the humanities, blaming them for abandoning liberal education in favor of vocational training Even those members of the universities who were concerned with the humanities, the professional humanists, did not seem to him to redeem the situation" 'Classicism' in the Universities," he wrote to Read, "means pedantic scholarship, obscurantism, and no thought at all The Residence had to remain independent of university influence so that its mission would not be diluted If anything, Cairns hoped that the Residence would influence higher education, perhaps bringing about significant curricular reform

For that reason, apparently, Cairns prescribed that the Residence should be situated in Washington Washington had several universities, but none of such prestige as seemed likely to overshadow the Residence or threaten its independence There was yet another argument for locating the Residence m Washington As the nation's capital, Washington was the place where the influence of the Residence could be brought to bear most effectively on public life Cairns's wife, Florence Butler, who was also a student of Greek and champion of her husband's ideas, commented later that the Residence had to be situated in Washington not because of what Washington could give the Residence "but because of what the Residence can give Washington—direction" She continued, "Government officials are perplexed, and they know they are perplexed Huntington has been approached by men on every level of government asking, not only for advice concerning what to read, but advice concerning what to do"

However worthy its goals, the Residence was to be criticized rather severely The scheme posed a number of difficulties Perhaps the main one was its overall vagueness, which involved Cairns in some contradictions In Cairns's description, the Residence would be part retreat and part mission, simultaneously sponsoring scholarship and spreading humanistic propaganda But these aims were probably irreconcilable The former required leisure and independence while the latter required direction and collaboration The difficulty was complicated by the fact that the only people who knew Greek any longer, and the only people who comprehended what Cairns meant by Hellenism, were academic scholars, who seemed among the least likely to serve his purposes It would be difficult to turn them into missionaries or proponents of what one critic called the proposal's "ideological line" But Cairns never reconciled the various contradictions in his scheme and indeed seemed largely unaware of them Nor did he ever outline any specific strategy for the Residence to carry out its grand mission He never really said what precisely the Residence should do In May 1959, five years after Cairns had first proposed his idea, Ernest Brooks, Jr , a trustee of Old Dominion Foundation, commented that it was "difficult for him to visualize exactly what sort of work would be done in the Residence"

Finally, there was another matter that should be mentioned here Cairns's own role once the Residence was established He never commented on this directly, but it was believed widely that he hoped to play a part, probably a prominent one In 1958 Thomas H Beddall, an assistant to Mellon, noted that Cairns's participation in the Residence was "implicit." Others even thought that Cairns wished to be its director.


Excerpted from The Origins of the Center for Hellenic Studies by Eric N. Lindquist. Copyright © 1990 The Center for Hellenic Studies. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • FOREWORD, pg. vii
  • ENDNOTES, pg. 77

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