If you go to Belmont High School, you almost certainly hear the names Harvard and Yale a little more than you’d like to. Everyone’s worried about whether or not they’re going to get into these prestigious universities—but have you ever thought about who the people behind the names were?
William Shakespeare lived in the small town of Surrey, England around the turn of the seventeenth century, and worshipped at a local church, St. Saviour’s, which means that he very likely knew another man who worshipped there at that time: a butcher by the name of Robert Harvard. Robert was a more eminent citizen than you would think a butcher would be: he held local government positions and was a trustee of the local grammar school. His son John, born in 1607, likely went to that school, but upon graduating his schooling was put on hold for a few years because the family was too poor and too large to find funds for him to attend university. However, due to a few cases of the plague, John’s inheritance grew enough to afford an education at Emmanuel College, a relatively new institution founded by the Puritans to educate their clergy. When the Puritans started settling Massachusetts in the mid-seventeenth century (remember the first chapter of any American History textbook), John Harvard went with them. In Massachusetts, Harvard was a passionate, well-liked preacher who cared deeply about theological education—thus he was committed to the progress of a new college in Newtowne (now Cambridge, after the English university). Unfortunately, when he came to America, he was already ill with consumption, a slow-burning but fatal disease. When he died in 1638, only a year after leaving England, he bequeathed half his inheritance and his entire 400-volume library (an impressive collection for the time) to the new college, and this gift was enough to rechristen the school in his honor. Harvard College it became, and Harvard College it stayed.
A decade after Harvard’s death and just a few miles away from where he lived, Elihu Yale was born into a family of wealthy merchants (a family which included the then-governor of the admittedly short-lived New Haven Colony). However, Yale’s parents moved to London when he was three years old and never came back. At the age of twenty-one, Yale started working for the East India Company, an powerful English mercantilist trading company. He worked his way up, reaching the position of governor of a company outpost in India, but in 1692 he was removed from that post (and the company) for corruption, embezzling and improper use of power. Yale moved back to London and tried his hand at the diamond trade, but at this point his primary occupation was philanthropy—he had amassed sufficient funds from his work and his family inheritance to be able to donate money and not worry about it.
In 1701, across the Atlantic Ocean, Puritan dissenters in America founded a college in the town of Saybrook (on the coast of their new Connecticut Colony) to educate preachers in their new faith. They called it the “Collegiate School at Saybrook”—not a particularly catchy name, to be honest—and it was this school that was the primary benefactor of Elihu Yale’s late-life philanthropy. After Yale donated books in 1713, his friend, the prolific New England minister Cotton Mather, suggested to him that if he were to make another significant donation, the college could be renamed in recognition of the gift. Accordingly, Yale donated more books, some textiles and a portrait of the English king George I. The school, planning a move to New Haven, sold the goods for about eight hundred pounds (a significant sum of money) and used the funds to construct a new building there which was named after its benefactor. Eventually, the name was applied to the whole institution, and the Collegiate School of Saybrook officially became Yale University. By this time, Elihu was reaching old age; he died in 1721 at the age of seventy-two, and was buried in Wrexham in North Wales.
John Harvard and Elihu Yale were not particularly famous in their day. Neither of them led incredible lives; neither of them had particularly significant achievements. They were, quite simply, normal people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, people who took the opportunity when it was given to them to leave their mark on some of the first colleges in the New World. There are two lessons here, I suppose. One is pessimistic, the thing Malcolm Gladwell argues time and time again in Outliers: that luck is by far the biggest contributor to success, both personal and historical. But it’s a different lesson that I prefer to take from these stories, a more hopeful lesson, one that applies just as much now as it did in the seventeenth century. Harvard and Yale did one thing that set them apart: they sacrificed some of their short-term wealth for an ideal—education—that would never personally benefit them. And that’s exactly what we need to do now, when it seems for all the world that there’s an impending global crisis: pay attention to the long-term effects of our actions, even if they don’t have any impact on our lives right now.
So when you think of Harvard, when you think of Yale, think of the people behind those names. Because they were just people who recognized, if only for a moment, how crucial it is that we value the future.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.