Dunster the Scholar

Henry Dunster became renowned as an Orientalist scholar (as "Orientalist" was defined in those days). Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that one of Dunster's early innovations in the Harvard curriculum "was the emphasis on Hebrew and other oriental languages, which were Dunster's specialty."(1) He eventually "developed an international reputation as a Hebrew scholar."(2) The Hebraic portion of the Harvard curriculum - which included Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac - was what really set it apart from the courses of study at Oxford and Cambridge.(3) Andrew Preston Peabody, in his Harvard Graduates Whom I Have Known (1890), wrote of this aspect of the Dunster curriculum: "Some parts of the then required course transcend not only the attainment, but the easy imagining, of the foremost scholars now in our universities..." Peabody then adds this searing comment (writing about the "degenerate days" of 1890!) with respect to the ability of Dunster's students in the mid-1600s to translate from Hebrew into Greek on the fly: "What would be thought in our degenerate days of requiring students at morning prayers to translate from the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, and at evening prayers to retranslate the English text of the New Testament into Greek?" (4) Obviously, it was already inconceivable in Peabody's day to think that Harvard students should be able to do so.

There is also a very interesting correlation between Dunster's commitment to scholarship in the Biblical languages and his interest in the indigenous languages of the various Indian tribes in New England.

Though he did not leave scholarly books with his name in them as author, he left the priceless legacy of the college itself and in many ways put his stamp on all of American higher education down to the present day. As Benjamin Peirce described him in A History of Harvard University, Dunster was "an eminently learned man."(5)

1. Morison, Builders of the Bay Colony, p. 207.
2. American National Biography, Volume 7, 107.
3. S.E. Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard (1936), pp. 30-31.
4. Andrew Preston Peabody, Harvard Graduates Whom I Have Known (Boston: Houghton, Miflin & Company, 1890), Appendix: "Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard College," p. 233.
5. Benjamin Peirce, A History of Harvard University from its Foundation in the Year 1636 to the Period of the American Revolution (1833), p. 12. This work was published by John Pickering after Peirce's death. Peirce's son (also named Benjamin) gained fame as one of the most important mathematicians in early American history.

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