The Harvard-Disney Connections

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"I'm a very uneducated man, a graduate of the school of hard knocks. I went as far as high school and art school in Chicago, but that was all," Walt told the New York Post newspaper in June 1938.

In fact, Walt only attended one year of high school before joining the Red Cross Ambulance unit and being sent overseas to France. When he returned, he never felt any need to finish high school nor any desire to go on to college.

In 1938, with the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney received a slew of awards, including a Marble Electric Clock from the 49th Annual Tournament of Roses as a special prize for the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs float in the New Year's Day parade; a bronze and wooden plaque from Radio Guide magazine "in appreciation of pleasure brought to radio listeners by Disney's characters"; a special bronze and wooden plaque from the National Broadcasting Company for Mickey's 10th Birthday Broadcast (September 27, 1938); and a gold and wooden plaque as a tribute from the artists in Havana, Cuba.

In addition, he received several other awards in connection with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as several honorary college degrees acknowledging his accomplishments in making animation an art form.

Walt got an honorary of Master of Science degree from USC on June 4, an honorary Master of Arts degree from Yale University on June 22 and an honorary of Master of Arts degree from Harvard University on June 23.

Boston University had also approached Walt and offered him an honorary degree for their June 13 ceremonies, but Walt turned them down because he felt he had already accepted the other offers that same year.

Not bad for a kid who never graduated high school.

Walt had to be supplied with a cap and gown and he wrote that his cap size was 7 ¼ to 7 3/8 and the gown length should be 60 inches from shoulders to floor.

"I am 5-feet 10-inches tall and usually take size 40 in wearing apparrel," he wrote.

In the film at the end of the One Man's Dream attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World (which I wish the Disney Company would make available for sale to guests), there is a clip of Walt in cap and gown playfully blowing at his tassel dangling down from his mortar board to get it out of his eyes for a photo. That delightful clip was from the Harvard University ceremony.

Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636. It was named after the school's first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution.

The honorary degree has been a Harvard University tradition since 1692 when it was bestowed upon Puritan preacher and the school's president, Increase Mather, in 1750.

Today, Harvard bestows honorary degrees on those individuals outside the University who represent outstanding achievement in their personal lives or fields of endeavor.

The identities of the honorees are kept secret until they are announced with much fanfare on Graduation Day. A standing committee investigates the qualifications of the nominees and then submits a list to the full board for approval. A unanimous vote is typically required. The final list is passed to the Overseers for confirmation. On average, about 10 people are selected each year and they are required to be present at commencement to receive their degrees.

For example, Harvard awarded honorary degrees to poet Robert Frost in 1937, and to writer Carl Sandburg in 1940. No honorary degree seems to have been awarded in 1939. Honorary degrees are conferred honoris causa, "for the sake of honor."

Honorary degrees are generally awarded for one of three reasons: To recognize extraordinary intellectual or artistic achievement, to honor service to the University and to the wider society; and to recognize men and women who might serve as examples to the institution's student body. An honorary degree, it is said, honors both the grantee and the spirit of the institution.

So, in 1938, Harvard awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree to Walter Elias Disney.

"We're selling corn," Disney wrote to Harvard President James B. Conant in response to the letter offering him the degree, "and I like corn. I try to entertain, not educate: an important part of education is stimulating an interest in things."

Disney's honorary degree citation read: "A magician who has created a modern dwelling for the Muses."

But even though he stole the show at Commencement, Disney was not without detractors. A short while later, the following telegram arrived from an alumni of the class of 1910:

"Dean of Harvard University. I object to the cheapness you're showing in giving degrees to men like Disney who make a farce out of it. When mothers like mine have self sacrificed themselves to make Harvard men. Why go to college?"

In the 1930s, Walt Disney and his animation were the serious focus of many critics and scholars who debated whether Disney animation was truly an "art" and whether in fact, Walt was the heir to Leonardo Da Vinci.

"Get me right, boys. I'm grateful for these honorary degrees and the distinction they confer," Walt told a reporter for the Hearst newspaper The American on June 23, 1938. "But I'll always wish I'd had the chance to go through college in the regular way and earn a plain bachelor of arts like the thousands of kids nobody ever heard of, who are being graduated today."

While Harvard gave Walt an honorary degree, it is important to remember that, at the time, there was much controversy surrounding whether Disney's work should be considered "art" or just commercial product. While some critics lauded the films as examples of genuine works of art, others lambasted them as just interesting fluff.

Professor Robert Durant Feild (1893–1979) of the Harvard Fine Arts Department loved modern art, in particular the cartoons of Disney. He was one of the most popular (and one source also described him as "provocative") instructors on campus with full attendance at his lectures.

Harvard's then conservative art department let him go in Februrary 1939 (roughly seven months after giving Walt his honorary degree), supposedly because a committee of professors felt Feild had "too much enthusiasm for modern art, particularly Disney's."

Feild had given a lecture at the Disney Studio in August 1938 during a six-week visit to the Los Angeles area to study art.

When he was terminated, the reasons were never formally released (although it seemed completely unrelated to his teaching abilities) and it created somewhat of a furor.

In fact, a group of fine art majors rallied to support Feild and began a campaign to condemn Harvard's action and to reinstate their teacher. It was unsuccessful.

There were articles in Time magazine, Boston Evening Globe and the Christian Science Monitor that covered the situation and all intimated that it was Feild's love of Disney that was the primary cause.

The official response from the Disney Studio was that "Robert Feild is held in high esteem by our staff of over 300 practical artists…Harvard's loss will be someone's gain."

Walt had always thought about the necessity of producing a book on the art and technique of animation, especially because of the impact E.G. Lutz's book, Animated Cartoons - How They Are Made Their Origin And Development (1920 Scribners), had on young Walt when he constantly checked it out from the Kansas City library.

If you are interested in that book that taught Walt how to animate, then you must read this excellent essay by J. J. Sedelmaier.

In 1950, Walt Disney asked art instructor Don Graham (who had taught classes at the Disney Studios from 1932 to about 1940) to investigate the possibilities of making films on various aspects of art. Dividing his time between Disney and his teaching at Chouinard, Graham's research eventually ended up as a book, The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas (Walt Disney Productions 1958).

Graham's draft seemed "too technical" for Walt's approval, so Thomas was brought in to make it more accessible and to use the chapters to help promote the forthcoming animated feature, Sleeping Beauty.

While in Hollywood in 1938, Feild had discussed with Walt the possibility about writing a book on Disney animation. Whether Walt felt it would be a good way to support the recently released Feild, or whether it tied in with his dream of an animation book, he agreed in a May 17, 1939, letter to support Feild writing such a book.

"Naturally I was very sorry to hear what happened at Harvard, but after all, who knows, it may be for the best," Walt wrote. "We definitely feel that you are qualified to write this book, and we want you to know that you have our complete confidence and cooperation, not only in the writing of this material but also in the marketing of it."

Feild spent almost a year at the Disney Studios from June 1939 to May 1940. He was pretty much given unlimited access to all areas of the studio and he took a massive amount of notes. I wonder if all those notes are part of the Feild papers at The Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art? I know his lecture notes for his 1938 "Disney Talk" are part of that collection as well as a copy of The Art of Walt Disney book.

Feild observed every department, talked extensively with animators and technicians and even multiple conversations with Walt himself.

The result was The Art of Walt Disney, released in October 1941, that was the very first book ever devoted to the world of Disney. This certainly makes Feild one of the earliest Disney historians.

However, in the tradition of the time, no one working at the studio, except Walt and Roy, are identified by name in the text. All the other artists are discussed anonymously either by their role "the head layout man will…", "the director says…" or, when reproducing story notes, only the initial of the last name was used.

The book includes some rarely seen illustrations and some insight into the preliminary concepts for several animated projects.

"While not in any way technical, this book describes how things happen in the Disney Studio—how Walt Disney himself acts as inspiration and co-ordinating spirit for all the several-hundred artists and production men and women who work with him," wrote Feild in the 290-pages long book.

"The general purpose, which I have had in mind in writing this book, is to present the Art of Walt Disney as a growing force in our midst…If we are to receive the fullest enjoyment from Disney's art, it is essential not only that we have some insight into the problems he is facing, but also that we have some knowledge of the medium he employs to express his ideas.

"Walt never finished high school. But it was his successful avoidance of formal education that may be pointed to as the determinging factor in the whole of his subsequent career. He has had to unlearn but little. His mind was left free to grope into the future, unhampered by those strange beliefs and indigestible scraps of information genrally inculcated at school."

The book is an effusive love letter to the genius of Walt Disney with a brief glimpse into the complicated process of making an animated cartoon.

Fortunately, during his writing this book, Feild was hired as the director of the School of Art at Newcomb College, the women's college at Tulane University in New Orleans.

I am unaware of any other writing Feild ever produced about Disney and it is a little ironic that Harvard was inadvertently the catalyst for the first book to examine Walt's animation as a living art.

In February 1943, Walt Disney visited Harvard once again to consult with anthropology department chair Earnest A. Hooton about a forthcoming Technicolor film ridiculing Adolf Hitler's racist theories.

On the steps of the Faculty Club, Disney told the Boston press that he planned to leave Hitler "out of the picture," since "too much attention has already been given to that guy."

The film was never made.

Want to know more? Historian Michael Barrier, one of my major inspirations to become an animation and later Disney historian, has written an outstanding informative essay about Walt in the Ivy League.

Barrier is legendary in the world of animation and Disney history for his groundbreaking work beginning with his publication, Funnyworld, in 1966, the first magazine exclusively devoted to funny animal comics and animation. I don't always agree with his perspective but I always respect his opinions and marvel at the completeness of his research.

Barrier was a true pioneer who lit up the darkness. He continues to be an inspiration today.

On your library shelves should be copies of his books: Hollywood Cartoons and Animated Man: The Life of Walt Disney.



  1. By TongaXtine

    This was a great read! Thank you for sharing it! I work at Harvard and would love to learn more. Please let me know if there is further research I should be conducting!

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