The Lower Depths Of Higher Education


A catalogue of student pranks would never end. The purloining of the bell that rang for morning prayers, the transport of the president’s horse and buggy to a dormitory roof, the burning of asafetida in a tutor’s stove, were routine amusements. At Brown the Hell-Fire Rummaging Club devoted itself to the destruction of college property. At Hamilton College, in New York, despite regulations forbidding students to “blaspheme, rob, fornicate, steal, forge, duel; or assault, wound or strike the president or members of the faculty,” a cannon was laboriously dragged to the fourth floor of a dormitory and was then discharged against the door of an unpopular tutor. He narrowly escaped with his life. At Hobart (also in New York) in 1849–50, as Andrew D. White, later president of Cornell University, remembered:

It was my privilege to behold a professor, an excellent clergyman, seeking to quell hideous riot in a student’s room, buried under a heap of carpets, mattresses, counterpanes, and blankets; to see another clerical professor forced to retire through the panel of a door under a shower of lexicons, books, and brushes, and to see even the President himself, on one occasion, obliged to leave his lecture-room by a ladder from a window, and, on another, kept at bay by a shower of beer-bottles.

Since the undergraduates numbered only about forty, the administration cotdd not afford to dismiss anyone. Even at pious Georgetown a student attacked a Jesuit prefect with a lethal instrument, and a priest supervising the playing field carried an iron poker under his cassock for self-defense.

In the South particularly, passions ran high. Duels with pistols were frequent among touchy undergraduates. At the University of Georgia in 1840 six drunken seniors set upon and painfully wounded the president. He survived. At Oakland College, in Mississippi, a student stabbed the president, who did not.

The history of the University of Virginia has a special charm for bloodthirsty leaders. Faculty-student relations were strained. The young scholars seized and horsewhipped the chairman of the facuity, and the state militia was called in to restore order. But in 1840 the chairman of the faculty was shot. Asked if he had recognized his assailant, he replied that he knew the boy perfectly well; but following the Virginia code of honor, he refused to identify him. He then died, a gentleman to the end. In 1853 a student, John Singleton Mosby, destined to lead Mosby’s Rangers in the Civil War, shot and dangerously wounded a friend. He was jailed for a year and used his leisure so profitably that he was admitted to the Virginia bar. These doubles would have grieved Thomas Jefferson had he lived to see them. He had planned to appeal to the students’ pride and ambition, not to fear, in his University ol Virginia and had proposed student sell-government to deal with all but major difficulties.

Such are a few incidents culled from college histories; they are still recounted more with a smirk than with a reproving frown, Granted they were exceptional and hence memorable; nevertheless they reveal a habit of mutiny that lay dormant from the mid-century to our own times. In the early days of the Republic violence was a part of American life, on the frontier and in the turbulent cities. The collegians did no more than follow the example set by their elders. They were subjected to a galling regime of restriction and repression, to a routine of hardship, to a curriculum of studies that was generally unwelcome. The explosions were likely to be thunderous.

The physical aspect of the colleges was grim and depressing. In the newer parts of the country a college was normally a single four-story structure, like a county almshouse, containing dormitories, classrooms, and chapel, and surrounded by rank weeds, tree stumps, and mud, or by the presidential cow pasture. Andrew White described the Yale of the early 1850’s as “a long line of brick barracks, the cheapest which could be built.” At Harvard President John T. Kirkhind, in the 1820’s, was the first to dear the Yard of a brewhouse, a wood lot, privies, and pigpens. Only the University of Virginia was consciously designed to be beautiful.

The college day began with the clanging of the chapel bell at five or six o’clock. The students dressed in their cold rooms, carried out their slop jars to the college trough, and drew fresh water from the pump, unless it was frozen. The chapel service followed, as soon as one could see to read. Then breakfast, study, and recitation until dinner at noon, and after a brief repose more study and recitation until prayers in chapel at five. After the six o’clock supper there was leisure for walking or other recreation. Many retreated to the rooms of their “literary societies.” There they could read or engage in formal debates on subjects of high concern. At nine a tutor checked the dormitory rooms to make sure that all were secure. This was a six-day schedule; Sunday was devoted to religious exercises. No wonder the confined spirits erupted into riot and bloodshed. No wonder Yale students smashed their windows in farewell to their rooms— after their college accounts had been settled, as Professor Ernest Earnest points out in his Academic Procession .