The Lower Depths Of Higher Education

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The administration of justice was only one of the president’s tasks. Samuel Smith at Princeton (1785–1812) presided at evening chapel, supervised the dining hall, sat with committees, dealt with the trustees, and taught belles-lettres, criticism, composition, moral philosophy, natural theology, the philosophy of civil government, the law of nations, logic, geography, and revealed religion. A president was assisted by only a handful of professors; there were also tutors, most of whom were young men preparing for the ministry. Sometimes, if his college decayed, the president was the last survivor of the faculty. Naturally he was ill rewarded. At Illinois College in 1845 the president and his family were reduced to a diet of bread scraps and water, sweetened with molasses. This was an extreme case; at the other end of the scale stood Dr. Eliphalet Nott, for sixty-two years president of Union College, in Schenectady, who found time to invent a series of stoves and steamship boilers, by which lie made quite a lot of money.

The professors’ lot was also likely to be an unhappy one. Some few were excellent scholars; more were clergymen in failing health, unequal to parish duties and without preparation or aptitude for teaching. They could teach no more than they knew, which was not much. Their salaries were small and precarious. They were often reduced to dividing, at the end of the college year, the sums remaining in the treasury, and sometimes only a deficit was left to divide. In 1844 Allegheny College closed for a year so that the faculty could go out and raise money to continue. Pensions and retirement pay were unheard of, as was tenure. The president or the trustees could discharge professors at any time, without stated reasons and without severance pay. As late as the 1880’s the courts forbade the College of the City of New York to pay compensation to a deceased teacher’s widow.

The ideal of higher education, as we now understand it, is the association of teachers and scholars exploring together the beautiful realms of truth, already discovered or only suspected. We try to prepare the young for active and useful life. The ideal of the early American college was quite different. It was a copy of the Renaissance ideal, which had long held sway in Europe, and particularly at Cambridge University, direct ancestor of Harvard. The Renaissance found in the classical past a fund of knowledge and speculation that often surpassed the accumulations of the Middle Ages. Hence the curriculum centered upon Latin and Greek and disregarded contemporary science, literature, and history. The concentration on classics, remote from current needs, was still more remote when transported to a wild new continent. But the purpose of the colonial colleges was in a way professional: they proposed to train an orthodox, literate clergy, able to read the Greek Testament and the Latin Fathers. Classical training became mainly religious, not humanistic; pagan philosophers and libertine poets were expurgated or banished entirely.

With the foundation of the Republic and with the vogue of deism in the post-Revolutionary period, the proportion of ministerial candidates in the colleges dwindled. A reseacher has found that in the early eighteenth century half the collegians entered the ministry; by 1801 the proportion dropped to 20 per cent, and to 6.5 per cent in 1900. The majority of students in the early nineteenth century looked to a legal or medical career. But the classical curriculum remained unchanged. It had gained a high prestige value as the possession of an elite, a brotherhood who could exchange Latin tags as passwords, who could display the pins of Greek-letter fraternities. Classical training distinguished those who had the money and leisure to learn something useless, who could afford to scorn practicality. Modern anthropologists characterize the curriculum as a puberty rite, granting access to tribal lore through pain and punishment.

Nor did the early colleges have any conception of the research purpose that looms so large today. The teachers, even if they had been competent, had little time for investigation, no laboratories, and access only to tiny, haphazard collections of books. In any case, they were in general perfectly satisfied with the old subjects, taught in the old ways. Professor Charles Hodge of the Princeton Theological School expressed pleasure that in his time not a single new idea had come from that school, and President John McLean said in his inaugural address at Princeton in 1854: “I am glad … that no chimerical experiments in education have ever had the least countenance here.”