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The Lower Depths Of Higher Education
Do today’s turbulent college campuses make you long for the good old days? The facts may dampen your nostalgia
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
In the changing world the faculties clung to the old traditional studies—Latin, Greek, and mathematics. They were not encouraged to transgress the saie bounds. Mark Hopkins, the famous president of Williams College, said to a colleague: “You read books. I don’t read books, in fact I never did read any books.” This was surely exaggerated, but probably not much. Though he was formally a professor of philosophy, he boasted that he had read only the first paragraph of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and had understood nothing of that paragraph. (He was too busy sitting on one end of a log, holding a meaningful dialogue with a boy on the other end.) President Nott of Union told his boys: “The folly of most people is that they read too much. You should read but little, and turn that to the best account.” Few professors of classics were equipped to reveal to their students the beauty of Greek thought and the marvel of Roman civilization. And not many of their students gained sufficient competence to think in Latin, or sufficient stimulus to continue reading Greek privately in later life. A lady said to Dr. Wayland: “I should think that the morals of our young men would be very much injured by reading the classic authors, in which drunkenness and every form of vice are celebrated and made attractive.” President Wayland replied: “Madam … the young men understand so little of the classics … that I do not really think that such studies do them much harm.”
The old subjects were preserved not because they were valuable in themselves but because they were precious means of disciplining wayward youth to hard labor. The justification was rather moral than intellectual. “Morals and manners will rise or decline with our attention to grammar,” said the Reverend Jason Chamberlain in his inaugural oration at the University of Vermont in 1811. President Azel Backus of Hamilton, in his inaugural, declared that an attention to order and the early formation of habits of industry were of far more importance than “mere knowledge.” This distrust of scholarship, of intellectualism, could be amply illustrated from presidential inaugurals. It reflected the mood of the times, which honored the self-taught or untaught man of the people, able to rout the book-taught by his sturdy common sense. When in 1835 the Illinois legislature was asked to charter a new college, a rugged representative was cheered for proclaiming: “I was born in a briar thicket, rocked in a hog trough, and never had my genius cramped by the pestilential air of a college.”
The prevailing educational doctrine was brilliantly summarized and defended in the famous Yale Report of 1828. This was evoked by a radical proposal to substitute modern languages for the classics. The report staunchly upheld the study of the classics as the best device for mental discipline. It said that the colleges should concentrate on the classics, with, as adjuncts, pure mathematics to inculcate the art of demonstrative reasoning, physical sciences to reveal the process of induction, and logic and mental philosophy to develop the art of thinking. The report opposed the use of libraries, wherein the student might be upset by conflicting authorities. “The diversity of statement in these will furnish the student with an apology for want of exactness in his answers.” (That perpetual nuisance, the argumentative student, must be silenced.)
Entry to the college world was easy, necessarily so since preparatory “academies” were scattered, inaccessible to many, and not always competent. A decent knowledge of Latin and Greek grammar, some acquaintance with Vergil and the Greek Testament, plus common arithmetic and geography and a certificate of good moral character were the usual requirements. There were no college entrance examinations; the candidate was interviewed by the president, who might be severe or lenient, depending on his college’s need for tuition fees. Many boys entered at the age of fourteen; we hear of some who were prepared at ten.
Each class followed a prescribed course, with variations occasionally permitted. The freshmen studied Latin, Greek, and elementary algebra and geometry, and practiced public speaking, with a view to the needs of future clergymen and lawyers. The sophomores carried on the same subjects, together with rhetoric and the rudiments of natural philosophy (physics and chemistry). In the junior and senior years the classics tapered off, and logic, metaphysics, and Christian evidences were substituted. In some cases modern languages might be taken as supplementary courses with a special fee. The denominational schools recommended Hebrew as the most directly practical course, since it would be the vernacular spoken in heaven. The first serious course in English literature seems to have been offered at Princeton in 1846–47. The senior course in moral philosophy was usually taught by the president and could include almost anything, at his whim. In the hands of an inspiring teacher, such as Mark Hopkins of Williams or Asa Mahan of Oberlin, it could be realistic and memorable, but it was usually intended to fasten the students in orthodoxy, even to tempt them into the ministry.
The classroom routine was based on the recitation. The teacher handed out an assignment; the next day the students echoed it, as nearly as possible verbatim. Andrew White described the system at Yale in the early 1850’s: