- Historic Sites
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
The professor or tutor sat in a box, with his students before and beneath him, and the so-called education consisted of questions upon a textbook. Not questions to elicit thought, but simply questions to find out how nearly students could repeat the words of the book, or, if it were a classic, to find out how little they knew of Latin or Greek grammar. … The tutor with whom we read De Senectute never dreamed of elucidating the noble thoughts of Cicero, but devoted himself to finding out how many of his students could repeat Zumpt’s rules for the subjunctive mood. The Greek tutor was no better. With him we read Xenophon’s Memorabilia … but to find out who could most rapidly synopsize the Greek verb.
Of course the recitation method can be a real Socratic dialogue, but there were lew Socrateses on the early faculties. Lectures were frequently delivered, but on special themes rather than as part of the curricular routine. The Yale Report discouraged the lecture, since it failed to discipline and allowed the student to “repose on his seat.”
Science made its way only with difficulty into the educational Establishment. “They talk of their oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen!” sneered the venerable Dr. John Henry Livingston at Queen’s College (later Riitgers). “Fools! It is nothing but matter and that is all they know.” Natural philosophy, taught from vague, inoffensive texts, described the wonders of God’s creation. A few institutions had respectable scientific equipment. Dickinson College possessed, and still possesses, the experimental apparatus of Joseph Priestley and Thomas Cooper. A Massachusetts dealer in 1806 offered colleges such devices as an air pump, a water pump to show valve action, tubes for the Torricelli experiment on air pressure, and an electrical panoply, including a generator, a thunder house, an electrometer, an electrical swan, and a small jar for small shocks. With these the instructor could dazzle a classroom, though often something went wrong and he was obliged to conclude: “Assuming that it had come out properly, it proves that …” Even Benjamin Silliman at Yale, trying to create with an air pump a vacuum that would stifle a mouse, succeeded only in making the mouse sleepy.
Silliman, incidentally, was a twenty-two-year-old law student when Timothy Dwight offered him a professorship of chemistry and natural history, with a year’s leave to acquaint himself with the subjects. Finding no one competent to teach him, he instructed himself. In fear of explosions, President Dwight built for him a damp, underground, dimly lit laboratory, with access by ladder. But Silliman’s demonstrations and lectures were sensational. George Ticknor of Harvard, visiting Yale, was amazed by the attention of Silliman’s notetaking students, “showing their interest in other ways to which I had not then been accustomed in the lecture-rooms of our Professors.” The students merely watched; they were not allowed to touch his apparatus. His pupil Amos Eaton inaugurated the student laboratory method, as we know it, at the new Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824. The first laboratory for arts undergraduates was established by Harvard in 1854.
As an adjunct to instruction the laboratory was balanced by the library. The college libraries were usually small miscellaneous collections, and many were open only an hour a week for withdrawals and returns. Harvard’s library was far in the lead, boasting 70,000 volumes in 1857. The University of South Carolina had an extraordinary assemblage of 18,400 volumes by 1850 and the first college library building in the country. On the other hand the University of Vermont, founded in 1791, had accumulated only thirty books by 1803. At the University of North Carolina the president for twenty years kept his institution’s library in an upstairs bedroom. As some small compensation the undergraduate literary societies built up their own collections, sometimes considerable, for the pleasure and profit of their members.
Final examinations in the early part of the nineteenth century were oral and public. They took the form of “exhibitions,” relics, in fact, of the medieval disputation. Before an audience of uplifted parents, teachers put leading questions to the candidates, with less concern to probe their knowledge than to display the benefits of a college education. Nearly everyone passed. Later written examinations were substituted, with their provocations to ingenuity, or, if one prefers, cheating. In the elegant phrasing of President F. A. P. Barnard of Columbia, students came to their examinations “fortified with instrumentalities which enable them to defeat the object of the exercise.”
Graduate work was almost nonexistent; thus there was no provision for faculty replacement except from abroad. In 1871–72 only 198 graduate students were counted, and most of these were candidates for the M.A., which was awarded in a very casual manner. America’s first Ph.D. degrees were granted by Yale in 1861, although it had no graduate school till ten years later. Agitation for serious graduate study was not wanting, especially from scholars who had studied in Germany. Dr. Thomas Cooper proposed in 1838 that the great James Smithson bequest be used to make a graduate university to teach the sciences and mathematics. “No Latin or Greek; no mere literature. Things, not words.” Belles-lettres and philosophy, he maintained, were calculated only to make pleasant talkers. He was disappointed; the Smithson gift went to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution.