The Lower Depths Of Higher Education


Such was the educational routine of the early nineteenth-century college. Its results were, in general, deplorable, according to the testimony of those who survived it. Harvard had unquestionably the most distinguished faculty in America, but even there, as William De Witt Hyde (who became president of Bowdoin) said, the system resulted in “a hide-bound uniformity, a dead prescription, a dogmatism of second-rate minds, a heterogeneous aggregate of unrelated fragments of instruction.” Louis Agassiz, trained in Germany, called Harvard “a respectable high school where they taught the dregs of learning”; and George Herbert Palmer, the philosopher, said: “Such a curriculum … would seem to have been arranged by a lunatic.” On the other hand, Henry Adams, though admitting that his college years were largely wasted, conceded that “Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other university then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile.”

Henry Adams thus suggests an answer to the inevitable question: “How, then, account for the brilliant product?” Harvard, with its unsuitable, even ridiculous course of study, mothered an extraordinary progeny of great men, among them Emerson, Thoreau, Holmes, Parkman, Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Phillips Brooks, Edward Everett, James Russell Lowell, George Bancroft, Richard H. Dana, Edward Everett Hale, William H. Prescott, and Henry Adams himself. Perhaps the mutual stimulation of such young men, confined together in discomfort, compensated for all the lacks of their formal education. Most intellectual history is the history of groups. Perhaps the rebellious spirit manifest in the college insurrections emerged also in rebellious thought in literature, government, social reform. Perhaps education consists in putting difficulties in the learners’ way. Perhaps bad education, mysteriously, is good.

Perhaps, but such a contention is too paradoxical for those times or for ours. The fact remains that higher education between the Revolution and the Civil War did not meet the needs of the people. Dissatisfaction was widespread in the general public, among students, and even among educators.

Proposals and efforts for reform began in the eighteenth century, with the publication of William Smith’s Utopian dream of a College of Mirania (1753). Smith became provost of the University of Pennsylvania, but he could make of it no Mirania. Columbia established in 1792 professorships of economics, natural history, and French; the University of South Carolina planned for instruction in agriculture and the mechanic arts, while North Carolina included arithmetic and bookkeeping. Thomas Jefferson’s scheme for the University of Virginia called for radical reform—a broadening of the curriculum, and schools of commerce, manufacturing, and diplomacy. Princeton admitted students who wished to study sciences, although they would receive a certificate instead of a degree. Union College followed suit in 1802. In the next decade Pennsylvania and Rutgers took some timid steps toward liberalization. In the 1820’s a mild upsurge of reform was evident. At least twelve institutions, from Harvard to Transylvania, ventured dilutions of the classical program for the benefit of the future farmer, mechanic, or merchant. A radical Amherst report in 1827 demanded instruction in agriculture, engineering, architecture, history, the American Constitution, and the science of education. But the Amherst trustees and faculty hung back, and funds were never found for the program. At Brown, President Wayland wrote to President James Marsh of the University of Vermont in 1829: “The man who first devised the present mode of governing colleges in this country has done us more injury than Benedict Arnold.” In 1842 he published a book on the collegiate system insisting that it did not meet the wants of the public. “Let the College be the grand centre of intelligence to all classes and conditions of men.” In his report for 1850 he expressed the wish that at Brown “every student might study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose.” Wayland succeeded in gaining acceptance for some of his liberalizations, but his trustees, faculty, and students were unenthusiastic about others, sensing a lowering of standards and of academic prestige. He resigned in 1855.

There were other efforts to adjust collegiate education to popular needs, most noteworthily at the University of Michigan in the 1850’, under Lewis Tappan. But generally the enthusiasm of the reformers waned, and the lofty visions faded with the hostility of the faculties and the indifference of the students. The colleges settled back to what Sydney Smith called “the safe and elegant imbecility of classical learning.”