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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
Thus until the beginning of the Civil War the colleges stagnated, out of touch with the noisy world beyond their campuses. They were numerous enough: the American Almanac for 1860–61 records 123 colleges and no doubt overlooked a good many. A modern researcher estimates that seven hundred American colleges died before 1860. Often they were born sick and did not survive their infant colics. President Barnard of Columbia, disturbed by the ill health of the adult institutions, made a statistical survey in 1870. He found that the enrollments averaged below eighty per college. (Indeed, for ten years Rutgers had never more than thirty students; Pennsylvania descended to fourteen in 1804.) President Barnard discovered that the collegiate population, in proportion to that of the country, was steadily diminishing. He calculated that the proportion of college students to the total white population was 1 to 1,549 in 1840, 1 to 2,012 in 1860, and 1 to 2,546 in 1869. (The corresponding proportion in 1960 was 1 to 41.)
It was the Civil War that shook the colleges out of their long torpor. The country experienced the agonies of death and disaster. It would no longer tolerate die old traditional assumptions; it demanded the logic of reality, and it demanded that higher education should serve practical ends. The new spirit was exemplified by the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which donated ten million acres of public lands to the states for the encouragement of higher education, particularly in agriculture and the mechanic arts. The era of the state university opened. Inevitably the new wave of postwar students, including mature, selfconfident veterans, sought practical skills rather than mental discipline. The student’s privilege to choose his own educational course was formalized in the elective system.
The elective privilege, which replaced prescription, had been forecast by Thomas Jefferson, Wayland, Tappan, and others. It was first accepted as a curricular basis by Andrew White in the new Cornell University, which opened its doors in 1868. In the following year Charles W. Eliot, installed as president of Harvard, imposed the elective system on his college, to the horror of many.
It was the elective principle that made possible the university of today. The achievement of the American university in mass higher education, in the training of an intellectual elite, in public service, and in primary research, all within a century, is one of the most extraordinary phenomena of history.
And if anyone tells you that the old college organism, with its proneness to riot and rebellion, its rigid but ineffective control of student behavior, its insistence on mental discipline, its prescribed course of study, its withdrawal from life into a cozy intellectual womb, was better, tell him to go assume the foetal position.