- 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
“Mr. Francis, the superintendent of public buildings, brought me a small vial of gunpowder found in one of the privies with twine and cord wound about it; to increase the exploding, a small roll of paper was stuck in the cork by way of match,” wrote the Reverend Edward Everett, new president of Harvard, in his diary for 1846. He recorded in the same year:
Dr. Ware commences his lectures to the Freshman class (two in number) on Wednesday. It is necessary I understand to send in a proctor to prevent the Professor from being pelted with chestnuts … In the evening, at about twenty before nine, I was told by my servant that University Hall was on fire. Found the south door burned through at the bottom and cotton and spirits of turpentine … I hear that incendiary outrages were much more frequent in [President Josiah] Quincy’s time [1829–45] than now. Every outhouse, shed, workshop, and wooden fence near the Yard was marked for destruction. Stones were occasionally thrown into the President’s office through the windows when the Faculty were in session.
However, the new president’s turn came. A bundle of flaming straw was placed within his doorway, but happily was discovered in time. Not long afterward he resigned his post, being weary of “fighting wild beasts in this my new Ephesus.”
Rioting was a beloved tradition at Harvard. There was the Rotten Cabbage Rebellion of 1807, provoked by an excess of maggots in that amiable dish. In 1823 the students met under the Rebellion Tree in front of Hollis Hall; each plucked a twig and set forth to battle for a greater voice in something. The facuity won and expelled forty-three seniors out of a class of seventy just before commencement. In 1834 the black Hag of rebellion was raised over Holworthy Hall. After an orgy of explosions and furniture smashing President Quincy called in the civil authority and banished the entire sophomore class for a year. For a time the “grouping” of students was forbidden so rigorously that a proctor reported a solitary student as evidently waiting to be joined by another, thus to constitute an illegal group. True, there were many peaceful years, broken only by innocent diversions such as the attachment of “pull-crackers” to the covers of the chapel Bible so that the book, when opened, would explode in the preacher’s face.
The Yale students too were effervescent. After a rebellion in 1830 the faculty banished half the sophomore class. The celebrated scientist Benjamin Silliman (who during some earlier troubles had never ventured from his laboratory without two loaded pistols) blamed the uprising on democracy: “its spirit infests our seminaries of learning.” In 1843 a tutor tried to seize a window-breaking student and was fatally stabbed. But the Yale esprit de corps is strong; the undergraduates’ real adversaries were the townsmen rather than their teachers. In a theatre riot in 1854 a towny was killed. His companions seized two cannon from an artillery company and assaulted South College. “The general opinion seemed to be that the students were entirely in the right, that the dead man deserved his late,” says a true-blue Yale historian. The slayer could not be discovered.
Four years later occurred a great battle with the New Haven firemen. The students wielded heavy canes; the firemen, hose wrenches and speaking trumpets. The firemen’s leader was shot and killed. No one was indicted. “The general college sentiment rather deprecated the shooting as needless and unjustifiable,” says the Yale historian, striving to be fair.
Princeton celebrated six rebellions between 1800 and 1830. The riots of 1807 began as a protest against the suspension of three students for drunkenness. The president closed the college and suspended 125 out of its 200 students. The outbreaks of 1814 were memorable. The chapel Bible had its inside cut out to hold a pack of cards. A pistol was fired at a tutor’s door. A hollow log packed with gunpowder exploded in Nassau Hall, breaking windows and cracking the walls. The Great Rebellion of 1817 followed. An observer reported:
Satan fell like lightning from heaven, all college exercises were suspended for several days, and half the country was given a new topic of discussion. The tutors were imprisoned in their rooms, the doors of Nassau Hall were nailed up; a bonfire was made of the college outbuildings; the bell was rung continuously; windows were smashed in the upper floors, and billets of firewood fell in all directions on the heads of officers who tried to break their way in. Nassau Hall was in a state of siege.
Thanks to expulsions and to the timorousness of parents, the enrollment at Princeton soon dropped to a low of seventy-one.
A catalogue of student pranks would never end. The purloining of the bell that rang for morning prayers, the transport of the president’s horse and buggy to a dormitory roof, the burning of asafetida in a tutor’s stove, were routine amusements. At Brown the Hell-Fire Rummaging Club devoted itself to the destruction of college property. At Hamilton College, in New York, despite regulations forbidding students to “blaspheme, rob, fornicate, steal, forge, duel; or assault, wound or strike the president or members of the faculty,” a cannon was laboriously dragged to the fourth floor of a dormitory and was then discharged against the door of an unpopular tutor. He narrowly escaped with his life. At Hobart (also in New York) in 1849–50, as Andrew D. White, later president of Cornell University, remembered:
It was my privilege to behold a professor, an excellent clergyman, seeking to quell hideous riot in a student’s room, buried under a heap of carpets, mattresses, counterpanes, and blankets; to see another clerical professor forced to retire through the panel of a door under a shower of lexicons, books, and brushes, and to see even the President himself, on one occasion, obliged to leave his lecture-room by a ladder from a window, and, on another, kept at bay by a shower of beer-bottles.
Since the undergraduates numbered only about forty, the administration cotdd not afford to dismiss anyone. Even at pious Georgetown a student attacked a Jesuit prefect with a lethal instrument, and a priest supervising the playing field carried an iron poker under his cassock for self-defense.
In the South particularly, passions ran high. Duels with pistols were frequent among touchy undergraduates. At the University of Georgia in 1840 six drunken seniors set upon and painfully wounded the president. He survived. At Oakland College, in Mississippi, a student stabbed the president, who did not.
The history of the University of Virginia has a special charm for bloodthirsty leaders. Faculty-student relations were strained. The young scholars seized and horsewhipped the chairman of the facuity, and the state militia was called in to restore order. But in 1840 the chairman of the faculty was shot. Asked if he had recognized his assailant, he replied that he knew the boy perfectly well; but following the Virginia code of honor, he refused to identify him. He then died, a gentleman to the end. In 1853 a student, John Singleton Mosby, destined to lead Mosby’s Rangers in the Civil War, shot and dangerously wounded a friend. He was jailed for a year and used his leisure so profitably that he was admitted to the Virginia bar. These doubles would have grieved Thomas Jefferson had he lived to see them. He had planned to appeal to the students’ pride and ambition, not to fear, in his University ol Virginia and had proposed student sell-government to deal with all but major difficulties.
Such are a few incidents culled from college histories; they are still recounted more with a smirk than with a reproving frown, Granted they were exceptional and hence memorable; nevertheless they reveal a habit of mutiny that lay dormant from the mid-century to our own times. In the early days of the Republic violence was a part of American life, on the frontier and in the turbulent cities. The collegians did no more than follow the example set by their elders. They were subjected to a galling regime of restriction and repression, to a routine of hardship, to a curriculum of studies that was generally unwelcome. The explosions were likely to be thunderous.
The physical aspect of the colleges was grim and depressing. In the newer parts of the country a college was normally a single four-story structure, like a county almshouse, containing dormitories, classrooms, and chapel, and surrounded by rank weeds, tree stumps, and mud, or by the presidential cow pasture. Andrew White described the Yale of the early 1850’s as “a long line of brick barracks, the cheapest which could be built.” At Harvard President John T. Kirkhind, in the 1820’s, was the first to dear the Yard of a brewhouse, a wood lot, privies, and pigpens. Only the University of Virginia was consciously designed to be beautiful.
The college day began with the clanging of the chapel bell at five or six o’clock. The students dressed in their cold rooms, carried out their slop jars to the college trough, and drew fresh water from the pump, unless it was frozen. The chapel service followed, as soon as one could see to read. Then breakfast, study, and recitation until dinner at noon, and after a brief repose more study and recitation until prayers in chapel at five. After the six o’clock supper there was leisure for walking or other recreation. Many retreated to the rooms of their “literary societies.” There they could read or engage in formal debates on subjects of high concern. At nine a tutor checked the dormitory rooms to make sure that all were secure. This was a six-day schedule; Sunday was devoted to religious exercises. No wonder the confined spirits erupted into riot and bloodshed. No wonder Yale students smashed their windows in farewell to their rooms— after their college accounts had been settled, as Professor Ernest Earnest points out in his Academic Procession .
The early-morning religious services were seldom conducive to piety. Missiles, including prayer books, were likely to fly in the half-dark. The chapel was unheated; many famous presidents, including Timothy Dwight of Yale, preached in overcoat and mittens. President Robert Bishop of Miami (in Ohio) was famous for praying with one eye open; he would take a flying leap from the platform, clutch a troublemaker, and return to his post without a pause in supplication.
After chapel breakfast was welcome. It was, however, usually scanty: at Harvard merely a roll and coffee, at Princeton bread, butter, and coffee, and radishes in season. Colby added mush and molasses; the University of Georgia, bacon or beef; Yale, occasionally, oysters. The noon dinner was likely to be ample. Georgia offered soup, vegetables, corn bread, and molasses; Colby, beans twice weekly, fish once, meat four times. Harvard’s daily ration was lavish—one pound of meat, and potatoes, cabbage, greens, pudding, and cider. (But Harvard operated also a cheap “starvation commons” with meat only every other day.) Curiously, when Harvard served fresh peas, the students were required to shell them; if anyone dodged the duty, the pods were collected and thrown in his room. Supper was surprisingly light—usually just bread, butter, and tea or milk (though milk was generally thought to be fit only for infants and cats). Colby sometimes added cheese, applesauce, or apple pie; Yale provided pies once a week. At Harvard no regular supper was served; the student carried a bowl to the kitchen to be filled with bread and milk, and returned with it to his room. This was rather annoying in a heavy rain.
In general, student manners, which were ruled by formality, seem to have been good. The boys were required to doff their hats in the presence of the faculty. At Yale the rule was that undergraduates must uncover within five rods (82.5 feet) of a tutor, within 132 feet of a professor, within 165 feet of the president. The laws of Princeton in 1783 forbade anyone, during the hours of study, to speak to another except in Latin. The rule lapsed with the new century. Manners, however, are superficial cultural forms, variable with time and place. An English visitor to a class at the University of Cincinnati in 1823 was shocked to see the students spitting tobacco juice around the room. The faculty spat with the students. The great President Francis Wayland of Brown was a renowned sharp-shooter. A college publication of 1855 said, only partly in jest, “Dr. Wayland, with his accustomed accuracy, will now snuff a candle with tobacco juice at a distance of five paces.”
Hygiene was little regarded. Harvard had no bathtubs until the early 1870’s, and showers were still unknown. A student determined to bathe had to carry the water from the college pump and heat it on his own stove. Athletics were at first merely tolerated, if not forbidden as at Princeton in 1787. The young University of Virginia recognized only quoits and marbles. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1820’s running, jumping, climbing, and scuffling were banned as detracting from “that dignity of deportment which becomes a man of science.” In 1826 a German instructor at Harvard was permitted to establish a gymnasium, but enthusiasm for it soon lapsed. Other college gymnasiums appeared after 1840. A rudimentary form of football, adaptable to any terrain and any number of players, was popular. The first intercollegiate contest was a boat race between Harvard and Yale clubs on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, in 1852. This historic event was organized by a railroad passenger agent, who saw a great opportunity in excursion fares from Boston and New Haven.
The lack of vigorous physical exercise certainly had a deplorable effect on student health. We moderns are inclined to think of our pioneer forefathers as without exception mighty-muscled wood choppers. But there is much evidence that the urban civilization of the 1800’s produced a class of sickly, desk-bound workers. Thomas Wentworth Higginson spoke of “this white-blooded degeneration to which we all tend.” Nathaniel Parker Willis, in 1849, described Americans as “a hollow-chested, narrow-shouldered, ill-developed looking race.” And Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Such a set of black-coated, s tiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast of in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from the loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage.” In the circumstances rioting was a form of healthy outdoor exercise, with faculty-student encounters the only physical education.
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.”
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:
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.
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.”
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.