FROM RIGHT THINKING TO LIBERAL LEARNING
IN THE DECADES since the Civil War, we have witnessed a radical transformation in the nature and size of American public and private institutions of higher education. Indeed, the nature and role of the antebellum college is, for most of us, a rather vague, unstable, and distant memory. The rather startling nature of the institutional transformation of the antebellum college is the primary subject of this essay. This bit of American higher education history has always held a certain fascination for me for two reasons. First, because the antebellum college seemed to provide such an unpromising foundation for meeting the emerging educational needs of America, its transformation into an energetic component of contemporary American life seemed a rather astonishing development. Second, I was intrigued by the puzzle of why the transformation of antebellum colleges, or their replacements, took so long to get under way. The transformation that eventually took place, of course, incorporated both a new set of institutional actors and a radically new set of social, educational, and scholarly commitments. To understand fully the belatedness of the change, as well as its character and speed, however, one needs to appreciate the nature of a broad set of initial conditions bequeathed by earlier developments, both at home and abroad. These initial conditions greatly influenced the character and dynamics of subsequent events. Indeed, any set of current institutional arrangements has a complex set of historical roots, and in the case of the contemporary American research university, the most popular narratives regarding its birth are too “thin.”
The late nineteenth-century metamorphosis of American higher education may seem to be a well-worn topic whose broad outlines are familiar. Historical scholarship in this area, however, is modest in volume, and many issues remain outstanding. I do not intend to use this essay to merely restate the usual themes, but rather to focus on some elements of the social, political, and intellectual developments in Europe as well as in nineteenth-century America that are incompletely incorporated into our understanding of this important epoch.
For many scholars, the Civil War provides a convenient symbolic marker between two different eras in American higher education. Certainly, the intellectual vacuity of the early nineteenth-century American college inspired many observers to express the need for basic reforms throughout the first half of that century. Indeed, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century a small and scattered number of college presidents and individual faculty members were trying out and/or attempting to promote new approaches in an attempt to rescue the antebellum college from its academic irrelevance. By midcentury, Henry P. Tappan (1851, p.52), the president of the University of Michigan, was promoting a new concept for America’s universities as places where “provision is made for studying every branch of knowledge in full, for carrying forward all scientific investigations, where study may be extended without limit, where the mind may be cultivated according to its wants.” Earlier, Thomas Jefferson had introduced a curriculum at the University of Virginia that offered much more choice to students, and in the early decades of the nineteenth century at Harvard, George Ticknor (1876) was promoting the notion that the curriculum had to be expanded. Others, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Francis Wayland (1842, 1850), attached themselves to a very popular sentiment of the time, namely, that we should find a distinctively “American way” in higher education just as we had in business and politics. At the same time, some reformers, such as Henry Tappan at the University of Michigan, worried that the commercial spirit of America might make the support of serious study difficult.
Although these worthy efforts did not take firm hold, it is important to remember that some of the seeds of the transformation of American higher education following the Civil War had been sown in the previous half-century. Indeed, the establishment of institutions such as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) early in the nineteenth century, and the remarkably “modern” aspirations of the University of Pennsylvania, for example, foreshadowed the transformation that lay ahead for U.S. higher education, as did the rather isolated but occasionally distinguished efforts of particular faculty and/or departments. In this latter respect, we could hardly overestimate the importance of the work of luminaries such as Joseph Henry at Princeton University, J. Willard Gibbs at Yale University, and Louis Agassiz at Harvard University. Moreover, the justly celebrated Michelson-Morley experiments at the Case School of Applied Sciences took place very shortly after the Civil War and well before the eventual transformation of the Colonial colleges took place. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century there were scattered attempts to broaden the curriculum, to separate religion from philosophy, to introduce aspects of the scientific method, and to undertake a number of scholarly initiatives. Nevertheless, these reforms did not take hold. Neither federal nor state governments interested themselves in promoting reform, and the antebellum college became a less and less relevant institution. The puzzle I wish to address is why the higher education sector was so “stuck” in the past while the society around it was eagerly incorporating change.
As in so many other areas of American life, the ending of the Civil War provided some of the momentum for the transformation of the antebellum college. In my view, the Civil War caused many to become increasingly skeptical about some of the cultural commitments of previous decades. People were ready not only for peace, but for an enriched, more pluralistic set of ideas to inform our national life. The national imagination was seized by the notion that a greater toleration of diverse views would lead to more satisfactory social, political, and cultural arrangements—even if many such views turned out to be in error. This concept was accompanied by a strong desire not to be driven again to civil carnage solely by differences in belief.
Interestingly, this new intellectual outlook was remarkably consistent both with some of the underlying principles of the emerging liberal outlook—the developing organization of private markets—and what I understand to be the notions behind Protestant universalism. Moreover, the political aftermath of the Civil War galvanized governments, both state and federal, to take increased responsibility for social and economic progress. This was reflected not only in higher education—with the establishment of the land grant colleges—but also in other areas, with the idea of national taxation, the completion of the transcontinental railway, and the first effective national currency.
Just as Europeans had to worry throughout the nineteenth century about the uncertainty, anxiety, and unpredictability of the modern world that was replacing the ancien régime, America in the post–Civil War era also had to find ways to accommodate new attitudes, incentives, and other social and cultural practices that would allow success in an increasingly industrialized society committed to liberal democracy and an economy organized around private markets. A society thus organized implied, among other things, a life of greater uncertainty and a more prevalent sense of loss. As wave after wave of social and economic innovation took hold, they inevitably brought in their wake a sense of loss for some and moral anxiety for all. Such turbulent moral seas characterized the society of an altered world as it worked out new rules regarding “just shares” and citizens’ mutual obligations to each other.
In contrast to the dynamism generated by the waves of social, economic, and political change at the time, the tiny post–Colonial colleges that held sway in American higher education at least through the mid-nineteenth century seemed to be continuing to devote most of their energies to controlling unruly students and doing their best to instill a certain Christian piety and “right” thinking into their lives. The narrow academic curriculum focused on rote learning of classical languages and literature, rhetoric, some rather simple mathematics, and, of course, the “capstone” course in moral philosophy. The aim of the moral philosophy course was to show how the various bodies of knowledge, including both divinely revealed and empirical knowledge, related to each other and to a larger unity. The curriculum was firmly set within a Christian worldview that all knowledge, whatever its source, would reveal the truth of the scriptures. Perhaps these institutions might be thought of as a type of “sacred” place where the values and certain artifacts of a cherished past were to be protected from the contemporary developments that were taking society in different directions. In purely scholarly terms, it is perhaps best to think about these institutions as modest high schools in an era that preceded both mass and universal secondary education.
In general terms, erudition in pre–Civil War America flourished outside, not within, higher education. Little wonder, therefore, that few ambitious young people or their parents thought such a collegiate education very rewarding. Although the 1828 Yale Report
declared that the purpose of collegiate training was “to lay the foundation of a superior education,” this was hardly a reality at the time. In spite of the early voices pressing for change, and some early and rather novel experiments at places such as RPI and West Point, which were inspired, in part, by the development of France’s grandes écoles
and pressing national engineering tasks, 1
a sustained reform movement took hold only in the post–Civil War decades.
THE TRADITIONAL NARRATIVE
The traditional narrative surrounding the birth of the contemporary American university in the last decades of the nineteenth century often focuses on the impact of a few American academic tourists visiting German universities, who were inspired both by the “Humboldtian” vision of higher education that had begun to transform higher education in Germany and the wealth of scholarly resources available in Europe’s great libraries.2
More specifically and more fairly, the traditional narrative has not one, but three principal components. They are: (1) the influence of both new European ideals of scholarly inquiry, graduate education, and research (the “Humboldtian” vision) and the scholarly resources (e.g., libraries) needed to fulfill such a vision; (2) the impact of the founding and growth of new or reconstituted American institutions of higher education, especially the new public land-grant universities and new private institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, the California Institute of Technology, and Stanford University; and (3) the implications of the refinement of scientific and scholarly procedures and the resulting increased importance of disciplinary specialization.
This narrative is accurate but incomplete. It needs to be complemented by a number of additional themes that were critical in shaping the revolution in American higher education. First, this traditional narrative needs to be enriched by a more thoughtful analysis of the reconstitution and expansion of both the arts and sciences as an academic curriculum and the arts and sciences faculty. Second, the evolving relationships among the arts and sciences, our new notions of a liberal education, and the increasingly specialized professional schools need to be incorporated. Third, we need a better understanding of the changing role of religious thought within American higher education and how matters of faith were accommodated within the new social and cultural commitments of the university. Fourth, it is important to trace the continuing impact of the model of higher education provided by the British universities that were themselves being slowly transformed during this period. Finally, perhaps most important, the traditional narrative needs to be supplemented by a fuller understanding of the impact of a wide variety of economic, social, political, and intellectual developments that were transforming societies both here and abroad.
For example, we find no place in the traditional narrative to acknowledge the impact (or lack thereof) of the waves of intellectual development that were taking place in Europe during the eighteenth century, including the prevalent European sentiment that humankind was at the dawn of a new age of “oceanic globalization.” Indeed, globalization had become a ubiquitous idea in late eighteenth-century Europe. More particularly, intellectual life had become transoceanic as the movement of goods, people, and ideas accelerated in all directions across the globe. This eighteenth-century European intellectual sentiment was similar to today’s discussions about the increasing impact of new communication technologies on globalization. One of the questions that needs further investigation is why the intellectual life of the antebellum college turned its back on global sentiments such as this.
Moreover, European discontent with the monopoly of classical and biblical scholarship on the curricula of universities began in earnest in the seventeenth century and reached its maturity in Europe in the eighteenth century, when scholars and others began to doubt whether such exclusive dependence on this literature would serve the moral or political development of young people. Scholars from Michel Montaigne in the sixteenth century to Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century were especially concerned that such a concentration, devoid as they believed it was of the imperatives of present-day contingencies, made students unable to become meaningful and wise actors in society’s unfolding drama. Indeed, Kant favored more experimentation in education, even while acknowledging that some experiments would fail. Much earlier and from a very particular perspective, in the thirteenth century Roger Bacon had worried that the exclusive emphasis within university curricula on the classical languages and literatures had an unfortunate and malign influence on the development of science. In the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon (1861–74, p. 15) offered this direct but rather unfair observation: “The wisdom which we have derived principally from the Greeks is but like the boyhood of knowledge, and has the characteristic property of boys: it can talk, but it cannot generate; for it is fruitful of controversies, but barren of works.” In a similar vein, John Locke (1899, p. 74) remarked, “what ado is made about a little Latin and Greek, how many tears are spent on it, and what a noise and business it makes to no purpose.” Finally, Herbert Spencer (1900) had observed that instruction in Latin and Greek had little intrinsic value, but simply served the social function of separating “gentlemen” from less “worthy” persons. In any case, by the early nineteenth century, concern was widespread that the ancient universities and their ancient ways could be justifiably characterized as, in Thomas Macaulay’s (1972, p. 17) phrase, “a glut of Greek, Latin, and Mathematics, and a lamentable scarcity of every thing else.” By that time, many observers besides Spencer had come to question the unique capacity of the classical languages to train the mind or impart any special virtues. Within the walls of the antebellum college, however, there were few echoes of these views.
With respect to the antebellum college and its eventual successors, therefore, one aspect to the puzzle is to try to understand why the broad-based intellectual developments that were taking hold in Europe up to and throughout the eighteenth century took so long to be incorporated into the programs of American colleges. The theory that this had to await a few rather brief trips to Europe by certain college presidents or faculty seems less than fully satisfactory. Moreover, it does not explain the emergence of certain distinctive American characteristics that responded to the realities and aspirations of both American society and American higher education. For example, the distinctive American distrust of government and America’s unusually strong faith in competition had a major impact on the nature and quality of the higher education sector that emerged. My own view is that although the competitive and decentralized system that emerged certainly has its excesses, on balance it has served both the nation’s interests and the interests of the worlds of scholarship and education remarkably well.
In order to more fully explain the character of the transformation of the antebellum college, I will first turn my attention to the particular conditions present in both Europe and America in the nineteenth century because, as I have already noted, much of the traditio...