8. The ‘Great Retrogression Revisited”

Alma Mater/Spring 2014
February 12, 2014

8.. The “Great Retrogression” Revisited –

1820s – 1840s – Jacksonian America

The most relevant of the recent postings for present purposes;

Eugenia Lotovia – Student Power in the Medieval Universities
Richard Leong – Early Curriculum of A/B Colleges
Conor  Skelding on the 1843 CC Statutes
Sarah Bernstein – Jeremiah Day and the Yale report of 1828**

But first need an explication of one of the readings:

Richard Hofstadter, The Great Retrogression” – Academic Freedom in the Age of the College”
in The Rise of Academic Freedom in the United States, with Walter Metzger (1955)

Historiographical Aside

Interesting /revealing question — When historians focus on parts of the historical record – and when they ignore other parts….
What interests one generation of historians but not another??

History of African Americans – Little academic interest down to 1950s, except for a handful of black scholars  (W.E.B. DuBois,   ),  even among Southern historians

History of Women – William Chafe dissertation on women in the post –suffrage age

Diplomatic history – important 1930s – 1960s

History of Higher Education – of Universities

Historians (Bernard Bailyn, Edmund Morgan, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter),
Sociologists (David Riesman/Talcott Parsons/Daniel Bell/Edward Shils)
Political scientists (Seymour Martin Lipset) all writing about American higher education in the 1950s and early 1960s – positive attention being paid the institutions that employed them.

Under sige??  McCarthy “challenge” to academic freedom?

1. The beginnings/roots  of a success story – universities at the center of post-war America’s positive  sense of itself
Universities had helped win the war; were not taken in by communism; were viewed as “meritocratic” in the best sense; had recently opened their doors to Jews; were becoming modestly more responsive to blacks….mixed story on women….

Daniel Bell:
A book on the CC core curriculum!
Is it hubris to say that if one were to look back at the present from the year 2000…
one would discern in the second half of the twentieth century the transformation
of the university into a primary institution of the emerging post-industrial society,
just as the business firm had been the most important institution in the previous
century and a half?

2. Academic history treated as a form of intellectual history, or the “exceptionalist” school of American Studies, both of which were in fashion. Neither twenty years later (or now).

3. Foundations had settled on universities as the best/least politically questionable places to concentrate their philanthropy (Rockefeller/Carnegie/Ford/Mellon)


Here at Columbia:
Richard Hofstadter – Social Darwinism/APT/Age of Reform….
Walter Metzger – History of the AAUP….
The Rise of Academic Freedom in the Unites  States (1955) – 2 vols.

Hofstadter – Academic Freedom in the Age of the College – 1636 to the 1850s

Never one for celebratory accounts – not one with much sympathy for those moved by religious beliefs (Jewish/Episcopalian);  an urbanite to the core; his idea of higher education was Columbia University…
Saw not much purpose in his teaching undergraduates….
Considered/categorized as a “consensus historian”??

Takes positive note of the outsized role the relatively few collegians played in the Revolution and the government-making of the 1780s and 1790s that followed; ready to credit the colonial colleges with instilling a sense of intellectual possibility in that generation.

But still had  60 years to go with his allotted part of the story.  Grows impatient with the time needed to get to his kind of higher education – university instruction unencumbered with religious baggage and rural pieties…. à “The Great Retrogression”

Hofstadter on a non-name college—

Hofstadter not an archives-centered historian; relied on his PhD students  to do that; he would find the larger significance in what they found; not much of a counter /quantifier either….
Came upon book by a TC historian, Donald Tewksbury
Purported to have counted the number of colleges that were founded and that failed during the period between 1800 and 1860 – 612 in all; > 400 of which went belly-up (did not include all the states à 900??

The number now appears to be much too high – maybe 200 colleges operating during these years, most of which survived into 20th century.
Colin B. Burke, American Collegiate Populations: A Test of the Traditional View (NYU Press, 1982)

But weren’t even 200 colleges about 150 too many??
Found contemporaries who agreed there were too many colleges  – would-be reformers
Attributed the failure of the colonial colleges to become universities to the excessive competition that resulted from so many colleges chasing after so few interested customers and spreading the support for higher education too thinly across the national landscape.
Colleges with 100 students à CC; largest was Yale <500 (3 sections of each year)

The result:  uninspiring instruction; fixed curricula; faculty getting no respect …..students running riot….
No institution able to break the “Old-time college” mode until after the Civil War…..l

Revisionist critique of Hofstadter “Great Retrogression” interpretation:
Not so many failed colleges as he assumed – Colin Burke (1982)
Many of those small, struggling, denominational colleges  were educationally solid, caring  places – closely attended to the needs of undergraduates – built loyal alumni bases; community-centered….
Were educating boys who would never have been able to be otherwise educated at HYPC….

Some of these revisionists located at – or identified with —  such denominationally-affiliated liberal arts colleges when state schools attracting students away

The story of American higher education is not one of the inevitable triumph of the university, temporarily put off by   “the Great Retrogression.”

Our Task: To make some solid conclusions from this disputed historiographical territory:


1. More colleges the better?

Pluses – Greater accessibility – less distance to college
Smaller colleges – more community?

Minuses – Each operating with fewer resources – fewer students/tuitions/ classroom facilities/libraries

2. Why so many?
Denominational competition; local boostering
States awarding charters without many conditions on incorporators  – and no financial commitments
Start-up easy – Students — enroll students from region not previously enrolled; lure some from neighboring, struggling college
Faculty – A surplus of educated men unhappy/unsuited for the ministry/law/medicine – and schoolmasters

3. What about the fixed/classics curriculum?
Why didn’t they compete by offering different instruction than their competitors?
NYU in 1830 contra CC….
How to account for the primacy of ancient languages – Greek/Latin/Hebrew??
Were of some utility for a learned clergy
Were the marks of an educated gentleman
Yale Report  of 1828 – Study of ancient languages provided mental discipline; not just furniture
[contained history/rhetoric/literature/religious studies]
Modern languages – like music, painting,  or public speaking, outside of formal class arrangements …l

Practical advantages to the fixed/classical curriculum–
1. Minimal equipment costs – no labs/no extensive library
2. Available faculty – graduates of college could teach college students with no additional training….
3. Class scheduling a snap; electives require more faculty; more classrooms; more specialized faculty expertise

Who objected to the curriculum?

Generally, not the students.  Allowed students to stick together through four years, with the same teachers in the same rooms…. Formed tight loyalties – “Combinations” that could collectively challenge/cow  an instructor – Had the day-to-day run of the place….

“The Era of Student Hegemony”  — founding of fraternities; literary societies (Philolexian); carousing; dormitories off-limits to faculty; beginnings of sports on campus à crew underway in 1850s
Students hibernating in class/or harassing the instructor
No formal grading system – or not one students fussed about
Disciplinary possibilities limited: individual punishments unacceptable to the class; expulsion not life-threatening (Union ready to accept you…)
Not most of the faculty – Electives with diversified curriculum would have revealed their absence of specialized expertise.
Tutor FAP Barnard at Yale in early 1830s – tutors specialize rather than cover classics/math/rhetoric

Those with such training in a minority….. German university returnees ready to approach the classics critically and comparatively;  to approach the physical sciences as laboratory/experimental  subjects….

From a few college presidents —
Not Union’s Eliphalet Nott
Not Yale’s Jeremiah Day
Not any CC prexy
Not any Princeton rexy
But Harvard’s Josiah Quincy in early 1840s – Harvard wealthy enough for range of electives and had
a few faculty wanting to teach serious students
Brown’s Francis Wayland – Present Thoughts on the Present Collegiate System (1847)

Objections to the status quo from employers in industry/railroads/mining who recognized need for employees with advanced training, especially in the sciences and mathematics,
Stephen van Rennsalear
Abbott Lawrence
James Sheffield
Organizers of MIT
Promoters of CC School of Mines

Johns Hopkins
Leland Stanford
John D. Rockefeller

They would bring about the university that Hofstadter grew impatient waiting to come on the scene.

The Staying Power/Persistence of the fixed/Classical Curriculum

The Logic of the Classical Curriculum

Mid-size ante-bellum college by faculty (4) and enrollments (80)
25 freshmen – all in same section with one tutor teaching G/L/M/R
20 sophomores – ditto
18 juniors – professor & president
17 seniors – professor & president
4 classes per year a day/2 semesters a year – 32 courses in all
Saturday morning classes —
Minimum of 4 instructors with four courses daily to teach
All classes in 1st and 2nd year taught by single tutor – 2 sections of a class


# Courses



Greek Lang/Lit


All 4 years

Latin Lang/Lit


All 4 years



First 2 years



First 2 years

Natural Philosophy


Last 2 years



Last 2 years



Last 2 years

Adjuncts for hire

*Modern European languages; a specialized science (geology; botany); political economy….

Administrative/scheduling  simplicity;
Instructional expertise minimal – that of a recent graduate (which tutors often were)
Instructional supplies minimal – library/labs not required
Curriculum decisions in the hands of the “grown ups”
Generational continuity
Conducive to class unity/bonding

Classical education a gentleman’s badge; not entirely irrelevant in the professions

Yale faculty rationale – contrast between “furniture” of the mind and “discipline” of the mind;
Greek and Latin good because they are hard….     [like Calculus??]



Critique of Required Classical Curriculum

General Public – saw no practical/occupational utility in studying “dead  languages” for agriculture or commerce

More educationally informed public – Left no room for new subjects à history/English literature….

Precluded students going deeper into study of any subject, including Greek and Latin, as part of college-going; progress at the rate of the slowest students, the least advanced instructor

Students complained of having no choice/say in the matter


The problem with expanding choice/increasing electives
Administratively burdensome; more expensive; requires student body of a threshold size
Required larger and more variously trained faculty; bigger library/labs
Problem of matching available electives and student interests

The Appeal of Electives

For Some Faculty
Those with specialized training (as in Germany) could teach at the edge of their training, not elementary aspects; could link their teaching to their ongoing studies in a given subject

Those who thought of themselves in terms of their subject – not as “teachers of youth”
Would become professors only under these terms

Could expect to teach students who had an interest in the subject, not because it was required and/or
because their buddies were taking the course

Elective system makes its first inroads at Harvard in late 1830s:
— President Quincy sees it as a way of breaking up class “combinations”
— Trustees have the financial wherewithal; donors pushing specialized study (Abbott Lawrence)
— Sufficiency of trained scholars in Boston ready to teach their specialties

Benjamin Peirce – Mathematics and astronomy
Louis Agassiz – geology and paleontology
Asa Gray – botany

Stalled at Harvard after JQ left in 1845 until revived under Charles W. Eliot after 1869
Eliot comes to be identified with the elective system à moves to make nearly all Harvard courses optional by late 1880s

Yale held back by its identification as chief champion of the classical curriculum
organize a separate scientific school after 1847;
In 1870s, Yale’s President Porter debating Harvard’s Charles William Eliot on elective system

Columbia – President Barnard tries to open the curriculum in late 1860s; encounters trustee opposition; most CC undergraduate courses into the 1880s prescribed.
Despite presence by 1860s of several European advanced trained faculty; they pursue their specialties as part of Columbia’s growing number of professional schools (mines/Law/Political Science…)

Cornell –1869 — Pledge to offer instruction in any subject where there is interest….

Johns Hopkins – 1876 — Originally conceived as not having any undergraduates – a faculty of scholars/specialists and teachers of those graduate students who would succeed them as scholars…


The Democratization of the Learned Professions

Ministry, Law, Medicine – Not yet engineering, architecture
Late Colonial America –  efforts by practicioners to limit entry in their profession by  conditioning admission to having graduated from college
Congregational /Unitarians and Presbyterian churches expected their ministers to be college graduates;
Less true of Methodists/Baptists/Quakers  — less true out on the edge of the frontier

NYC bar in 1760s – bar association extends apprenticeship years and limits them to graduates
Physicians try to keep others from practicing medicine – surgeons/midwives

Law schools [often one professor covering all aspects of the law]
William and Mary 1779 – George Wythe
Maryland  1816
Harvard 1817
UVa 1819
Yale 1824
NYU 1835
Hamiiton College
Albany 1851 – secure leg’n fast-tracking its graduates through apprenticeships/Theodore Dwight
Columbia 1857 — #25?
James Kent, 1793-97
Permission to plead before the court on behalf of a third party – Legislatures/judges  disposed to open the practice to all citizens; to restrict was to engage in monopolistic practices….

John Marshall (W&M, 1780) Supreme Court (1801-1835)
Joseph Story (Harvard 1798) – read law  Supreme Court (1811-1845)

Medical Schools
Penn  1765
Columbia 1766 – closed in 1813
Harvard 1782
Dartmouth 1797
Physicians collecting fees from students – not likely to reject a tuition-paying student

Last updated: February 11, 2014

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