9. Mid-Century Academic Stirrings

Alma Mater/Spring 2014
February 17, 2014
9.  Academic Stirrings at Mid-Century

1840s – About 100 colleges widely dispersed across the 25 or so states
NE with 9
Mid-Atlantic with 25-30 (NYC with 4 as of 1847 – NYU/Free Academy/Fordham/CC )
South with 25-30 – mix of private and state
Mid-West  25-30 – Ohio/Illinois

None with more than 400 students; Yale/Union  – Harvard getting there; CC – 125 or so
Average enrollments – 80-90

Fixed/classical curriculum – Greek/Latin/[Hebrew]/rhetoric/some math/general science
Its justification provided by Yale Faculty Report of 1828; stays with it into 1880s….
Tutors take a class through all subjects for first two years … then to prof/president
Yale  — heavier in science – geology (Benjamin Silliman)
Harvard — botany (Asa Gray); astronomy (Benjamin Peirce)
Columbia – James Renwick – chemistry/physics/engineering….

Most colleges financially challenged —
Declining state support; denominational support for clergymen-in-training; tuition charges inelastic;
Benefactions small and conditioned; Boston families starting to support Harvard
Columbia College – a chair in German in 1840s ($10,000) the only sizable gift

College-going incentives not increasing:
Access to professions less restricted than in late colonial period – ministry/law/medicine/public office
Industry not expecting/requiring its leaders be collegians
Literary careers – Melville/Twain/Walt Whitman/
Emerson and Thoreau – Harvard grads but pooh-poohing its value…

Campus disruptions the norm:
Fire-settings; assaults with firearms – southern students especially prone to confrontations
Attacks on/terrorizing of  young tutors
Students resisting disciplinary action – threatening mass departures
Less at CC – commuting students – broke up commencement in 1811

Harvard – 1834 – Sophomores challenging College president – Josiah Quincy
Call in the police to quell campus disturbances
Instituting a grading/deportment scaling scheme
Breaking up class “combinations” by moving students around an enlarged curriculum with
more electives
Expanded Faculty allowed to teach specific courses in subjects they better versed in.

Harvard in early 1840s – extending electives to all four years;
attracting trained scholars to faculty positions;
securing financial backing fro leading Boston families

Fell back in 1850s and 1860s à Permanent change there awaits arrival of Charles Wm. Eliot in 1869


Mid-Century Elements Bringing On Change

1.  Accumulating fortunes by successful businessmen – seeking philanthropic outlets other than religion and other than the classics-centered colleges: DONORS WITH AGENDAS

Stevens family of Hoboken
Stephen Van Rensselaer – 1824 à RPI
Abbott Lawrence – 1847 – Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School
Joseph Sheffield – 1847 – Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School

Coming after them:
Ezra Cornell
Johns Hopkins
Leland Stanford
John D. Rockefeller

All pushing for colleges to focus on applied science/engineering – to assist in the advancement of American industry (mining, railroads, telegraphy…)  previous economic activities placed premium on physical labor  and apprenticeships (farming/canal-builing, lawyering); newer ones required training most efficiently provided in classrooms/labs
2. Growing number of Americans with advanced training acquired after college in Germany who sought academic positions – would-be professors — if colleges could/would  accommodate their idea of a privileged professorial career (that, too, a German import)

Harvard and Yale sending a few of their most academically promising graduates to German universities to  acquire training in newer subjects : Biblical studies; philology; chemistry; physics; geology; engineering;

By early 1850s, 50 or so young Americans annually going abroad for advanced training; most return to US determined to put their training to occupational uses. A few in industry;  a few in the ministry; but the most promising prospects were in the colleges, IF they made the job more to their liking (closer to the way they were in Germany)

Other American graduates of means but no interest in ministry or law
A local case-in-point — Wolcott Gibbs (CC 1841) – following graduation several years in Germany; returns to US its best trained young chemist à 1847 the newly opened Free Academy of NYC

3. The beginnings of a federal interest in science and technology:
1804 – Lewis and Clark expedition
1807 – The Coastal Survey (Alexander Dallas Bache 1830s, 1850s)
1820s —  State-sponsored geological surveys (Asa Gray)
1836-39 – The Great United States Exploring Expedition
1840 – The Navy Office of Charts and Instruments
1845 – The Naval Academy
1847 – The founding of the Smithsonian Institution  (the physicist Joseph Henry)
1847 – The founding of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (FAP Barnard)

The beginnings of an American scientific community, not initially embedded in the nation’s universities but in federal and state scientific agencies, many in Washington.

4. College officials, sometimes presidents  (Francis Wayland/Brown), sometimes in place faculty (Benjamin Peirce/Harvard), sometimes  trustees (Samuel Ruggles, George Templeton Strong/Columbia), at financially more secure institutions, who take up the cause of academic reform

Columbia College in the early 1850s
100 or so undergraduates; few distinguished graduates —
5/6 faculty members –  one of them, James Renwick retiring
1 90-plus year old building used to house faculty
History of uninspired presidential leadership
But earlier financial problems now ending – commercial property owned since 1815 [“The Upper Estate”] now being snapped up; poverty no longer a viable excuse for doing nothing, say some trustees

The Plan – Fill the Renwick slot with a “real scientist” as determined/selected/nominated by the leaders of the American scientific community à Wolcott Gibbs (CC 1841)
Pushed by Gibbs’s scientific colleagues and trustee reformers Ruggles ansd Strong

Three problems with Gibbs appointment;
1. Not a Knickerbocker – A Boston transplant, and a Unitarian (the board all Trintarians);
places in board’s gift traditionally reserved for needy relatives…

2. His backers pushing too hard; challenging Board’s authority in the selection of faculty;

3. Some trustees not ready to provide science with a prominent place in curriculum
geologist challenging the Biblical calendar; what would be next? [Charles Darwin]

Board rejects Gibbs in favor of a Princeton professor (Richard McCulloch) – undistinquished, unenergetic and later a Confederate!  But a card-carrying Trinitarian

Ruggles a bad loser – provokes  a state investigation of the negative vote, arguing that charter had been violated. Regents not inclined to get involved; no skin in the game

IN 1854, Conservatives on board won the fight against Gibbs (on to Harvard in 1861) but not able thereafter to stem the tide of academic reform in the newly wealthy old college
McCulloch can’t handle all the sciences Renwick taught – additional hires required in chemistry and geology

1857 — Trustees approve program in graduate education: aim to attract graduates from other colleges to NYC for advanced training in:
Jurisprudence – results in opening of law school in 1857 – Theodore Dwight
Letters – aborted in 1860
Science – also halted in 1860 à revived in altered form in 1864 à School of Mines

Yale and Harvard hiring more science faculty in 1850s with Lawrence and Sheffield $$;
1861 — Yale becomes the first American institution to award PhD

Time out for the Civil War, the death of 600,000 soldiers, the emancipation of 3,000,000 slaves, the assassination of president Lincoln – and the first exam this Wednesday —  but the story to be continued.

Last updated: February 15, 2014

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