Note on the Logic of the 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…

Last updated; February 8, 2014

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