The Classical Curriculum

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The Classical Curriculum


Single Course of Study. Prior to the secularization of school curricula and the dawning of the age of science and industrialism, colleges such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and others prescribed a single complete course of study. The classical curriculum required all students, regardless of their career paths, to learn Latin and Greek as well as the language of mathematics. A typical freshman class of the period would have read Latin out of Cicero and Horace, and Greek out of Homer, Sophocles, and Plato. Readings and translations from the Bible would also have been regular exercises for the average college student. The insistence on training young men in the ancient languages of Greece and Rome dated back to medieval Europe; since then, traditional religious leaders continued to demand that every student follow the same course of studies to insure that future teachers and clerics would adhere to church dogma and remain free of dangerous new ideas. Eventually the notion that such a course of study was required of anyone who might consider himself liberally educated came to dominate thinking on both sides of the Atlantic.

Character over Training. Many graduates of Americas colleges went into the ministry; others went on to study law or medicine through apprenticeships or further occupational instruction. But preparation for gainful employment was the least of concerns among those who prescribed the classical approach. For the select few who attended institutions of higher learning the acquisition of professional skills took a back seat to the development of mental discipline and moral character. The aim of college education in the United States was to shape the character of the student according to a rigid model of a pious, righteous, and educated gentleman. Vocational or practical education, concepts that would come to command the concerns of students and educators by the end of the nineteenth century, seemed antithetical to intellectual and moral refinement. Such a philosophy of education ordained that practical knowledge and skills, which many believed students could just as easily acquire outside of college through apprenticeships, should not jeopardize the unity and simplicity of an undergraduate curriculum that aimed at perfecting a students intellectual discipline and moral behavior.

Defenders. In 1828 Professor James L. Kingsley of Yale, in a famous report that aimed to put to rest incipient questions about the usefulness of the traditional curriculum, justified the necessity and superiority of studying the ancient texts: Study of the classics forms the most effectual discipline of the mental faculties Every faculty of the mind is employed. Believers in mental discipline argued that students improved recall ability and reasoning skills and gained a sense of discernment and refinement through intense study of the ancient languages. As new scientific and technological knowledge threatened to replace the study of Greek and Latin, educational leaders vocally defended the classical approach of higher education. Professor Solomon Stoddard proclaimed at the opening ceremony of Middlebury College in 1839 that the classics improve the memoiy, strengthen the judgment, refine the taste, give discrimination and point to the discerning faculty, confer habits of attention, reasoning, and analysisin short, they exercise and cultivate all the intellectual powers. President Noah Porter of Princeton argued for the disciplinary aspects of classical study, the necessity of a prescribed curriculum for all, and the incompatibility of the classics with vocationalism: The college course is preeminently designed to give power to acquire and to think, rather than to impart special knowledge or special discipline. For the time being the advocates of the classical curriculum won the day, but as the nineteenth century progressed, an increasing number of college presidents and educational leaders would begin to replace the prescribed curriculum with a wide-open elective system, offering a spectrum of courses from anthropology to zoology.


Prior to 1830 no state seemed less committed to the common-school idea than Pennsylvania. Separate schooling along religious and class lines stood entrenched throughout the state. In 1834 state senator Thaddeus Stevens successfully steered through the legislature an act to fund a general system of public education. The reaction from religious bodies and rural areas was fierce, and in 1835 a repeal seemed imminent. It was on this occasion that Stevens delivered what became a famous speech in defense of public education, one that was reprinted throughout the nation and earned him the nickname Father of Pennsylvanias Schools. In part Stevens declared:

If an elective Republic is to endure for any length of time, every elector must have sufficient information not only to accumulate wealth and take care of his pecuniary concerns, but to direct wisely the legislature, the ambassadors, and the Executive of the Nationfor some part of all these things falls to every freeman. If, then, the permanency of our Government depends on such knowledge, it is the duty of Government to see that the means of information be diffused to every citizen. This is a sufficient answer to those who deem education a private affair and not a public duty.

Source: Ellwood P. Cubberley, Public Education in the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934).


Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum: A History of the American Undergraduate Course of Study Since 1636 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1977);

Willis Rudy, The Evolving Liberal Arts Curriculum: A Historical Review of Basic Themes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960);

Russell Thomas, The Search for a Common Learning: General Education, 18001960 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962).

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The Classical Curriculum

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