Science and Higher Education
Science and Higher Education
Old-Time College. Before the Civil War higher education in America consisted of a scattered group of small colleges in various stages of development. Harvard, founded in 1636, was America’s oldest and most prestigious institution. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and other Ivy League institutions, which by 1850 had faculties ranging from fifteen to twenty-five and student bodies from three hundred to four hundred, were large by American standards. More typical were the many tiny colleges that dotted the country. These smaller and more obscure schools typically employed a staff of only six or eight instructors, with enrollments ranging between fifty to one hundred students. Only one in five colleges created before 1860 survived, and most of those that did were educationally ineffective, unable to offer variety or rigorous studies. The relatively low quality of American colleges and the restrictive nature of the curriculum prior to the 1860s prompted many young men to further their education in European universities. In 1815, for example, Edward Everett, Edward Cogswell, and George Ticknor, three individuals who would become outspoken critics of the antiquated nature of American higher education, traveled to Germany to study the new fields of science not yet offered by the old-time colleges of the United States.
Sectarian and Conservative. Prior to the rise of the large state colleges and research universities during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, most of the nation’s institutions of higher learning were openly sectarian, creations of highly competitive religious denominations. Such colleges included the Methodist DePauw (1837) and Ohio Wesleyan (1842), the Presbyterian Knox (1842), the Congregationalist Oberlin (1833) and Beloit (1846), the Baptist Bucknell (1846), and the Catholic Notre Dame (1842). In most of these schools the classical curriculum reigned supreme, with its heavy dose of Latin and Greek required for all. Students rarely had any choice over what courses they could take. Gradually, however, American colleges began to modernize the course of study to reflect the ideas and discoveries of the Enlightenment. In 1824 the University of Virginia opened its doors and offered eight possible
fields of study, including such topics as anatomy and biology. The following year Miami University in Ohio permitted the substitution of modern languages, practical mathematics, and political economy for certain subjects in the classical curriculum. The same year University of Nashville president Philip Lindsley began to stress vocational and research concerns. And in 1826 Union College in Schenectady, New York, introduced a scientific course of study as an alternative to the classical program. Nonetheless, many conservative elements resisted such challenges to the religious and classical nature of higher education. In 1828 the faculty at Yale responded to the increasing criticism of American colleges with a report that vigorously defended the classical approach. Yale’s powerful defense against the first wave of attacks upon academic orthodoxy held the forces of change at bay temporarily, but over the next two decades science and vocational or practical learning began to alter the character and curriculum of the old-time colleges forever.
Science. By the 1840s and 1850s American higher education was considering alternatives to the classical curriculum, albeit only to students willing to forgo the bachelor of arts (B.A.) degree for the lesser status but greater practical knowledge found in programs leading to a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree. These reforms were spurred by a flank attack on traditional higher education: since science could not easily make its way into the rigid classical curriculum, teachers of science began to create separate schools dedicated solely to technical education, whose competition would eventually force the colleges to submit to a wholesale overhaul of the college curriculum. The first of these was Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, founded in 1824 to instruct children of mechanics and farmers in theoretical and mechanical sciences. Harvard began its Lawrence Scientific School in 1847, and during the same year even conservative Yale established new chairs in agriculture, chemistry, and applied science that became the nucleus from which Yale founded the Sheffield Scientific School. Out of these reforms would emerge the concepts of the modern research university and the nonsectarian liberal arts college that characterized the landscape of higher education throughout the twentieth century.
R. Freeman Butts, The College Charts Its Course (New York: Arno Press, 1971);