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The State Universities and Democracy

Allan Nevins





University of Illinois Press

Urbana 1962

© 1962 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 62-13215


( ^ )


Ever since the founding of the University of Georgia in 1785
as the first state university, our public institutions of higher
learning have been imbued by a spirit of liberalism and democ-
racy. In a large and healthy sense, they have been political in-
stitutions. As they spread westward, grew in numbers, and
throve in vigor, they lent support to the abiding doctrines of

When Condorcet wrote his Sketch of the Progress of the
Human Spirit in the shadow of the guillotine; when lefferson
sent Peter Carr his controversial letter of 1814 outlining a full
system of state education; when lohn Stuart Mill declared in
the wake of the Chartist Movement that British educational
life must respond to this "revolt of nearly all the active talent
of the working classes against . . . the ruling classes"; when
lonathan Baldwin Turner asserted in 18^0 that liberal educa-
tion "must begin with the higher institutions, or we can never
succeed with the lower" ; and when H. G. Wells made his
memorable statement that mankind faces a race between edu-
cation and catastrophe, they expressed one fundamental belief.
It was the belief that all men have a potential capacity for

^ [V]

right reasoning if proper agencies, and particularly educational
institutions, will free that capacity from corrupting restraints.
The American state universities expressed this belief more
realistically and energetically than the free universities in Lon-
don and Manchester, Heidelberg and Freiburg, Brussels and

When the Civil War began, the United States had twenty-
one state colleges and universities, with more at the point of
birth. The Land-Grant Act which Lincoln signed in 1862 ac-
celerated a process which, seventy-five years old, had already
attained telling results. If Justin S. Morrill's enactment had
never gone on the statute books, every state would in time have
had its tax-supported university, for the example set by Vir-
ginia, Missouri, and Michigan was too sound and fruitful not
to be followed. The material resources provided by the Morrill
Act were important. The moral encouragement was an equally
effective stimulus.

Most important of all, however, was the democratic impact
upon higher education, for the law annexed wide neglected
areas to the domain of instruction. It kept before our fast-
growing population the vital necessity of developing — by re-
search, by the organization of scattered elements of knowledge,
and by careful application of scientific principles — a truly ex-
pert cultivation of technology and agriculture. In the one field
it promoted the emergence of the most effective engineering
schools on the globe. In the other it lifted land-use to a wholly
new level, and in time established a connection between the
national government and the academic world which provided
an appartus for research and for the rapid general diffusion of
scientific discoveries, unparalleled elsewhere. Widening the
gates of opportunity, it made democracy freer, more adaptable,
and more kinetic.

[ vi]

American universities have been criticized on many grounds.
Thorstein Veblen, objecting to their organization for efficiency,
called them "factories of erudition." Bryce, and many others,
thought their sense of values distorted; they have produced
graduates socially more mature, but intellectually decidedly
more immature, than the best European seats. Various critics
have deplored their latter-day size, though if a university is
skillfully governed it can combine size with intimacy, and Paris
with 6y,ooo students and California with 45,000 can reach the
individual about as well as Oslo or Princeton with 3,500. Few,
however, have ever criticized the contribution our public uni-
versities have made to democracy. Norman Foerster did so a
generation ago, emphasizing a contention that they were train-
ing the Jacksonian mass instead of centering their efforts upon
the Jeffersonian elite — for Jefferson wished to sieve out the
"best genius" among each forty pupils for higher education.
But for better or worse we have a mass democracy; the univer-
sities must reflect it; and they have recently learned a great
deal about special tuition for the "best genius."

These lectures, delivered at the University of Illinois to mark
the centennial of the Morrill Act, attempt a brief examination
of four stages in the development of the state and land-grant
institutions, with special attention to their services to democ-
racy. Such a treatment is of necessity impressionistic and in-
complete, but I have tried to give it human interest as an
introduction to a striking and somewhat neglected phase of our

The Huntington Library Allan Nevins

[ vii]

( ^ )


I. The Ideas of the Founders . i

n, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza 23

m. The Food of the Gods . . 6g

TV. Poised for a New Century . no

Appendix i^i

Index i^g

( I )


When the plan for a system of land-grant colleges took
shape, with the result that President Buchanan vetoed a bill
for its creation and that President Lincoln signed the meas-
ure, it could safely be said that no true university existed in
the United States. It could also be said that throughout the
Western world a many-sided revolution in theories of higher
education was gathering force.

Henry Cabot Lodge tells us that when he entered Har-
vard in 1867, the winds of the revolution were about to
sweep away its ancient mustiness. "I went in," he writes,
"under the old system, and came out under the new. I en-
tered the college of the eighteenth century with its 'Gratu-
latios' and odes and elegies in proper Latin verse . . . the
college with the narrow classical curriculum of its English
exemplars, and came out a graduate of the modem univer-
sity." Brander Matthews, who entered Columbia College in
1868, found it a place of almost incredible isolation, stag-
nancy, and eighteenth-century primitivism. He was treated
like an unruly schoolboy; he never walked into the college
library of fewer than 15,000 volumes; and until near the

[ I ]

2 / The State Universities and Democracy

end of his school days he never heard a modem idea. Then
he, too, perceived a change. He Hstened to Henry N. Rood
deHver a truly useful set of lectures on science. At Yale,
Thomas R. Lounsbury finished his four years without once
hearing mention of any English author — and Yale did not

The Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, and
its immediate reproduction in New York, had been a spec-
tacular demonstration that the world had entered upon a
new age. Every year the faith of the Western nations in
progress was strengthened by social, scientific, technological,
and cultural advances. For Americans in particular, every
fresh invention, from sewing machines to telegraphs, every
new application of power, from locomotives to liners,
every industrial innovation, from oil wells to Bessemer steel,
opened stirring vistas. Anything seemed possible to the nine-
teenth-century civilization that was conquering one land
after another by the industrial revolution and a new social
enlightenment. Against this background the college educa-
tion of earlier times seemed hopelessly antiquated; it had
to be wrested out of the ruts in which it had so long
traveled. A revolt against it grew, compounded primarily of
four elements: rejection of the tyranny of classical and
theological studies, championship of science, insistence on
attention to agriculture and the mechanic arts, and — most
important of all — a demand for greater democracy in


The revolt against the classics had been under way since
the days of Wilhelm von Humboldt in Prussia and Jeremy

'Henry Cabot Lodge, Early Memories (1913), 181 ff. ; Brander
Matthews, These Many Years (1917), 101-112.

The Ideas of the Founders / 3

Bentham in England. In Germany, even in the eighteenth
century, the new universities at Halle and Gottingen had
taken on a more practical character than the old, while
the technological high schools at Freiburg and Brunswick
had gained great prestige. When Prussia lost Halle to Napo-
leon's new kingdom of Westphalia, the University of Berlin
was founded in 1809, incorporating the already famous
Prussian academy of science ; and Humboldt, who had been
made minister of instruction, helped give it principles which
raised it to a foremost place in Europe and assisted in the
regeneration of all Germany. He, Niebuhr, Neander, Fichte,
Hegel, Schelling, the brothers Grimm, and others lent it an
unapproached breadth of instruction. Its Lehrjreiheit min-
istered to its astonishing growth in fame and number, for in
that bracing atmosphere professional work flourished. All
truly literate Americans, especially after the publication of
Victor Cousin's famous report on Prussian education, knew
of it, and many attended it.

Bentham published his Papers upon Codification and
Public Instruction in 181 7, and the success of the University
of Berlin helped encourage his disciple Lord Brougham to
lead in creating the University of London. Over this insti-
tution Bentham, who was widely read in the United States,
still reigns as tutelary spirit. Favored visitors to its University
CoUege are shown his skeleton, clothed and seated in his
favorite chair, with his skull fronted by a wax mask. Nobody
did more than Bentham and his other disciple, James MUl,
to emphasize the power of education and its social impor-
tance. Copies of Bentham's Westminster Review carrying
these ideas swam after 1824 ^^^^ scores of American news-
paper offices and hundreds of homes.

Anyone may find an eloquent expression of the English

4 / The State Universities and Democracy

revolt against the tyranny of Greek, Latin, and moral philos-
ophy in the writings of James Mill's great son, John Stuart
Mill. He beheved thoroughly in a liberal training, but he
had no patience with the kind of Oxford that Gibbon had
described, "steeped in port and prejudice," and relying ex-
clusively on the classics. Mill's essay on Guizot not only pays
tribute to the great Frenchman whose book on modern his-
tory, much used in American colleges before and after the
Civil War, was one of the broadening influences of the time,
but enters a plea for the systematic study of politics, history,
and society. Adam Sedgwick of Cambridge, a famous geol-
ogist, published a discourse on the studies of his university;
and this inspired Mill to write a scathing essay on what he
termed the intellectual "degeneracy" of the country and of
the universities therein. The once great seats of learning, he
declared, had ceased to furnish the world either sound
knowledge or inspiring ideas. Moreover, they were com-
placent in their retrogression. "All is right so long as no one
speaks of taking away their endowments, or encroaching
upon their monopoly."^

^ Literate Americans by 1 850 were familar with the ideas of the
Germans named, and Sybel and Schleiermacher as well, particularly
as such men as George Bancroft, John Lothrop Motley, George Tick-
nor, and Longfellow brought them home from German study. They
followed closely the leaders of British thought. Several Frenchmen,
however, were almost as well known. Guizot's History of Civilization
in Europe, founded on his famous lectures at the Sorbonne in the
three years from 1828 to 1830, was widely used in American colleges,
his work being the more acceptable because he was a Protestant. Of
these lectures G. P. Gooch writes: "He left an ineffaceable impres-
sion on his hearers. Jules Simon declared that he was eloquence
incarnate. . . . He appeared to his audience to treat of human affairs
as if he stood above the petty struggles of humanity." Reading of the
enthusiastic crowds that Guizot, Cousin, and A. F. Villemain drew as
they alternated at the Sorbonne, and of the stir they excited in the
minds of aspiring French youth, many Americans asked, "Why can-

The Ideas of the Founders / 5

Meanwhile, in America such men as James Dwight
Dana, Francis Wayland, and in due course John Fiske and
E. L. Youmans, took up the battle against a narrow classical
disciphne. They were abetted on a more popular front by
reformers of the type of Horace Greeley. That the struggle
was nearly as much needed in the young republic as in
Europe is proved by the reminiscences of the men who went
to the old-style colleges and by an examination of the stand-
ardized and routinized curricula of the ante bellum period.

A round indictment founded on such an examination was
offered by James A. Garfield, graduate of Williams, former
army commander, and member of Congress, in an address
which he delivered at Hiram College in Ohio on June 14,
1867. He had examined the catalogues of some twenty East-
em, Western, and Southern colleges, finding them all alike.
To get a bachelor's degree in Harvard College, which was
typical, the student on leaving a district school must there-
after devote four-sevenths of his time and labor to Greece
and Rome. Even in a course labeled nonclassical the situa-
tion was nearly as bad. "In the whole program of study,
lectures included," declared Garfield, "no mention whatever
is made of physical geography, of anatomy, physiology, or
the general history of the United States. A few weeks of the
senior year given to Guizot, the history of the Federal Con-
stitution, and a lecture on general history once a week dur-
ing half of that year, furnish all that a graduate of Harvard
is required to know of his own country, and the living na-
tions of the earth. He must apply years of arduous labor to
the history, oratory, and poetry of Greece and Rome; but

not we have such a center of fresh learning and inspiration?" G. P.
Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (rev. ed.,
1954)9 178-184; and John Stuart Mill's essay on Guizot in the Edin-
burgh Review (October, 1845).

6 / The State Universities and Democracy

he is not required to cull a single flower from the rich fields
of our own literature. English literature is not named in the

This was the Harvard that Charles W. EUot was about to
reform. And how much the reformation could accomplish
is evident from a passage in Ehot's A Late Harvest. The
law and medical faculties gave their degrees to any man
who had paid three term bills covering eighteen months and
had not been very irregular in attending lectures. "When I
asked in the Medical Faculty in 1870 if it would be possible
to substitute an hour's written examination for the five
minutes' oral examination ( a five minute interview with the
professor of each of the nine principal subjects then taught
in the school ) at the examination for graduation, the answer
came promptly from the Head of the Faculty : 'Written ex-
aminations are impossible in the Medical School. A major-
ity of the students cannot write well enough.' "

But scores of colleges were precisely hke old-time Har-
vard. "No wonder," said Garfield, "that men are demand-
ing, with an earnestness that will not be repressed, to know
how it happens, and why it happens, that, placing in one
end of the balance all of the mathematical studies, all the
physical sciences in their recent rapid developments, all the
principles of political economy and social science which
underly the commerce and industry, and shape the legisla-
tion, of nations, the history of our own nation, the constitu-
tion of government, and its great industrial interests, all the
literature and history of modem civilization — placing all
this, I say, in one end of the balance, they kick the beam
when Greece and Rome are placed in the other." This tyr-
anny of custom, said the future President, must end.

The Ideas of the Founders / 7


The situation was the more intolerable because most in-
telligent Americans since the days of Benjamin Franklin and
Count Rumford had followed the steady rise of science and
knew much of its benefits. A championship of scientific stud-
ies was the natural second element in the general revolt.
Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford — the American who
founded the Royal Institution in London in 1799 — had
taken as keen an interest as Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and
Jefferson in theoretical science. Benjamin Silliman had
started his American Journal of Science and Arts in 18 18.
The activities of Cuvier and Linnaeus, Priestley, Faraday
and Boyle, Gauss and Oersted were as closely followed in
America as in Europe. Then in the 1830's and 1840's had
come a remarkable efflorescence of scientific interest.

A sense of the illimitable possibilities of science, and of
its treasury of practical values for a democratic society, lent
a romantic coloring to much of the literature of the time.
Emerson's essay on "Education," invoking Newton and
Humboldt as men who gave humanity a majestic sense of
power, asserted that science afforded any youth an un-
matchable instruction, for it widened his understanding as
nothing else could. "Yonder magnificent astronomy he is at
last to import, fetching away moon, and planet, solstice,
period, comet and binal star, by comprehending their rela-
tion and law. Instead of the timid stripling he was, he is to
be the stalwart Archimedes, Pythagoras, Columbus, Newton,
of the physic, metaphysic and ethics of the design of the
world." Poe's strong concern with biology, which he had
studied at the University of Virginia, and mathematics and
physics, of which he had learned something at West Point,
appears in all his work. The adroit mechanism of half his

8 / The State Universities and Democracy

stories comes from the discoveries of science; his "Eureka"
is an essay in cosmogony, and he wrote a famous sonnet "To
Science." Readers of Thoreau, Melville, and Holmes met
scientific lore and theory at every turn, imbibing a romantic
sense of their potentialities. Meanwhile, following the exam-
ple of Jefferson, political leaders — Albert Gallatin, John
Quincy Adams — became protagonists of practical scientific

Benjamin Silliman, trained at Yale, in Philadelphia, and
in Europe, had lectured widely from the 1830's onward
upon a variety of scientific subjects. He gave courses all over
lower New England, filled during four years the largest
auditorium in Boston, stirred New York audiences, and
traveled as far south as Charleston and New Orleans and as
far west as Cincinnati and St. Louis to reach fascinated
listeners. The geologist Sir Charles Lyell, who also traveled
and lectured widely, wrote him from New York in 1 842 :
"Now that I have gone from Niagara to Georgia, and have
met a great number of your countrymen on the Continent
of Europe, and heard the manner in which they ascribe the
taste they have for science to your tuition, I may congratu-
late you, for I have never heard as many of the rising gen-
eration in England refer as often to any one individual
teacher as having given a direction to their tastes." It is
evidence of Silliman's compelling quality that, although in
his two-hour discourses he allowed a five-minute pause mid-
way in which those who were fatigued might drop out, al-
most nobody left his or her seat.

In the 1840's Harvard and Yale established schools of
science, at first obscure, neglected, and impoverished; and
in that decade the unique Smithsonian Institution, founded
on a bequest to the United States by an Englishman "for

The Ideas of the Founders / 9

the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men," began
its work. Its first head was Joseph Henry, then so well
launched on his scientific career that when the post was
offered him he remarked to a friend, "if I go, I shall prob-
ably exchange permanent fame for transient reputation."
His fame is actually as permanent as that of the founder,
James Smithson. The Scientific American was founded in
1845. Next year Alexander Agassiz came to the United
States on the wings of his international fame to lecture
throughout half the country, and then at once took a pro-
fessorship at Harvard. American students were traveling in
increasing numbers to Scotland, London, Paris, and Ger-
many to pursue science; Eben N. Horsford, for example,
later a teacher in the Lawrence Scientific School at Har-
vard, was studying with the great Justus von Liebig in
Giessen in 1844-46. One American publishing house, Apple-
ton's, specialized with great success in the issuance of the
best scientific books of both the Old and New Worlds.^

When the catalogue of Yale announced in 1847: "Pro-
fessors Silliman and [John P.] Norton have opened a lab-
oratory on the college grounds for the purpose of practical
instruction in the applications of science to the arts and agri-
culture," this statement recognized work that had really
been carried on for five years at private expense. Norton had

'Dirk Jan Struik, in Yankee Science in the Making (1948), empha-
sizes the precedence of New England in the adoption of scientific
studies. When the Revolution ended, he writes, and for most of the
generation following, science had few votaries in the section. In the
years beginning about 1830, however, came a mass interest in science
and technical questions. By the time that Lincoln followed the Morrill
Act by approving the bill which organized the National Academy of
Sciences (1863), Yankee science "had grown into American science."
But New York, with Rensselaer Polytechnic founded in 1824, had a
creditable record, too.

10 / The State Universities and Democracy

been allowed to become professor of agricultural chemistry,
the subject so admirably developed by Sir Humphry Davy
and Baron von Liebig, on condition that he draw no salary.
A young man from upper New York named John Addison
Porter, who had worked with Liebig in the later 1840's,
came home to assist Horsford at Harvard and then to suc-
ceed Norton at Yale. Soon afterward he married the daugh-
ter of the wealthy Joseph Sheffield. As a consequence of his
success in arousing the interest of his father-in-law in his
teaching, the Yale Scientific School in i860 gained the
Sheffield name and fortune and began taking new strides.
One early stride was particularly noteworthy: as the Civil
War drew on. Porter arranged a short course in agriculture
which brought about five hundred farmers into New Haven
for scientific lectures.

The revolutionary demands in higher education had a
broader base, however, than a mere rebellion against the
classics and a demand for the installation of science, political
economy ( as economics was then called ) , history, and mod-
em literature in its stead. The effulgent midday of science
was almost at hand: Herbert Spencer would publish his
Principles of Psychology in 1855 and Darwin his epochal
Origin of Species in 1859. With the great Victorian lumi-
naries, Dickens and Thackeray, Tennyson and Browning,
Meredith and Trollope, not to speak of bright American
stars, filling the literary heavens with fight, it was becoming
impossible to deny the claim of letters to academic attention.
The political and economic revolutions of 1850-70 in the
United States called for a curricular recognition of their
principles and backgrounds. But meanwhile the so-called
"industrial movement" of the era, the transformation of the

The Ideas of the Founders / 1 1

practical arts, thrust a bold set of claims into the academic

Higher instruction, said the industrial leaders, must be
brought into harmony with the needs of a practical, growing
people. President Francis Wayland of Brown University told
his trustees in 1850: "Lands were to be surveyed, roads to
be constructed, ships to be built and navigated, soils of every
kind, and under every variety of cUmate, were to be culti-
vated, manufactures were to be established which must soon
come into competition with those of more advanced na-
tions; and in a word, all the means which science has pro-
vided to aid the progress of civilization must be employed."
The classics and humanities should be supplemented by
subjects helpful to industrial and agricultural progress;
subjects that would Uft the farmer and mechanic out of their

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