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Higher Education in America

The original purpose of higher education in the American colonies was to prepare men to serve in the clergy. For this reason, Harvard College was founded by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636. Before the American Revolution, it was joined by six others: William and Mary, Yale, Dartmouth, King's (later Columbia), New Jersey (later Princeton), and Philadelphia (later Pennsylvania).

The American Revolution did not much affect higher education, except to change some names to reflect independence. Harvard had changed little by 1823, when George Ticknor, then the Smith Chair of Modern Languages, presented a paper to the faculty in which he suggested revising Harvard's structures more along the lines of the emerging German universities. Among his recommendations was that the annual vacation take place during the summer rather than the winter.

Dissatisfaction with the state of American higher education led to demands for changes to the curriculum, but the efforts were often resisted, as in the case of Yale in 1828. A group of educational progressives met in New York City in October 1830 to discuss the possibility of creating an urban university. George Bancroft wrote its final report, which included the following comment, representing a dim opinion of both the teaching and the students that then prevailed:

A University is not devoted exclusively to any one department of knowledge. It opens its gates wide to the reception of all valuable truth; and sustaining no particular branch of science by the sanction of prescription, by the continuance of favoritism, or by the dead letter of intellectual mort mains, it allows to each division of human knowledge that degree of prominence, which its intrinsic merits can obtain. In the true social spirit, it receives and takes an interest in every thing that belongs to the human understanding.

Neither is it a mere system of lectures adapted to the curious and the idle. It is designed not to afford pastime but to excite and encourage severe industry; not to furnish amusement, but to diffuse and also to advance science.

Out of the group's discussion came the establishment of New York University in 1831.

Many Protestant colleges in the West foundered in the crisis of 1837. The Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education was established in New York City in 1843, with the purpose of raising funds for such institutions. Truman Marcellus Post, a minister and instructor at Illinois College, wrote a series of five articles, supporting the cause. He was not at all subtle about his motivation, which arose in large degree from his opposition to the Roman Catholic Church:

First, then, we find such a reason in the fact that Rome is at this time making unprecedented efforts to garrison this valley with her seminaries of education. She claims already to have within it between fifteen and twenty colleges and theological schools; ...

Whatever other qualities her education may lack, we may be sure it will not want a subtle and intense proselytism, addressing not the reason but the sense, the taste, the imagination, and the passions; applying itself diversely to the fears of the timid, the enthusiasm of the ardent, the credulity of the simple, the affections of the young, and to that trashy sentiment and mawkish charity to which all principles are the same.

State funds for Harvard were cut off by the Massachusetts legislature in 1824. While serving as president of Harvard (1846-1849), Edward Everett twice requested that the state reinstate its subsidy. Everett viewed the role of Harvard as the training ground for the country's intellectual elite. The legislature, not sharing his enthusiasm and not viewing this as a public responsibility, declined his requests.

The opposite view, that higher education should give practical instruction to those who would engage in industry, was expounded vigorously by Jonathan Baldwin Turner in Illinois. Turner was speaking out for this objective as early as 1851, and after the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862, he worked hard to get the Illinois legislature to follow through. When what is now the University of Illinois was established in 1867, it was known as the Illinois Industrial University, not changing its name until 1885.

President Henry Philip Tappan of the University of Michigan was highly impressed with the performance of nineteenth century German universities, particularly that of Berlin. Much less impressed was Wilbur Storey, editor of the Detroit Free Press, who advocated a more selective approach:

We want just so much of it as can be profitably adapted to our altered system of government, of trade, of commerce, and so forth. To make this adaptation requires great judgment and caution -- a thorough understanding of the genius of our institutions and the educational necessities of our people. Our schools, and academies, and universities, need to be American rather than Prussian ...

Whether Prussian or American in orientation, public universities offered a secular alternative to the multitude of small religious colleges that were founded in the West. One of the organizations that promoted them was the Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education at the West. In 1855, William S. Taylor, a professor at Amherst College, wrote an essay which the society published, expounding the virtues of religiously affiliated colleges: In fact, nearly all of those institutions which have lived and prospered and exerted a decided influence, even in our literary and political history, were established by evangelical Christians; and have been taught, for the most part, by evangelical ministers, with a diret and special reference to supply these churches, and the country and the world, with a learned and pious evangelical ministry. Institutions established by worldly men for mere worldly objects have not prospered. Infidelity or irreligion or no religion may have founded them, but it could not sustain them.

Although the colleges that would later form the Ivy League were highly respected in the North, their attitudes aroused different responses in the South. John A. Engelhard, a law student at the University of North Carolina observed: "These colleges [Harvard and Yale] have been turned against their legitimate channels and been perverted into strongholds of fanaticism; and from being great links of union between all parts of our country, have become hothouses for the nature of artificial statesmen of the Garrisonian school and manufactories of "bleeding Kansas" tragedies." Engelhard recommended that Southern young men get their higher education exclusively in the South. He did not express an opinion on women.

A successful businessman in the city of New York, Peter Cooper was also a philanthropist. Between 1857 and 1859, he established the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which still operates in downtown Manhattan. His goal was to provide free education to adults and young people in sciences, social studies, and arts. The letter which he attached to the Deed of Trust set out his program. He favored debate and had specific views on how it should be conducted:

It is my desire, also, that the students shall have the use of one of the large rooms for the purpose of useful debate. I desire and deem it best to direct that all these lectures and debates shall be exclusive of theological and party questions, and shall have for their constant object the cuases that operate around and within us, and the means necessary and most appropriate to remove the physical and moral evils that afflict our city, our country, and humanity.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes regarding Higher Education in America.

By Woodrow Wilson
The object of education is not merely to draw out the powers of the individual mind: it is rather its right object to draw all minds to a proper adjustment to the physical and social world in which they are to have their life and their development: to enlighten, strengthen and make fit.
In a piece entitled, "Princeton for the Nation's Service" (1896)
By William Howard Taft
Some men are graduated from college cum laude, some are graduated summa cum laude, and some are graduated mirabile dictu.
Attributed to Taft in the Dictionary of American Maxims
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
If the colleges were better, if they ... had the power of imparting valuable thought, creative principles, truths which become powers, thoughts which become talents, — if they could cause that a mind not profound should become profound, — we should all rush to their gates: instead of contriving inducements to draw students, you would need to set police at the gates to keep order in the in-rushing multitude.
The Celebration of Intellect, 1861
By Albert Einstein
[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. ...The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.
In response to not knowing the speed of sound as included in the Edison Test, May 1921

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