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Higher Education in Place of Higher Learning

IN AMERICA the college became a place concerned more with the diffusion than with the advancement or perpetuation of learning. “University” education in America became, for all practical purposes, undergraduate education. No one of the causes of the dispersion of higher education was unique to America, but all of them together added up to an overwhelming force against legal monopoly and geographic concentration.

Religious sectarianism and variety. Each of the three earliest colleges—Harvard, William & Mary, and Yale—was founded to support the established church of its particular colony; and these were the only colleges until 1745. Not until the mid-18th century—after the Great Awakening had aroused religious enthusiasms and sharpened sectarian antagonism, and when prosperity gave people money enough to send their sons to college and to build college buildings—did the rash of colonial colleges appear. This was what President Ezra Stiles of Yale called “the College Enthusiasm.” While in England the admirable dissenting academies did not even secure the power to grant degrees, in America the school of every sect arrogated the dignity of an ancient European university. By the time of the Revolution nearly every major Christian sect had an institution of its own: New-Side Presbyterians founded Princeton; revivalist Baptists founded Brown; Dutch Reformed revivalists founded Rutgers; a Congregational minister transformed an Indian missionary school into Dartmouth; and Anglicans and Presbyterians worked together in the founding of King’s College (later Columbia) and the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania).

Each college founded by a sect was another good reason for every other sect to found its own college in order to save more Americans from the untruths of its competitors. And all these sectarian colleges were so many good reasons for secularists to found their own in order to rescue youth from all benighting dogma. Here was an accelerating movement. Once begun it was not easily stopped; it was only delayed by hard times during the Revolution. Between 1746 and 1769, twice as many colleges were founded in the colonies as in the previous hundred years; between 1769 and 1789 twice as many again as in the preceding twenty years. And so it went. The movement gathered momentum, and seems hardly yet to have stopped.

Such competition, incidentally, had a liberalizing effect. While the founding sect in each case could hope to dominate, it dared not monopolize its own institution. Under American conditions the sharpening religious antagonisms of the second half of the 18th century actually produced interdenominational boards of control. While the college president usually came from the dominant sect, it was commonly necessary to conciliate hostile sects by including their representatives among the trustees. King’s College, which was an Anglican institution, possessed on its first governing board ministers of four other denominations; Brown’s board, although dominated by Baptists, included a substantial number of Congregationalists, Anglicans, and Quakers. Of the twenty-four trustees of the University of Pennsylvania (which had grown out of a nonsectarian academy), six trustees represented all the principal denominations, including the Roman Catholic.

Among these many new institutions there arose a lively competition for students, because there were few places in sparsely populated America where any single sect could furnish the whole student body of a college. Perforce no American college during the colonial period imposed a religious test on its entering students. Thus, a nonsectarianism, which was not the product of an abstract theory of toleration, became an ideal of American higher education. It was typically expressed by Ezra Stiles who had become President of Yale in 1778 when the college was still suffering from the narrow-minded orthodoxy of the obstinate Thomas Clap (Rector and President, 1740-1766). Stiles’s tolerance helped revive the college. He, of course, admitted his own conscientious preference for Congregationalism, but by that he dared not be governed.

There is so much pure Christianity among all sects of Protestants, that I cheerfully embrace all in my charity. There is so much defect in all that we all need forbearance and mutual condescension. I don’t intend to spend my days in the fires of party; at the most I shall resist all claims and endeavors for supremacy or precedency of any sect; for the rest I shall promote peace, harmony, and benevolence.

Provincial America had already begun to find safety in diversity. Only a decade later the authors of The Federalist (No. 51) observed with prophetic wisdom that “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.” The proliferation of sects and the growth of religious enthusiasm in 18th-century America had produced an unpredicted and unplanned (often an undesired) religious tolerance. Where every sect lacked power to coerce, they all wisely “chose” to persuade.

Geographic distance and local pride. The great geographic distances which dissipated religious passion also dissipated the intellectual passion which might have been focused in one or two centers of higher learning. There never has been an effective American movement for a national university. The numerous and diverse American colleges, separated by vast distances, never formed a self-conscious community of learned men. Even efforts to adopt uniform standards of college admission or to form a general association of colleges were feeble and unsuccessful until the 19th century. Organizations like the Phi Beta Kappa Society (founded in 1776), which aimed at an intercollegiate community of educated men, exerted slight influence. American colleges were emphatically institutions of the local community. Harvard, William & Mary, and Yale were designed by and for their particular provinces; their support came from their own localities.

The primary aim of the American college was not to increase the continental stock of cultivated men, but rather to supply its particular region with knowledgeable ministers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, and political leaders. While the university centers of traditional English learning were detached from the great political and commercial center of London, the early American colleges tended to be at the center of each colony’s affairs. The location of William & Mary at Williamsburg (and the comparable locations of Brown, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania) where students like Jefferson could drop in during their spare time to hear the debates of the House of Burgesses, linked learning and public life. It symbolized both the easy intercourse between American higher learning and the community as a whole and the identification of leading men with the special problems of their particular regions.

In England, the leading families sent their sons away to the few best “public” schools, and afterwards these young gentlemen were gathered—if only for hunting and wassailing—at Oxford and Cambridge. Anyone who could afford it thus went to a distant, “national” institution. “If he returned to work in his native place he was no longer quite a native of it,” G. Kitson Clark has explained, “he spoke a different language from most of its inhabitants, had bonds of friendship which drew his mind away from its borders, and above all had not had with his fellow townsmen that close association in youth which is perhaps the closest neighbourly bond there is. Perhaps this helped to impede the development of that vigorous provincial life which England needed and still needs, and, worse than that, it helped to create a caste, to emphasize a horizontal social division, at a time of growing wealth and growing social tensions when a horizontal division was particularly dangerous.” In America the basis of higher education was territorial; this distinction was important, for the diffusion of American higher education nourished the local roots of a federal union. Mere proximity and the lower cost of attending college near home seem to have been deciding factors in the choice of a college by many pre-Revolutionary students in America.

Americans came to believe that no community was complete without its own college. The famous provisions for an educational land-fund in the Land Ordinance of 1785 and in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which later became the bases for state universities, probably had some such motive. Real estate developers in the early 19th century included plans for colleges in their schemes to attract settlers to new towns.

Social and geographic mobility: the competition for students. These insecure new institutions were competing for reputation, for financial support, and—most important of all—for students. The Colleges of New Jersey and of Rhode Island (later to be Princeton and Brown), which charged the lowest fees, and Dartmouth, where some students could work for their expenses, rapidly increased their enrollment. The College of Philadelphia and King’s College, sometimes called “the gentlemen’s colleges,” drew the fewest students from afar and had the smallest student bodies.

Nearly all the modern techniques of student recruiting, except the football scholarship, were used before the end of the colonial era. There were many examples of the puffing brochure and of alumni acting as recruiting agents. Along with these came lower standards of admission and graduation and “popular” courses to attract the students whose tuition fees were desperately needed. “Except in one neighbouring province,” John Trumbull of Connecticut complained in 1773, “ignorance wanders unmolested at our colleges, examinations are dwindled to meer form and ceremony, and after four years dozing there, no one is ever refused the honours of a degree, on account of dulness and insufficiency.”

American colleges had already begun to put their money in impressive buildings, which they could ill afford, rather than in books or faculty endowments. During the twenty-five years before the Revolution five of the colonial colleges spent about £15,000 for the erection or remodeling of buildings. Such expenditures supposedly brought favorable publicity, and hence students. But at the College of Philadelphia and the College of Rhode Island, these heavy initial costs left the institutions bankrupt almost before they had begun to operate.

Despite the competition between colleges, higher education was still not cheap. In the mid-18th century, the combined cost of room, board, and tuition ranged from about £10 a year (at the College of New Jersey or of Rhode Island), to twice that sum (at King’s College); a wealthy student might spend as much as £50. This was at a time when a carpenter’s annual earnings would have been no more than £50, a college instructor’s about £100, and a prosperous lawyer’s only £500. Although an ambitious parent might secure a loan to educate his son, a college education obviously was not for the poor: there was not yet a regular or extensive system of scholarships and, except at Dartmouth, it was uncommon for students to work their way through college. Still, everything considered, the situation was a great deal better than in England, where a higher education could not be secured for much less than £100 a year.

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One obvious effect of this dispersion and competition of colleges was an increase in the number, though not in the quality, of college degrees. About fourteen hundred men graduated from the three colonial colleges in the thirty years before 1747; in the next thirty years the colleges of British North America awarded more than twice that many bachelor’s degrees, about half the increase being due to the newly-founded colleges. No American who could afford the fee of ten pounds a year for four years could fail to secure, if he wanted it, the hallmark of a “higher” education. American colleges were not simply distributing to the many what in England was reserved for the privileged few; they were issuing an inflated intellectual currency.

The early colonial dispersion established a pattern which was never broken. From time to time after the Revolution, grandiose hopes were expressed for a single great institution supported by Congress. It was to be situated in the national capital, where students of republican sentiment could be drawn from abroad, where the intellectual resources of the nation could be concentrated, and where local prejudices might be dissolved. There was such talk even in the Federal Constitutional Convention. Charles Pinckney’s draft expressly gave the Federal legislature the power to establish a national university at the seat of government, and Madison seems to have favored such a power. In the showdown the proposal was defeated, either because members believed the power already had been given by implication or because they considered it undesirable. George Washington was attracted by the idea of an institution at the nation’s capital to “afford the students an opportunity of attending the debates in Congress, and thereby becoming more liberally and better acquainted with the principles of law and government.” But the Founding Fathers supported the local institutions which had sprung up all over the country.

Until nearly the end of the 18th century, the typical American college consisted of a president (usually a cleric, sometimes the pastor of a neighboring church) and a few (seldom more than three) tutors who were themselves usually young men studying for the clergy. There were few “professors”—mature men with a full command of their subject. Under these circumstances the curriculum of American colleges, as distinct from their institutional framework, inevitably remained traditional. Despite a few notable exceptions and some influence of the English dissenting academies and the Scottish universities, American colonial colleges stuck to the curriculum which the tutors had learned from their tutors and which ultimately could be traced back to the English universities and their medieval forebears. What distinguished the American college was not its corpus of knowledge, but how, when, where, and to whom it was communicated.

As colleges became more dispersed, developing their interdenominationalism and their links with their local communities, they also became less identified with any particular profession. During the 18th century a decreasing proportion of American college graduates entered the ministry. By the second half of the 17th century even Harvard, which had been founded with an ecclesiastical purpose, was drawing many sons of artisans, tradesmen, and farmers. By the end of the 18th century only about a quarter of the graduates of all American colleges were becoming clergymen. Meanwhile the lack of specialized legal and medical training affected those learned professions themselves, making them depend more on informal apprenticeship.

American colleges that aimed to make good citizens would only accidentally produce profound or adventuring scholars. The Marquis de Chastellux, traveling through the country in the 1780’s, observed that here the philosopher needed less to promote educational institutions than to remove obstacles to their progress. “Leave owls and bats to flutter in the doubtful perspicuity of a feeble twilight;” he warned with an eye to the English vices, “the American eagle should fix her eyes upon the sun.”

The peculiar promise of American academies lay in their numbers. From the beginning, American colleges, in contrast with those of England, were more anxious to spread than to deepen the higher learning. A community of two million inhabitants or less, dispersed over the long seacoast of a vast continent, would have had to concentrate its learned minds in some American Athens if they were most effectively to stimulate one another. But there was no American Athens, and Americans came to value the intellectual virtues which grew in diffusion: the sense of relevance, the free exchange between the community’s experience and that of its teachers. If by ancient criteria Americans were less learned, they were shaping new tests of the value of learning. If they did not know their sacred texts so well, they were opening a thousand windows.

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