The Liberal Arts College: A Chapter in American Cultural History
reviewed by Frederick H. Jackson - 1958
Title: The Liberal Arts College: A Chapter in American Cultural History
Author(s): George P. Schimdt, Frederick H. Jackson
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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Perhaps the most distinctively American feature of higher education in the United States is the liberal arts college. From the founding of Harvard in 1636 until about 1870 it was almost the only kind of institution for advanced study in the country. And in the period from 1870 until the present, during which the liberal arts college was obliged to compete with new and rival professional and technical schools, it has remained the basic undergraduate type of institution. During this latest period in which the primacy of the liberal arts college was challenged, its fundamental nature has changed so markedly that a graduate of the class of 1858 would scarcely recognize his alma mater, were he to look in on it a century later.
In the book under review George P. Schmidt, professor of history at Douglass College, has told the story of the emergence of the college in colonial times and its sometimes chaotic growth and development during the century and three quarters of our national life. Professor Schmidt is no novice in the field of the history of higher education; he is also the author of The Old Time College President, a fine study published when good books about colleges and universities were much more rare than they have been in recent years.
In the first portion of the volume the author emphasizes the religious impulse which underlay the founding of nearly all colleges before 1870. In a notable chapter he delineates the role of the college president, who prior to the past eighty years was in nearly all cases a clergyman. The influence of religion on every aspect of collegiate life was insured and enforced by the long lines 3f clergymen presidents.
If the colleges founded prior to 1870 were almost always controlled by religious denominations, their curricula were also remarkably similar. The spell of Greek and Latin lay heavy on them, and the classics along with mathematics and spoken and written English comprised the standard academic fare until late in the nineteenth century.
After 1870 the story is one of the breakdown of the old order in higher education. The classical tradition was successfully challenged and varied curricula emerged to replace it. New secularly oriented institutions under private or public auspices arose and other religiously centered colleges evolved into independent, secular institutions. The highly trained specialist replaced the old-time college professor who, besides being a clergyman, taught perhaps half a dozen different subjects.
In the transformation of the college in the last decades of the nineteenth century professor Schmidt singles out three forces which appear to have had the greatest impact in forcing change. The first of these vas the rise of the Midwestern state university: "In such a school not only the classical student laying the foundations for the ministry or the law, but the farmer, the mechanic, the merchantin short the peoplecould find the kind of training and information they needed."
The second force which brought about fundamental change was the importation of German concepts of the scholar and scientist. No longer was the academic settee of the old-time college professor respectable; only the specialist with his Ph.D. from a German university would do. Before long some American colleges were adding graduate schools, changing their names to universities and producing Ph.D.'s also. The third force which made for change in the colleges was the introduction of the theory of evolution into American academic life. The most fundamental tenets of many clerical professors and presidents seemed threatened by this strange doctrine which eventually became almost universally accepted in American colleges.
In discussing the liberal arts college in the twentieth century, the author stresses the ideological battles which raged between the rival schools of thought represented by John Dewey and Robert M. Hutchins. In this chapter one sees especially clearly the fair-minded objectivity and thorough knowledge of the subject which characterize Professor Schmidt's book. He knows the American college scene thoroughly, as he demonstrates both in his narrative and in the notes and bibliography. This reviewer can recall no source of any consequence which Professor Schmidt has overlooked. His final chapter outlines the growth of the concept of academic freedom in American colleges and universities.
The Liberal Arts College is a first-rate study by a highly competent and seasoned scholar. It is written simply and clearly and in an informal manner. This reviewer has noted only two items "which he would question. The first, a minor matter, is the statement on page 196 that Harvard and Yale have never had chapters of national fraternities. Both institutions have, in fact, had chapters of national fraternities sometime during their history. The second is the observation on page 234 that not much expansion of honors programs can be expected in the near future. There is at present considerable stir in the large state universities in this area, and it is the reviewer's belief that honors programs may flourish during the next decade in the state universities, where with only a few exceptions very little has been accomplished until recently.
Professor Schmidt's book is both an excellent account of the fundamental unit of the American higher educational system and a distinguished contribution to American cultural history.