The Sacred and the Secular University

By Jon H. Roberts; James Turner | Go to book overview
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Chapter Three
KNOWLEDGE AND INQUIRY IN THE ASCENDANT

IT MAY WELL BE, as one historian of science has suggested, that “modern academic science” began “at the moment investigators began to care more for the approval and esteem of their disciplinary colleagues than they did for the general standards of success in the society which surrounded them.” Nevertheless, academic scientists and their allies recognized that they could ill afford to ignore the outside world altogether. Accordingly, they sought to convince college presidents, trustees, patrons, and the public that the “culture of science” was crucial to the academic mission of higher education. 1

On balance, advocates of science proved remarkably successful in their proselytizing efforts. During the late nineteenth century, college and university presidents characteristically embraced the idea that their institutions should be pushing back the frontiers of ignorance, especially in the sciences. A number of these presidents, in cooperation with their faculties, adopted structures for hiring and promotion that rewarded research. Just as important, the public supported institutions explicitly committed to the discipline-based research ideal. Both the quantity and the quality of scientific research improved within higher education after 1870. 2

Despite the growing commitment to the notion of ongoing inquiry, most colleges and universities devoted relatively few resources to research prior to the twentieth century. Not only officials in the liberal arts colleges but even the majority of the most dedicated reformers of higher education continued to embrace the notion that teaching undergraduate students by transmitting the methods and knowledge already at hand was of central importance. For their part, most defenders of science within academe could hardly fail to recognize that college teaching was the major occupation available to academically trained natural and social scientists. Nor could they be unaware of the fact that many of the individuals who presided over colleges and universities, as well as many professors, continued to emphasize the centrality of character development in the classroom. They were therefore impelled to address themselves to the issue of the value of teaching their disciplines to the achievement of a liberal education. 3

Toward this end, they characteristically argued that careful scientific study of phenomena would promote intellectual development and mental discipline, long thought to be of central importance in higher educa

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