The Founding of Illinois State Normal University: Normal School or State University?

Article excerpt

On February 18, 1857, William H. Bissell, the first Republican governor of Illinois, signed "an act for the establishment and maintenance of a Normal University." The statute constituted a fifteen member "Board of Education of the State of Illinois" as the legal entity that owned and governed the State's first public university.1 The measure had two curious features. The first was the designation of the new institution as a university. As the example of Illinois Wesleyan shows, the word university was employed loosely in the antebellum period. Cornell, which was established in 1865, is generally considered to be the first real American university, that is, an institution that emphasized research and provided postgraduate and professional education.2 But even in the 1850s it was preposterous to use the term for a school that prepared as teachers men and women who had at best an eighth-grade education. In fact, Charles E. Hovey, the University's first principal (the title was changed to president in 1866), was asked point blank in 1859 at the first convention of the American Normal School Association why his normal school had been called a university.3

The other oddity in the statute was the General Assembly's charge that the Normal University not only prepare teachers in "all branches of study which pertain to a common school education," for example, arithmetic and spelling, but also "in the elements of the natural sciences, including agricultural chemistry, animal and vegetable physiology." To implement the latter mandate, Hovey persuaded Dr. Joseph Addison Sewall, a physician, to study the natural sciences for two years at Yale and Harvard with the nation's foremost scientists.4 Did the legislators really imagine that children would conduct scientific experiments in ungraded, crudely furnished, one-room country schools?

The answer is that the founders never intended the new university to be simply a normal school. If their plans had been realized, the normal school would have been merely one department in Illinois' state university and in the nation's first land grant school. John H. Burnham, Class of 1861, the first director of the Illinois State Historical Society and for a brief time in the 1860s the editor of the Bloomington Pantagraph, wrote in 1882 in conjunction with the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the University's foundation: "The intention was to gather around the new institution the different colleges, - classical, agricultural, industrial, law, medical, and the other departments of a university, - until, in the end, the State should have here a grand university, equal to any in the land."5 These unfulfilled aspirations explain many of the peculiarities of the early history of the Normal University: its designation as a university; the legislative mandate to teach "agricultural chemistry, animal and vegetable physiol- ogy;" the design of Old Main - the plans called for an art gallery and a museum and the total cost of the building's construction was an astonish- ing $187,000, approximately eighteen times the University's operating budget in Fiscal Year 1858;6 the layout of the quad by William Saunders, a prominent landscape architect who subsequently designed the national cemetery at Gettysburg and the park system of Washington;7 and the Board's sponsorship of John Wesley Powell's expeditions to the Rockies and the Grand Canyon.8 These actions make sense only if one realizes that the Normal University was from 1857 to 1867, as Jürgen Herbst, a historian of higher education at the University of Wisconsin said, "for all intents and purposes the state university of Illinois."9

Yet the founders' original vision for Illinois State has been nearly completely forgotten; and they have been described as duplicitous in calling the new foundation a university. For example, Francis G. Blair (1864-1942), Class of 1892, who served as Illinois' elected superintendent of public instruction from 1906 tol934, wrote in a 1933 letter, on behalf of the Normal School Board, to the president of St. …


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