Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

High Priests of Nature: The Origins of Illinois State Normal "University" in the Antebellum Lyceum

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

High Priests of Nature: The Origins of Illinois State Normal "University" in the Antebellum Lyceum

Article excerpt

In one of the Bloomington Paragraph's earliest numbers (dated April 26, 1854), there occurs an editorial about a course of three lectures on chemistry, "with experimental illustrations." " [Prof. Wyman's] experiments were beautiful," said the article, "and completely successful; and it would have been creditable to Bloomington had his lectures been more generally attended. It would indeed be a matter of pride and congratulations, if really useful and important lectures and exhibitions were more popular in this place, instead of the bombastic and silly performances that frequently visit us."1 As it happens, the review appeared immediately after the review of another lecture, this one on "Harmonials," which took the occasion of a lecture about Spiritualism, not indeed to endorse séances as a means of communicating with the dearly departed, but to chastise the local clergy for their intolerance. "We have never heard opponents so civilly and charitably treated by polemic speakers in any pulpits in Bloomington; and some of our preachers might learn, at least, humility, amenity of manners, and sacerdotal civility, by attending his (Mr. R.P. Ambler's) discourse."2

Like most lecture reviews, the review of the chemical lectures likewise wasted very little ink on the lecture itself, instead using it as a springboard, this time for a critique of the denominational college system then dominant in American higher learning:

While listening to the remarks of the Professor, and witnessing his experiments, the thought came forcibly over our mind, why do we not have such lectures and experiments in our Institutions of Learning and Science? It is undoubtedly because those institutions are behind the age in spirit and enterprise! The long years of study, and the large sums expended to learn what were the customs and opinions of ancient nations, as represented in the productions of their poets, orators, philosophers and historians, "if well employed, at less expense," would throw open the treasures of knowledge, now locked up in the laws of Nature and fill the whole country with science and true wisdom . . . But why this childish devotion to the learning and opinions of those who were not blessed with a tithe of the light and knowledge now extant! It is irrational, preposterous and absurd.3

The controversies in the early Pantagraph indicate at least four important things about American higher education before the Civil War: First, the importance of a largely forgotten, but once immensely important institution of higher learning in America, the Lyceum or lecture circuit. Men like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass both championed and embodied the so-called self-made man, but they were not without help. Somewhat ironically, the lecture circuit was a vehicle for self-education at a time when the college degree had yet to assume its later dominance as gatekeeper to the professions. These lyceums helped make a generation of "self-made" men. Second, the lyceum played a role not unlike the modern research university. From the very beginning, the lyceum system included the gathering and display of plant, animal, and mineral specimens, including fossils. This basic gathering and taxonomic work continued into the early twentieth century and from a purely scientific point of view, constitutes perhaps the most important contribution of the Lyceum. Third, the lectures themselves very often revealed heightening tensions between natural science or naturalism and the religious orthodoxies of a then very Protestant America in the years just prior to the Civil War, and more importantly, the years just prior to Darwin's Origin of Species. Fourth, these controversies reveal the origins in the Lyceum of the Illinois Natural History Society as part of the Illinois State Normal University. John Freed has discussed the ambitions of ISNU's founders to build more than a Normal School.4 In addition to the Normal School, Jonathan Baldwin Turner called both for an "industrial university" for the masses of people not intending to go into medicine, law, or the ministry. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.