Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"From the New World to the Old, and Back Again": Whig University Leaders and Trans-Atlantic Nationalism in the Era of 1848

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"From the New World to the Old, and Back Again": Whig University Leaders and Trans-Atlantic Nationalism in the Era of 1848

Article excerpt

When Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont toured the United States in 1831-1832, they did not visit any colleges, and in Democracy in America, Tocqueville merely commented on the sparse availability of higher education in the states. This virtual silence, though, was not reciprocated when Americans interested in university education traveled to Europe. The "Old World" offered intriguing insights to sojourners such as Henry Tappan, a native of upstate New York who had served as a professor of moral and mental philosophy at the University of the City of New York in the 1830s before initiating the University of Michigan's transformation into a research-oriented institution in the 1850s (see Figure 1). Tappan met with Tocqueville during an 1851 European tour and recorded his impressions and thoughts in a lengthy (yet obscure) travel narrative titled A Step from the New World to the Old, and Back Again, With Thoughts on the Good and Evil in Both. According to Tappan's account, he and Tocqueville discussed intellectual and political life over breakfast at Versailles, lamenting that few "literary men" entered American politics. Recalling the conversation, Tappan observed that Americans could elevate intellect and negate the influence of demagogues "only by the creation of those great institutions of learning, which, like the University of Paris and the French Institute, both multiply the number of scholars and collect them in associations where they can co-work together, sustain each other, and make their legitimate power and influence to be felt."1

In 1852, shortly after his return from Europe, Henry Tappan became president of the University of Michigan. During his tenure in Ann Arbor, which lasted until 1863, Tappan built research facilities like the Detroit Observatory, assembled a strong faculty, and bought hundreds of books in Berlin for the university library. When historians discuss Tappan, however, they do not recall his conversation with Tocqueville about the cultural impact of French institutions. Some, such as Thomas Bender, note the irony that a proponent of urban higher education ultimately became famous as the president of a then-provincial university. Others, including George Marsden, invoke Tappan's seemingly romantic or mystical fascination with Prussian higher education, and begin their analyses with the presumption that he wanted to import German-style education to America. Indeed, it is tempting simply to say that Tappan and other midcentury academic leaders borrowed ideas from Germany - then a collection of states, not yet a unified nation - and thus paved the way for late nineteenth-century developments in higher education such as the founding of the Johns Hopkins University (upon a German university model) in 1876. Yet Germany's influence upon America's nineteenthcentury universities, as Marsden concedes, is difficult to define precisely. In fact, the German origin story of American higher education has become such a well-worn chestnut that historian James Turner even argues that it is largely mythical. Reformers were selective in their appropriations, insofar as they "discarded the educational program of German universities" yet "took the German invention of highly specialized professorial research . . . and built on it the advanced segment of American university education." Americans did not replicate German universities: They merely appropriated one aspect of German higher education and then built institutions unlike those in the German states.2

It is difficult to determine the extent and meaning of German influences upon mid nineteenth-century American universities because historians have focused too narrowly upon curriculum and upon Germany itself. Rather than trying to unearth German antecedents to America's late nineteenth-century research institutions, we should seek to understand what Europe - and its universities - meant to midcentury thinkers like Tappan. Though they were certainly influenced by German thought, Americans were not just seeking curricular inspiration from a single country or region. …

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