Academic journal article College English

The Word Made Secular: Religious Rhetoric and the New University at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article College English

The Word Made Secular: Religious Rhetoric and the New University at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

In October of 1899, Charles W. Eliot buried the lede. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Eliot began his essay "Recent Changes in Secondary Education" without controversy: "A college administrator who paid no attention to the condition of secondary schools could not guide well the policy of his own college, and could not secure for his college its proper share of influence on education in general" (433). Eliot was predictably extending his education reform in the American college to high schools, a reform platform he first offered in his popular essay, "The New Education," published three decades earlier in The Atlantic. Only this time, instead of advocating for an American university that would bring together the practical and liberal subjects, he was now arguing to extend the idea of "a practical education" to the high school level. Elected president of Harvard soon after "The New Education" appeared, Eliot had already spent thirty years turning Harvard into a modern university through the development of Harvard's elective system, research faculties, and professional schools; the idea of an individualized college education that prepared each student for a specialized career was quickly becoming standard.

Yet Eliot still felt the need to defend these changes, and in building his defense, he would reveal an underlying prejudice. Eliot saved his criticism of those resisting the shift toward election of studies, waiting until the end of his essay to deconstruct the uniform, prescribed course of study still used by both Muslim and Jesuit educators. Beginning with Muslim schools, Eliot laid the fault of these outdated models upon their "ecclesiastical" mandate. Islamic countries relied upon uniform education, he claimed, "where the Koran prescribed the perfect education to be administered to all children alike" and where "almost the only mental power cultivated is memory" (433). Closer to home, "Another instance of uniform prescribed education may be found in the curriculum of the Jesuit colleges," he wrote, "which has remained almost unchanged for four hundred years" (443). A Catholic religious order founded in 1540, the Society ofJesus operated twenty-four Catholic colleges in the United States at the time. According to Eliot, the Jesuits' entrenched approach was particularly offensive to what had become a new American ideal in education: individualized instruction. Prescriptive curricula overlooked an increasing awareness of "the sanctity of the individual's gifts and will-power," losing their relevance with the great "expanding of human knowledge in the nineteenth century"; for Eliot, their resistance could only be justified by "an unhesitating belief in the Divine wisdom of such prescriptions" (443). Unlike the foreign system of the Muslims, the Jesuits were making an egregious error by resisting recent developments that were coming to define "the new education" as uniquely American. "Impossible and absurd," he concluded: "We must absolutely give up the notion that any set of human beings, however wise and learned, can ever again construct and enforce on school children one uniform course of study" (443). For informed readers who were aware of Eliot's recent battle with Jesuit colleges over graduate admissions to Harvard Law School, no matter the title and subject of the article, his was a clear attack on not just a religious or a prescribed education but, particularly, the Jesuit course of study. What had been circumscribed to private correspondence between Catholic writers and the president of Harvard had now spilled over onto the pages of The Atlantic.

An informed reader and a Jesuit, past president of Boston College Timothy Brosnahan took it upon himself to publicly refute Eliot, publishing his rebuttal in pamphlet form after The Atlantic refused to print it. The Jesuits were, indeed, resisting Eliot's call for change in American higher education. In defense of the moral foundation of Jesuit education, Brosnahan responded in February 1900 with President Eliot and Jesuit Colleges. …

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