THE BOON AND BANE OF SPECIALIZATION
THE HOUSE OF LEARNING underwent more than minor redecoration in the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century. And it will startle no one to hear that the radical rearrangement of knowledge involved increased emphasis on research, professionalization and specialization among the faculty, and the slow alienation of academic knowledge from its once sturdily Protestant view of the world, as already described in connection with the sciences. But the precise character of this revolution, and its link with the contemporaneous revolution of the humanities, needs specification.
This can begin by sweeping away the lingering dust of one hoary popular myth, continuing the housecleaning begun above in the discussion of the sciences. University reformers did not heroically discover in 1869 or 1876 that professors could do research. Granted, before 1850, erudition was possibly more at home outside than inside the academy, and few professors really qualified as learned. Granted, too, research became a much more widespread academic ideal in the second half of the century. But it is easy to overestimate research even in the best universities during the crucial decades of the late nineteenth century. In his inaugural address as president of Harvard in 1869, that great reformer Charles Eliot, while expecting “the strongest and most devoted professors” to “contribute something to the patrimony of knowledge,” firmly insisted that “the prime business of American professors in this generation must be regular and assiduous class teaching.” And it is equally easy to forget that research was far from discounted in the old, religiously oriented colleges. George Ticknor began his great history of Spanish literature while teaching at Harvard; Joseph Henry carried on his influential researches in electromagnetism while teaching at Princeton. Yale, stalwart of the classical curriculum, nurtured a whole school of Christian scholars: William Dwight Whitney, arguably the most eminent scholar produced by the United States in the nineteenth century, blossomed in it. 1
No, the novelty was not research as such, but the beginnings of a certain kind of specialization in knowledge. (These distinctions matter, being often blurred in retrospect.) Specialization (beyond the obvious separation of, say, chemistry and Greek into different courses) would have seemed utterly out of place in college education before 1850, had anyone given it a thought. A minority of professors—probably a small one—did pursue research in special fields, as Ticknor did in Spanish