The American College in the Nineteenth Century

By Stevenson, Louise L. | Academe, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

The American College in the Nineteenth Century


Stevenson, Louise L., Academe


Roger L. Geiger, ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000, 363 pp.

RECENTLY, BOTH INFORMAL AND formal reading inspired some thoughts about the prospects for American colleges in the twenty-first century. While considering The American College in the Nineteenth Century, I also encountered newspaper advertisements for audiocourses delivered by professors at great American universities and for an Internet-based degree at an art school. In addition, media were reporting recent discussions about whether educational institutions or their professors should receive payoffs from the development of commercial Internet resources. Given the unsettling changes in higher education, a history of nineteenth-century higher education seemed to offer a nonhabit-forming sleep aid. To the contrary, the cautionary tales and astute analysis found in The American College in the Nineteenth Century will stimulate thinking about the future of higher education.

From the early 1950s through the mid-1960s, influential historians, including Walter Metzger, Richard Hofstadter, Laurence Veysey, Frederick Rudolph, and Willis Rudy, severely criticized the antebellum college and praised the "rise of the university" in the 1870s. Despite other historians' revision of that view since the mid-1970s, their findings probably have had less circulation than that of top-secret records from Los Alamos. No wonder that Roger Geiger credits publication of The American College in the Nineteenth Century to frustration. On the one hand, over the past twenty years Geiger, as editor of the Higher Education Annual, has published scholarship propounding a new view of college and university history. On the other hand, no revisionist has yet created a coherent, persuasive narrative drawing on both the traditional and the revisionist schools. So with a little help from contributors, Geiger has done the job, and it should succeed for several reasons.

As a few examples show, each of the collected articles can stand alone. Leon Jackson's analysis of student revolts at Harvard from the 1780s through the mid-1830s should counteract the yearning of any president or dean of students for the good old days. It was common for students to hang in effigy not only rival student leaders, but also college presidents. Contrary to contemporary thinking about the relationship of student fraternities and societies to violence, Jackson contends that, in the era of the new republic, these student groups fostered visions of community and manhood that held riotous behavior in check.

In an essay on the political and social philosophy prevalent at South Carolina College, Michael Sugrue argues that Thomas Jefferson was right about the influence of an educated elite on American politics and wrong about its beneficial effects on the South. Sugrue shows that South Carolina's antebellum college faculty taught the racist and political theories upon which creation of the Confederacy depended. Until these theories were discredited by war, they influenced the numerically small elite of South Carolina college alumni who dominated politics in their home state and in the states of the New South to which some migrated.

On a larger plane, the significance of the collection transcends the interest of each chapter. Geiger's introductory and concluding essays, in addition to the crucial essays that he contributes to the volume, push readers toward a fuller understanding of the history of higher education in the nineteenth century. Though Geiger concedes that the predominance of the modern university began during the last decade of the century, he contends that the years between 1850 and 1890 can be understood best as an age when an institution he calls the multipurpose university reigned. Its audience and support linked it to a geographic community usually no more than one hundred miles in radius, and it usually comprised several institutions, among them a liberal arts college and often schools or colleges for women. …

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