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From Liturgy to Discussion: The Protestant Liberal Arts Tradition and American Higher Education

The purpose of higher education in the United States is one of constant change. From the establishment of Harvard College to the multi-purpose universities of today, higher education is not the same as it was upon its founding. The Protestant liberal arts tradition was the bedrock for the foundational curriculum of American higher education and was supported through liturgical practices. Through several intellectual developments and transitions, this tradition has been removed from its place as the established norm of higher education and stripped of its liturgy. Despite this alteration, the tradition has not disappeared but rests soundly within small, discussion-based enclaves due to their dual focus on Protestant beliefs and liberal arts instruction. Intellectual and cultural pressure successfully removed the tradition from normative education and condensed it into small pockets throughout the American landscape. Just as a diamond is made through constant pressure and change, so has the tradition maintained its existence in a different form but with a preserved essence. It is for this reason that the reality put forward in the ending lines of Emeritus Professor George M. Marsden’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” of The Soul of the American University needs to be combatted and further unpacked to be properly conveyed. The fearful claim that, “[a]s in earlier establishments, groups who do not match the current national ideological norms are forced to fend for themselves outside of the major spheres of cultural influence” is ultimately skewed.[1] The essence of the Protestant liberal arts tradition remains tangible and active in enclaves of influence. Although these enclaves are few, they are united by the minds and mouths of those who fight for preservation.

Dissent

The Puritan dissent that led to Harvard’s founding was an intentional statement of Christian purpose in the New World, as it was a sanctum of education informed by Christian teachings and the liberal arts tradition for the betterment of Massachusetts society. The intellectual and cultural pressures which would eventually cause the tradition’s consolidation began with the division centered around Harvard’s role in the New Light and Old Light schism due to the intellectual dilemmas of the First Great Awakening. Eventually, new discoveries spurred by the Enlightenment influenced the tradition’s narrative in the eighteenth century. A diverse educational climate followed which clashed with the traditional liberal arts values, leading to discontent in the late eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Frustrations, in turn, caused a defense of the old curricula. The American environment changed once more, beginning in the antebellum era, with unique denominationalist ties and the growth of industry displacing the tradition in favor of new financial relationships. The twentieth century introduced a new format of institutional learning and a mindset in which schools felt that they had a duty to provide paths to vocational opportunities if they were to receive funding and be considered beneficial. Concludingly, the discussion of specific Protestant groups and educational reformers reunited the liberal arts and Protestant beliefs in the late twentieth century with a renewed purpose that mirrored the original intent of the tradition.

Harvard College was a Puritan project of the seventeenth century and a product of the religious dissent from the Church of England. Founded in 1636, its curriculum articulated its educational intentions. The purpose of the college was, first and foremost, theological, as they believed Christ to be the footing for intellectual development.[2] The liberal arts and theology were closely tied from the start. Students were expected to “read Scriptures twice a day and to conduct themselves morally.”[3] Furthermore, this requirement meant that knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin was vital, and readings in these languages extended to classical works.[4] New Englands First Fruits, published in 1643 as a defense of Puritan evangelical efforts in the New World, outlines the curriculum in detail. Individuals were only allowed admission into the college when they were “able to understand Tully, or such like classicall Latine Author extempore, and make and speake true Latine in Verse and Prose…And decline perfectly the Paradigm’s of Nounes and Verbes in the Greek tongue.” This was the primary requirement, and it was placed directly before the expectation that every student should “consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life…and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all found knowledge and Learning.”[5] The classical languages—undergirded with an understanding of Roman oration—are rooted firmly in the Scholastic liberal arts tradition. Harvard’s requirements, however, altered the Scholastic practice into a Protestant push for experience within the classical realm to reaching a better understanding of Christian scripture and its tenets. The placement of this requirement before the command to deepen one’s understanding of Christ as a firm intellectual foundation is not to make the statement that Classical Studies is more important. It is instead to highlight the use of classical languages and the knowledge of antiquity as tools that better educate the Harvard, Protestant scholar for social and spiritual resolve. The liberal arts were the means to the end located in Protestant understanding.

The study of Greek and Latin languages was not the only implementation of the liberal arts in the Harvard curriculum. Students were expected to thoroughly understand the traditional topics of Logic, Physics, Arithmetic, Geometry, Rhetoric, Astronomy, and Music.[6] The natural, moral, and metaphysical philosophies were also taught.[7] Yet, these courses were placed alongside Christian liturgical practices of prayer, the daily reading of scripture, and the attendance of chapel services. Even still, Harvard College was by all accounts a public institution in that it cared for the continuation of clerical duties and was socially rooted in the society of Massachusetts. It was directly supported by and advocated for the Church and the civil government equally.[8] The presence of a board composed of twelve Overseers—six being magistrates and the other six ministers—“to see that everyone be diligent and proficient in his proper place” serves as more evidence to justify Harvard as a school formed for societal purposes rather than just clerical intentions.[9] Yet, the presence of Christian liturgy in the public educational context maintained a Church-guided schedule. The scholars would regularly attend private services, practice secret prayer, and read scripture twice a day.[10] Additionally, Saturday and Sunday were set aside for theological training and for the Sabbath.[11] Even in this intentional timeframe of Christian study, the liberal arts made an appearance. The recitation of scripture was mandatory, and logical analysis was vital to correctly understand its truth. Christian religious practices and traditional forms of teaching were in harmony from the start.

Division

The division of the New Lights from the Old Lights amidst dilemmas lingering from the Half Way Covenant decision of the 1660s and results stemming from the First Great Awakening of the 1730s splintered Harvard College. This led to the formation of two new institutions of American Protestant higher education. Yale was the first new college to be founded, established in 1701, followed by Princeton, founded in 1746. Yale’s curriculum was quite like Harvard’s, however, Yale championed strict orthodoxy and was fearful of the liberal decline in theological values within Harvard’s educational goals. Yale’s initiators were not as balanced as those at Harvard. Nine of the ten founders were graduates of Harvard, and they shared the same family lines through marriage and direct descendance.[12] The focus on the liberal arts did not change alongside the intense focus regarding Christian orthodoxy. Yet, the vocational focuses changed, as the graduates occupied theological positions alongside careers in medicine, law, commerce, and education.[13] This diversified the Connecticut environment and allowed for Yale’s Protestant liberal arts curriculum to impact different fields. Published in 1748, “Concerning Scholastic Exercises” showcases Yale’s similar focus in the liberal arts curriculum but displays a significant difference from Harvard’s requirements. The curriculum is sure to note the imposing of penalties and fines for neglecting both scholarly and Christian duties, such as failing or being absent from declamations or mandatory chapel services and prayers.[14] Excellence in the participation of scholars in Protestant liturgical practices and liberal arts exercises were held to be equal in the life of the college just as in Harvard. However, the curriculum’s sure articulation of punishments and the diverse vocations developing from the institution formulated a very different learning environment.

The establishment of the Presbyterian Log College of New Jersey—eventually named Princeton upon its relocation—by the New Lights was a reaction to the liberal transformation of Harvard’s curriculum as well as Yale’s staunch focus on orthodoxy. The college held the evangelical nature of the Christian doctrine to be more important than religious ceremony. Furthermore, “An Account” of the College of New Jersey in 1764 begins with the statement that “[t]he importance of liberal education…is now so universally acknowledged, as to render an enlargement upon it unnecessary.” The record continues, “The main design of this publication is to acquaint the world with the rise, progress, and present state of the College of New Jersey.”[15] The college rooted its instruction within an assumption of the importance of the tradition in which it participated. The account discusses the usual emphasis on Latin, Greek, and other languages of antiquity. Yet, it looks past the tradition and to the influence the college’s progressive evangelical beliefs provide, stating near the end that “care is taken to cherish a spirit of liberty and free inquiry, and not only to permit, but even to encourage their right of private judgment.”[16] Purpose began to become fixed on the development of private discernment rather than adherence to tradition.

Academic freedom had entered the curriculum, a development that originated in Enlightenment thought but was not completely foreign to Protestant beliefs. Liberty was intrinsic to the formulation of Protestantism because it was the ideal that fueled the Protestant Reformation and was the force that drove the Puritans to attempt a City on a Hill in the New World. Freedom in the responses to instruction in coursework, however, was a new occurrence. Jonathan Edwards, who served as president of the college in 1758, heavily influenced this change through his sermons and writings during the First Great Awakening. Edwards created a place for subjectivity within the relationship between God’s grace and the human soul. Recognition of the human will allowed for the existence of the human interpretation of truth. The intellectual historian Perry Miller comments in writing that Edwards focused intently on Nature and the conclusions that humans drew from their interpretations of its impressions.[17] The College of New Jersey demonstrated a curriculum that respected the liberal arts tradition and held fast to Christianity in a manner that was slightly different from Harvard and Yale. The tradition was well understood and was pushed to the background in favor of progress and the freedom of the student to draw their own reasonable conclusions. Similarly, Christian practices were replaced by evangelicalism and the drive to proclaim the gospel on the frontier.

Discovery

Enlightenment discovery had profoundly shaped the College of New Jersey’s viewpoints, and it had an impact elsewhere in American higher education. Previously, the realms of theology and science were interconnected, and it was understood that Christian liturgy and the ideals behind it did not bring harm to any study within collegiate walls. The Enlightenment altered this understanding when it was coupled with further religious disputes. Christianity had fractured into rival sects, and these sects battled for control over the colleges that were rapidly appearing. King’s College, later renamed Columbia, and the College of Philadelphia were fought over by the Anglicans and Presbyterians.[18] The works of John Locke and Newtonian science left Britain and traveled to American shores, which caused new and exciting coursework to be added to the liberal arts curriculum already present.

The addition of these fields led to the hiring of notable professors geared to teach the studies of the day. Eventually, the excitement led to the standardization of these new courses as well.[19] The apparent divide between empirical understanding and Puritan doctrine was not an immediate problem for the colleges.[20] Students learned from Enlightenment and traditional courses equally, and it was simply understood that they both fit within the liturgically enforced Christian framework. Scottish moral philosophers—those that advocated for Scottish common-sense realism—eventually brought this question to fruition. One such philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, provided an exposition of moral philosophy that supported the Presbyterian stance by his harmonious reconciliation of reason and religion.[21] This moral philosophy was articulated best at the College of Philadelphia by Francis Alison and at the College of New Jersey by John Witherspoon and effectively created a new methodology.[22] The world of the Puritans was left in the past, but their educational values were not completely eliminated. Protestant Christianity reigned supreme despite the decrease in the importance of services and prayer times. Furthermore, the liberal arts canon was read just as frequently due to the political values of the ancients and that history had proved it to be critical. Scholastic presupposition was replaced with the empirical justification found in sensory experience, and yet empiricism joined with the Protestant liberal arts tradition.

New forms of educational practices arose in the colonial colleges without the influence of the Scottish thinkers, as Newtonian science had gripped the minds of the age. For example, Samuel Johnson, the initial president of the Anglican supported King’s College in 1754, adhered to the philosophical position that there existed a cohesive relationship between truth and morality. Yet, he brought it into a new educational model of his own design that championed wholistic education without the need for the entirety of learning to be directed to God’s supreme nature.[23] Johnson did not eliminate God from the educational realm. Instead, he used Enlightenment thought to support his own moral philosophy that diverted from old Puritan Calvinism in favor of an end found in the pursuit of happiness realized fully in obedience to the will of God.[24] Even in a complete reimagining of the old educational system, Johnson drew equally upon his infatuation with Enlightenment thought and his responsibility to the Church of England in maintaining an understanding of Christianity within American higher education.

Although it had been founded in 1693, the College of William and Mary made little ground in its attempt to reach the academic quality that the Puritan colleges displayed in New England. By the time it was fully functioning, the Enlightenment had already established itself as an intellectual entity.[25] The college’s charter imagined the bare bones of Harvard’s instruction and claimed the college to be a “perpetual college of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences.”[26] This did not reach full realization until a regular faculty was eventually hired for the first time in 1727, a period in which the Enlightenment reigned supreme. The curriculum, therefore, began with a combination of both the liberal arts and the teachings of Bacon, Locke, and other notable Enlightenment figures.[27] The authority was Anglican, but the college did little to reciprocate with a strong ministerial student body.[28] Unlike the schools of New England, its unique starting curriculum remained as it was. It was not challenged through intellectual disputes, nor was the Church of England threatened in its control.[29] Rather, the College of William and Mary continued as a unique representation of the old and the new alongside a stronger tie to church dogma and liturgy than the Puritan projects of New England displayed.

Diversity

Both the liberal arts tradition and Protestantism survived the onslaught of Enlightenment values and discoveries, and yet both were not the same as they were at the time of Harvard’s founding. The colleges had diversified and taken it upon themselves to form their own unique curriculum on the back of the tradition of old. The Protestant liberal arts tradition was no longer the capstone of the educational pyramid for all to behold but instead acted as the bedrock deep within the foundation. As tradition diminished, room was made for commentary regarding the path that education was following. Whereas before it would have been unheard of to ridicule the instructions that were passed down by the Protestant establishment, mockery entered the conversation due to the authority provided by degrees of academic freedom. John Trumbull, a notable poet, mocked the uselessness of the studies at Yale. He wrote a satire in 1772 entitled “The Progress of Dulness or the Rare Adventures of Tom Brainless” which depicts a student who encounters the Yale curriculum and does not benefit from it. Instead, the student “read ancient authors o’er in vain,” and, “On Sunday, in his best array, /Deals forth the dullness of the day.”[30] The liberal arts tradition and Christian practices that Yale enforced were unimportant to those who concentrated only on the promise of progress the Enlightenment displayed. The voices of mockery and dispute were not met with radical change. However, as the colleges remained tied to their values, academic freedom grew through the appearance of student organizations and in the gathering of student opinion.

Near the end of the eighteenth century, Samuel H. Smith published his essay, “A System of Liberal Education.” Smith studied at the University of Pennsylvania and advocated for education to find its end in the formation of virtue and wisdom in the student.[31] The pursuit of happiness mindset that Johnson had attributed to finding fulfillment in God’s will had been repurposed into one that was directly connected to the freedom located in a Republic. What is more, Smith demanded education as a right for the American citizen.[32] The most important point made by Smith was that “[i]n forming a system of liberal education, it is necessary to avoid ideas of too general a character as well as those which involve too minute a specification.”[33] This idea was one that Thomas Jefferson agreed with and would lead to his formation of the University of Virginia, an institution devoid of a Protestant Christian foundation. Smith argues that a liberal arts education should be separated from Christian doctrine because the doctrine of the Christian church is not viewed as “either absolutely true or in the highest degree probable” based on Enlightenment empiricism.[34] This is the first championing of the liberal arts tradition without Christian influence, and it caused a dramatic shift in the establishment of colleges that followed.

Discontent

Following the scientific, educational, and philosophical discoveries of the Enlightenment era, there was growing discontent among overseers and students about the current state of the institutions. Thomas Clap, Yale’s president, opposed Benjamin Gale’s argument against the upkeep of a college church in 1733.[35] Gale was the son in law of Reverend Jared Eliot of the Yale Corporation.[36] Clap combated Gale’s dispute by declaring that Yale was more than a college; it was a religious society.[37] Clap eventually lost the battle in the minds of the students, who advocated for religious toleration, and was forced to resign.[38] His successor, Naphtali Daggett, followed suit, but the Yale curriculum lived on.[39] With the appointment of Edward Holyoke in 1737 to the Harvard presidency, the curriculum was divided into tutorships by the Board of Overseers. Instead of each tutor delivering all subjects to one class, each tutor taught one subject to a single class.[40] This did not remove any traditional subjects, but it did recreate the role of the tutor into one of specialist. Furthermore, the Anglican colleges—the College of Philadelphia and King’s College—stayed within the control of the Church of England but began to show signs of disagreement. King’s College clung to the liberal arts curriculum but not out of a sense of responsibility for the continuation of the tradition. Instead, it mirrored the courses taught at Queen’s College, Oxford, in order that it might represent a true English school in the mind of the Empire.[41] Philadelphia also sought recognition in this regard, but it did not look towards the classics. Rather, instruction followed Enlightenment values and expectations mirrored those enforced at Oxford.[42]

Defense

A defense was made by the establishments that held fast to the Protestant liberal arts tradition against the republican liberal idealism that Smith and Jefferson articulated. The defense took place despite multiple forces of opposition, those being products of colonial economic growth and the legislation that followed. Immediately before the start of the Revolutionary war, the final three colonial colleges were founded out of separate theological strains. All three schools shared New Light influence as well as an adherence to the traditional curricula.[43] The College of Rhode Island of 1764, Queen’s College of 1766, and Dartmouth College of 1769 took the Protestant liberal arts tradition and spread it out even further geographically. They also tied this tradition to different denominational sects, most notably the Baptists. Liturgy had fallen by the wayside while the liberal arts remained present but not as strong. Although stretched geographically, the tradition that had initiated in New England relinquished the depth found in the original intentions of Harvard College.

The defense began as the nine colleges emerged from the Colonial Era. The practice of ending academic programs with traditional Christian prayers and blessings was over, as each college no longer actively followed liturgy.[44] As each denomination assembled to form their own college, the defense of the Protestant liberal arts tradition was not against one another but against the rising sociopolitical college ideal. The historian John R. Thelin argues, “There was…a discernable separation of the state from colleges and churches by the end of the colonial era.”[45] The draw of education was one of elitism instead of participating in the very purveyor of society. These colleges were formed out of favoritism for a specific flavor of Christian dogma. Additionally, as the colleges recovered from the Revolutionary War, they felt called to provide the republican citizenry of the new United States of America.[46] The liberal arts tradition remained vital, but classical virtue was deemed more important than Christian ties. It initially seemed that Protestantism would have to prove its relevancy. Private societies developed alongside new collegiate schools that opened to directly pursue specific fields.[47] Following this development, there was a strong push to reimagine college curricula, most notably by Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary.

Jefferson’s plan was implemented, but it failed. The college allowed for academic freedom in the growing number of professional schools, and it operated without a strong liberal arts foundation for a time. Eventually, James Madison’s advocacy for Anglican Christianity alongside republican virtue reinstated the Protestant liberal arts viewpoint.[48] The realization that virtue connects both the liberal arts ideology and Protestant purpose kept the two strains of thought unified. The call for republican virtue to overflow from higher education establishments was also a subtle call to remember the Christian roots of the colleges. As the conversation transitioned from displaying triumphant virtue for the world to see into one regarding the ways that the colleges can help to unify the nation, a push for the development of new institutions began.

A major figure in this discourse was Benjamin Rush—a patriot who signed the Declaration of Independence and attended the Second Continental Congress. He defended the Protestant liberal arts tradition by advocating in “Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper to a Republic” that “the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”[49] Additionally, while backing the removal of the traditional focus on the Latin and Greek languages, he advocated for an education based in those of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations—an education in eloquence.[50] Rush’s beliefs were matched with action, as the development of liberal arts colleges flourished into the antebellum period. From 1787 to 1820, the beginning of the antebellum period, thirty-seven liberal arts institutions opened for instruction.[51]

Displacement

The antebellum period saw a displacement occur in which the Protestant liberal arts tradition was removed in favor of state or denominational support. New higher education institutions fully embraced the concept of republican duty to the nation without strong reference to the past. American higher education was splintering with every new ground-breaking ceremony. In 1828, Jeremiah Day, President of Yale, published “Course of Instruction at Yale College” in response to the proposition that Yale move past the classical languages of Latin and Greek and the traditional curriculum. A student uprising in 1825 supported the proposal, making it appear that the Protestant liberal arts tradition might fade away at Yale. Day’s work, alongside two other defenses, formed the “Yale Report” that championed the old curriculum of the college and led to extreme growth in enrollment, the spread of the college’s influence, and the cementing of its importance in the history of America.[52] Day’s report begins by stating that Yale has always been open to improvements in its curriculum. That is what led to the implementation of courses in the new sciences.[53] He wrote that the “appropriate object” of the college is found in a strong foundation that provides access to the “discipline and the furniture of the mind.”[54] This lies within the liberal arts through the very introduction of the subject matter as well as the ability for the classes to offer a student “a more commanding direction to his thoughts than when listening to oral instruction.”[55] Day notes a difference in the traditional reliance on recitation and conversation in the classroom versus the new practice of lecture.

The very practice of the liberal arts furnishes the mind for understanding and allows the students to reach greater depths with their intellectual engagements. Furthermore, it helps to develop moral character. Another force at Yale combined with Day’s notion of classical morality—the Second Great Awakening. A rampant revival on the campus led to the growth of missionaries who sought to carry both the liberal arts and Christian gospel into the West.[56] Yale became the model for colleges that maintained their foundation on Christian evangelicalism and tradition.[57] With Yale leading the charge, Protestant Christianity took, once more, to rough country and carried with it the foundational ideas of the classics in an evangelical format.

Some defenses were successful, and some were not. Francis Wayland, the President of Brown University, wrote Thoughts on the Present Collegiate System in the United States as an attempt to refer to the past.[58] Yet, Wayland’s attempt only caused the university to remain unsure as to what they should base their curriculum on. Dartmouth College, however, maintained schooling during the Revolutionary War and never withdrew from its original curriculum or purpose. In 1819, Daniel Webster defended the college to the Supreme Court against the Jeffersonian college model in the closing arguments of Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. The New Hampshire legislator had attempted to revoke the charter of the college and remake it in service to the state.[59] Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, as Webster’s closing statement articulated the value of the college by saying, “‘It is…a small College. And yet there are those who love it.’”[60] Chief Justice John Marshall’s decision kept Dartmouth College from the will of the state and maintained that the morality of education need not fully identify with the morals of political belief.

The Protestant liberal arts tradition continued, and its curriculum prospered. The “Catalog of Dartmouth College for the Academic Year 1852-53” displays a rich focus on Greek and Latin authors and an interesting presentation of Christianity through philosophical reading requirements. During the Spring term, Dartmouth required students to read “Paley’s Evidences of Christianity.”[61] The Winter term obliges “McCosh’s Method of the Divine Government.[62] Christianity was reserved as a topic for philosophical discussion with the intent to display how all education fits within the Christian framework. Additionally, Dartmouth mandated “Biblical exercise” that all classes must attend on Monday mornings, which validated the Bible as a course of study within the institution.[63] The notion of a private university had yet to be fully understood, but a rift had developed between liberal arts colleges and state-supported institutions.

The Protestant liberal arts tradition was further removed, ironically, through a reemergence of church support through the establishment of new colleges. Displacement continued because of financial dilemmas. Protestantism continued to follow the path of dialogue and debate alongside the liberal arts, while state institutions fully embraced the popularity of lecture-based learning. Outside of the liberal arts college framework, Protestant affiliation only continued to exist for financial support. During the mid-to-late nineteenth century there was a departure from localist ties that transferred allegiance increasingly to denominations.[64] Colleges need not rely on denominationalist interests if the societies around them remained supportive. Yet “[w]ith college towns becoming less able or willing to sustain the role of primary supporter, appeals for funds shifted emphasis from college as contributor to the public good to college as instrument of denominational interest.”[65] Denominationalism, increasing as it was during the antebellum period, did not carry with it the tradition that the liberal arts colleges kept intact. The new approach positioned this new strand of colleges to expect a future filled with growth and success because of affiliations with their church.[66] This is not to say that the new college model of increased denominationalism did not carry with it good intentions, but these intentions did not align with the old curriculum. Protestantism had long lost its liturgical aspects within American higher education, but the liberal arts colleges took Protestantism in as the essence of learning while other colleges utilized it for financial gain.

Financial developments continued this displacement as the wealth of industry began to flow into higher education. A duty to vocational success manifested within the colleges and universities of America. Following the Civil War, “a jumble of new curricula hived off from the old unitary course of study. Most of these were aimed at vocational training.”[67] Eventually, the liberal arts themselves were dismembered, and the Moral Philosophy class in which the college president traditionally explained the totality of education within the context of the Christian God faded away.[68] A new social influence, defined as liberal culture, was created as a way to maintain a relationship within the liberal arts without letting it overtake the overarching goal of learning useful disciplines and modern languages to take directly into the working world. Colleges that upheld the functional curriculum of the era were being built rapidly, some owing their developments to the Morrill Act of 1862—the first time the federal government dipped its hand into the world of higher education—and the second iteration of 1890. The acts assisted states in developing agricultural and technical colleges for conveying practical forms of education. Land Grant Colleges further solidified the State supported college model and upheld the practical arts and disciplines, namely agriculture and industry.[69] Innovation was the new model to follow, and the Protestant liberal arts could but hide in the small colleges placed in the shadow of the modern institutions. The innovative curriculum did not hold steady for long and quickly began to spin out of control at the beginning of the twentieth century until the eventual use of the “present method” of concentrations and electives.[70]

Duty

Eventually, Yale and Harvard succumbed to the temptation of new age innovation. Duty was positioned, not necessarily to industry, but towards proper education for society. In this way duty appeared to remain the same, as this was the intention of Harvard and Yale’s original founding. Nevertheless, society had changed, and the curricula of the colleges followed suit. As Moral Philosophy faded away, the standardized philosophy of the new era sought to take its place. This new form of philosophical discipline was taught as analysis rather than as a cohesive narrative for Christian understanding.[71] Instead of serving as the culmination of the college curriculum, philosophy remained as a discipline. Philology and moralism also emerged with the introduction of English literature. Philology looked at the works of the liberal arts through the lens of textual criticism, and moralism approached from the other direction by declaring that the writers of the texts were moral teachers. These teachers could supplant Protestant doctrine as the fundamental moral gradient of the colleges.[72] Slowly, the study of literature and analytical philosophy overtook the narrative.

The instructors within the coursework received notoriety. Charles Eliot Norton—considered to be “the greatest professionalizer in the history of American higher education,”[73] and the founder of the art appreciation course which followed directly from the removal of Moral Philosophy—received a letter from one of his students that, “‘Yours has been the chapel which students have loved to frequent.’”[74] Popularity replaced the pulpit and provided support to professors rather than Protestant educational philosophy. The old tradition was long lost in the vast developments following the antebellum era, even though denominational ties were essentially strengthened. However, the liberal arts colleges kept the tradition safe, albeit hidden from view next to the grandeur of modernization. This grandeur was best represented in the founding of Johns Hopkins based on the new concept of “a center for advanced learning.”[75] The inaugural address of the university in 1876 was given by Thomas Huxley without any references to religion, benedictions, or prayers.[76] It was a large school with distinct purpose, and its purpose would ultimately overtake the American educational scene.

The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed the development of a new type of university—the research university. In 1900 the Association of American Universities was formed, which was yet another oppositional front against the Protestant liberal arts tradition. The tradition had nowhere to flee to if the small colleges were to be extinguished, and the likelihood of that occurring as the new century dawned was tangible. The year 1900 was also when William R. Harper, the President of the University of Chicago, released a stunning prophecy in the form of “The Situation of the Small College” which predicted the ultimate elimination of the liberal arts colleges from the American landscape. He recognized the sectarian spirit within their makeup but declared that “with the gradual weakening of this narrow religious spirit…a great source of power and strength which has hitherto lent support to the building up of the small college will be removed.”[77] The liberal arts colleges were no longer cohesive carriers of the tradition. Some pursued sectarian ends while others followed a liberal arts curriculum without any Protestant ideals.

Big business played a significant role in the apparent decline of this religious spirit as an increasing number of foundations lent their monetary support to university development; Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were among many who financed their own research institutions.[78] Similarly, the federal government continued to act within the realm of higher education in the mid to late nineteenth century by offering financial aid. This was spurred on by the world wars and the Higher Education Act of 1965 which increased funding for higher education as well as created scholarships. Business and the hardships of the world wars caused an intense commitment to specialization and vocational preparation. Faculty who had established unified understanding in the once popular Moral Philosophy course recognized specialization as an enemy of attempts at the synthetization of the many courses of study.[79] Pragmatism had assuredly taken hold of the colleges who relinquished the Protestant Christian liberal arts tradition long ago, and American society had followed suit. Society and institution were one—a goal long sought after by the post-enlightenment nationalist intellectuals. The philosopher George Santayana published a collection of essays in 1920, at the height of American prosperity, in which he critiqued the social gospel of pragmatism. He deemed America to be imaginative, but only in a practical manner where “the future it forecasts is immediate.”[80] The remnants of the old, foundational tradition could not combat the pragmatic philosophy that blanketed the nation, but it could endure within “enclaves that still exist, but are few in number.”[81] Such enclaves found their strength in raising debates and promoting discussion. These enclaves were not a collection of institutions, nor were they clearly organized in opposition. Rather, the enclaves were a culmination of thinkers, authors, and colleges that led a revival of the Protestant liberal arts tradition on their own. They shared their support of the tradition and operated through one model—discussion.

Discussion

Protestant church supported groups and synods attempted to force the old curriculum into the limelight but were unsuccessful. The enclaves could not be manufactured under deliberate pressure. By the 1970s, the term “church-related” only served to confuse society and those within the schools themselves.[82] The enclaves were not birthed from twentieth century church projects. Rather, it was discussion about the Protestant liberal arts tradition by concerned professors, authors, and students from small colleges that carried the tradition into the current context. These voices drew on specific values that the liberal arts and Protestant Christianity equally supported, just as the Puritans had done at the beginning of Harvard. They separately pursued truth—not in the spirit of pragmatism or positivism—but in the collegiate beliefs once backed by liturgy.

In 1976, Paul Kristeller spoke at a symposium at Columbia University. The topic of the symposium was “Liberalism and Liberal Education.”[83] At the time, Kristeller had retired from his position as a professor in philosophy at the school—one he had occupied since 1956 after having left Yale.[84] Instead of advocating for staunch liberalism, Kristeller delved into the subject of Western Humanism, because “liberal education is not a necessary product of liberalism.”[85] Liberal education is best explained from a Renaissance perspective of humanism which is not a “vaguely moral” term but a format of classical curriculum.[86] This curriculum focused on the traditional liberal arts, “and it functioned not as a substitute for but as an important supplement to religious, Christian education.”[87]Kristeller was reminding his audience of a way of learning that had been mostly lost in American institutions and was under attack, “though fortunately not from Columbia.”[88] This was no offhand call to remember the past. Rather, he had openly rejected the importance of political liberalism in favor of humanistic value within liberal education. The recognition that education is independent from political entities and put in place for the benefit of the individual highlighted the traditional stance of the Protestant liberal arts. Wisdom is for the soul and not for strict social participation.

Similarly, Gerald Grant and David Riesman authored The Perpetual Dream to trace the reform movements of the twentieth century that diverted American interests away from the tradition. Riesman became the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard in 1958, and Grant was named a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1967.[89] They identify in their work that each reform “has a sense of mission” derived from a desire to “join an institution that is capable of evoking the deep loyalties of the whole self and of engendering all out efforts.”[90] However, these reforms only added to a confusing multiplicity of studies and have effectively removed the confidence of uniformity once enjoyed in traditional course work. The coursework of the Protestant liberal arts, in strict contrast, was unified in its purpose to promote the education of the soul. Grant and Riesman claim that, with the rise of multiple fields of study and random electives, education loses this purpose. Truth could not be understood in a muddied system, but it could be engaged in a traditional setting.

While the enclaves of discussion were carried out in the speeches and written works of professors, they were also formed within colleges through student participation. St. John’s College, for example, formed its curriculum around “great books…because they express most originally and often most perfectly the ideas by which contemporary life is knowingly or unknowingly governed.”[91] Additionally, the instruction was designed to be rooted in discussion.[92] The combination of reading and conversation formed an enclave of the student body. This was unique, as freedom to communicate ideas within the classroom led to the in-depth study of traditional sources of antiquity. Academic freedom essentially worked backwards with this format. The freedom it provided at the College of New Jersey brought about an exciting brake from the norm of the tradition. St. John’s curriculum is shockingly different compared to modernized curriculums and, therefore, academic freedom works to direct student interest back to the Protestant liberal arts mindset.

The discussion regarding the Protestant liberal arts tradition expanded to alumni as well. In 1951, William F. Buckley, a Yale alumnus, published God and Man at Yale to criticize Yale’s active enforcement of atheism and collectivism upon the students. Buckley argued that this was against the very basis of Yale’s purpose. He states, “Yale has sometimes professed to having no teaching ‘orthodoxy.’ ‘Objectivity’ is its shibboleth…Yale has an unadmitted orthodoxy; it does attempt to inculcate values.”[93] These values, according to Buckley, are not curriculum based but determined by the opinions of those who enforce them. Buckley also laments that the respect for the relationship between Christianity and the liberal arts has been lost, for the requirement to take a course in religion alongside the traditional liberal arts courses is no longer in place. Instead, students can opt to take a course in history or philosophy.[94] For Buckley, a return to orthodoxy is necessary. Buckley’s Catholicism was not a driving force for institutional change. Rather, the return to a unified Christian purpose of liberal belief was enough, one that was best demonstrated in the old tradition that Yale first pursued.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Cardinal John Henry Newman articulates the intrinsic value of the liberal arts in The Idea of a University saying, “Certainly a liberal education does manifest itself in a courtesy, propriety, and polish of word and action, which is beautiful in itself, and acceptable to others; but it does much more. It brings the mind into form, —for the mind is like the body.”[95] Proverbs 2 displays a similar statement that declares wisdom as pleasant to one’s soul and as an emanation from God’s mouth. The aims of Protestant Christianity and the liberal arts are the same, and that is why the Protestant liberal arts tradition was the cornerstone of the totality of American higher education.

The tradition defined the future by reaching towards the past. The dissent of the Puritans had solidified it within the American landscape, but intellectual and cultural developments uprooted and forced the tradition to remain apart from new educational developments. The division of the Old Lights and New Lights positioned the tradition against itself and introduced a progressive outlook. The discoveries of the Enlightenment brought new scientific excitement into the arena, leaving the tradition to appear devoid of function. The diversity brought on by academic freedom led students to think and question everything for themselves which removed the power of the curriculum and placed it within the hands of student desire. Discontent fostered by a turn towards nationalistic values caused colleges to seek a union with the intentions of the State. A defense of the old curriculum restated the importance of the tradition, but simultaneously highlighted its diminishing impact. The displacement of the Moral Philosophy course with new strains of philosophical and nationalistic enterprise swept the tradition from the standard curriculum of normative education. Finally, an enhanced duty to vocation transformed American higher education into a field dominated by research-based curricula. Despite this friction and transformation, the dire discussion of like-minded individuals about the values identified within the Protestant liberal arts mindset in America keeps the tradition alive. It remains that, although small, there are still those that love it.

 

References

Primary

Buckley, William F., Jr. God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom”. South Bend: Gateway Editions Ltd., 1951.

College of New Jersey. “An Account.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 234-238. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

Dartmouth College. “Catalog of Dartmouth College for the Academical Year 1852-53.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 275-285. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

Day, Jeremiah. “Course of Instruction in Yale College.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 263-274. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

Grant, Gerald, and David Riesman. “Reform and Experiment in the American College.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 442-452. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

Harper, William R. “The Situation of the Small College.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 344-352. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

Harvard College. “New Englands First Fruits.” in The American Curriculum: A Documentary History, edited by George Willis, 9-15. Documentary Reference Collections. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Kristeller, Paul O. “Liberal Education and Western Humanism.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 437-441. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

“Liberal Arts Colleges Opened for Instruction,” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 260-262. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

Newman, John Henry, and Frank M. Turner. The Idea of a University. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Rush, Benjamin. “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.” A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to which are Added Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic: Addressed to the Legislature and Citizens of the State. Evans Early American Imprint Collection. Accessed April 1, 2020. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N15652.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view.

Santayana, George. “The American Image.” In Educational Ideas in America: A Documentary History, edited by S. Alexander Rippa, 397-404. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1969.

Smith, Samuel H. “A System of Higher Education.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 241-249. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

St. John’s College. “Statement of the Program.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 455-463. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

United States Congress. “Federal Land Grant Legislation: The Morrill Act of 1862,” in Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education, edited by John R. Thelin, 76-96. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Yale College. “Concerning Scholastic Exercises.” in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce A. Kimball, 230-233. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

Secondary

Geiger, Roger L. The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

———. To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900-1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Hoeveler, J. David. Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Kimball, Bruce A., ed. The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History. Lanham: University Press of America, 2010.

Longaker, Mark Garrett. Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America. Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.samford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=217977&site=ehost-live.

Lynn, Robert Wood. “‘The Survival of Recognizably Protestant Colleges’: Reflections on Old-Line Protestantism, 1950-1990,” in The Secularization of the Academy, edited by George M. Marsden, and Bradley J. Longfield, 170-194. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001.

Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Potts, David B. “American Colleges in the Nineteenth Century: From Localism to Denominationalism.” History of Education Quarterly 11, no. 4 (Winter 1971): 363-80. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.samford.edu/stable/367036.

Reuben, Julie A. The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Thelin, John R. A History of American Higher Education. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

———. Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Turner, James. “Secularization and Sacralization: Speculations on Some Religious Origins of the Secular Humanities Curriculum, 1850-1900,” in The Secularization of the Academy, edited by George M. Marsden, and Bradley J. Longfield, 74-106. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Willis, George, ed. The American Curriculum: A Documentary History. Documentary Reference Collections. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993.

 

Notes

[1] George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 440.

[2] George Willis, ed., The American Curriculum: A Documentary History, Documentary Reference Collections (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993), 7.

[3] Ibid., 7-8.

[4] Willis, The American Curriculum, 7-8.

[5] Harvard College, “New Englands First Fruits,” in Willis, The American Curriculum, 10.

[6] Ibid., 11.

[7] Bruce A. Kimball, ed., The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History (Lanham: Univ. Press of America, 2010),197.

[8] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 39.

[9] Harvard College, “New Englands First Fruits,” 9.

[10] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 41.

[11] Ibid., 42.

[12] J. David Hoeveler, Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 53.

[13] Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 230.

[14] Yale College, “Concerning Scholastic Exercises,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 232.

[15] College of New Jersey, “An Account,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 235.

[16] Ibid., 237.

[17] Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 185.

[18] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 57.

[19] Roger L. Geiger, The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 50.

[20] Ibid., 51.

[21] Geiger, The History of American Higher Education, 51.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 18.

[24] Mark Garrett Longaker, Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America, Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), 143. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.samford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=217977&site=ehost-live.

[25] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 48.

[26] Henry Hartwell, James Blair, and Edward Chilton, “The Present State of Virginia, and the college,” quoted in Hoeveler, Creating the American Mind, 85.

[27] Hoeveler, Creating the American Mind, 89.

[28] Ibid., 90.

[29] Ibid.

[30] John Trumbull, “The Progress of Dulness or the Rare Adventures of Tom Brainless,” quoted in Geiger, The History of American Higher Education, 54.

[31] Samuel H. Smith, “A System of Higher Education,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 242.

[32] Smith, “A System of Higher Education,” 245.

[33] Ibid, 246.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Geiger, The History of American Higher Education, 58-59.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Hoeveler, Creating the American Mind, 72.

[38] Ibid., 60.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Hoeveler, Creating the American Mind, 62.

[41] Ibid., 64.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Geiger, The History of American Higher Education, 71.

[44] Thelin, A History of American Higher Education, 19.

[45] Ibid., 28.

[46] Geiger, The History of American Higher Education, 90.

[47] Ibid., 92.

[48] Geiger, The History of American Higher Education, 99.

[49] Benjamin Rush, “Thoughts Upon The Mode Of Education Proper In A Republic,” A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to which are Added Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic: Addressed to the Legislature and Citizens of the State, Evans Early American Imprint Collection, Accessed April 1, 2020. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N15652.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view.

[50] Ibid.

[51] “Liberal Arts Colleges Opened for Instruction,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 260-261.

[52] Jeremiah Day, “Course of Instruction in Yale College,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 264.

[53] Ibid., 265.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 268.

[56] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 83.

[57] Ibid., 82.

[58] Dartmouth College, “Catalog of Dartmouth College for the Academical Year 1852-53,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 275.

[59] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 71.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Dartmouth College, “Catalog of Dartmouth College for the Academical Year 1852-53,” 280.

[62] Ibid., 281.

[63] Ibid., 282.

[64] David B. Potts, “American Colleges in the Nineteenth Century: From Localism to Denominationalism,” History of Education Quarterly 11, no. 4 (Winter 1971): 363, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.samford.edu/stable/367036.

[65] Ibid., 369.

[66] Potts, “American Colleges in the Nineteenth Century,” 375.

[67] James Turner, “Secularization and Sacralization: Speculations on Some Religious Origins of the Secular Humanities Curriculum, 1850-1900,” in The Secularization of the Academy, ed. George M. Marsden, and Bradley J. Longfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 76.

[68] Ibid., 77.

[69] “Federal Land Grant Legislation: The Morrill Act of 1862,” in Thelin, Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education, 76.

[70] James Turner, “Secularization and Sacralization,” 79.

[71] Ibid., 81.

[72] Ibid., 85.

[73] Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), 230.

[74] Turner, “Secularization and Sacralization,” 87.

[75] Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 255.

[76] Ibid., 258.

[77] William R. Harper, “The Situation of the Small College,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 349.

[78] Roger L. Geiger, To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900-1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 61.

[79] Reuben, The Making of the Modern University, 176.

[80] George Santayana, “The American Image,” in Educational Ideas in America: A Documentary History, ed. S. Alexander Rippa (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1969), 399.

[81] Christopher Jenks and David Riesman, The Academic Revolution, quoted in Lynn, “‘The Survival of Recognizably Protestant Colleges’: Reflections on Old-Line Protestantism, 1950-1990,” in Marsden and Longfield, The Secularization of the Academy, 170.

[82] Lynn, “‘The Survival of Recognizably Protestant Colleges,’” 187.

[83] Paul O. Kristeller, “Liberal Education and Western Humanism,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 437.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Kristeller, “Liberal Education and Western Humanism,” 437.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Ibid., 439.

[88] Ibid., 441.

[89] Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 442.

[90] Grant and Riesman, “Reform and Experiment in the American College,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 448.

[91] St. John’s College, “Statement of the Program,” in Kimball, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 456.

[92] Ibid.

[93] William F. Buckley, Jr., God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” (South Bend: Gateway Editions Ltd., 1951), lv.

[94] Buckley, God and Man at Yale, 10.

[95] John Henry Newman and Frank M. Turner, The Idea of a University (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 7.

Drayton Cullen

Drayton Cullen holds a B.A. in History and Classics from Samford University and is currently pursuing a Master of Global Policy Studies degree with a specialization in Global Governance at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Policy. His research interests include exploring the intersection of historical understanding and policy decision-making as well as the development of international rules and norms.

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