American Academic Cultures: A History of Higher Education

American Academic Cultures: A History of Higher Education

by Paul H. Mattingly

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At a time when American higher education seems ever more to be reflecting on its purpose and potential, we are more inclined than ever to look to its history for context and inspiration. But that history only helps, Paul H. Mattingly argues, if it’s seen as something more than a linear progress through time. With American Academic Cultures, he offers a different type of history of American higher learning, showing how its current state is the product of different, varied generational cultures, each grounded in its own moment in time and driven by historically distinct values that generated specific problems and responses.
Mattingly sketches out seven broad generational cultures: evangelical, Jeffersonian, republican/nondenominational, industrially driven, progressively pragmatic, internationally minded, and the current corporate model. What we see through his close analysis of each of these cultures in their historical moments is that the politics of higher education, both inside and outside institutions, are ultimately driven by the dominant culture of the time. By looking at the history of higher education in this new way, Mattingly opens our eyes to our own moment, and the part its culture plays in generating its politics and promise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226505435
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/23/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
File size: 915 KB

About the Author

Paul H. Mattingly is professor emeritus of history at New York University.

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The Great Awakening and the Eighteenth-Century Colleges

The history of the eighteenth-century college in America began in the second half of that century. Before 1740, there were three institutions that aspired to college status in the American colonies: Harvard (1636), Yale (1702), and William and Mary College in Virginia (1693). For the most part, these institutions rooted themselves locally, attracted students in the English sense of "college," that is, a preparatory stage of instruction, and operated on a curriculum of rudiments. All proselytized the denominational tenets of their region: Calvinism and Congregationalism at Harvard and Yale, Anglicanism at William and Mary. Their students were predominantly adolescents, and their teachers were often trained ministers, resulting in a curriculum that was undifferentiated from the prevailing Protestant denomination of their region. Between 1641 and 1750, the three earliest schools — they were not instructing in ways comparable to the colleges and universities in Europe — graduated 2,282 individuals, a miniscule proportion of the colonial population. An additional 321 persons attended but failed to take a degree. The total number of "collegians" in this period amounted to 2,603. College classes were small in numbers, and the roles colonial college graduates later filled permit one to argue that the American college before the Great Awakening (roughly the 1730s and early 1740s) contained more an aspiring than an actual social and political power.

Between 1750 and 1780, the colonies' multiple denominations produced a new generation of schools and its first collegiate culture. They more than doubled the output of college degrees (2,989 in the post-1750 period alone with an additional 935 students attending but failing to take a degree). The total number of collegians immediately benefiting from the colleges of the Great Awakening (founded between 1750 and 1800) amounted to 3,924. Furthermore, as college graduates began to opt for nonministerial careers in unprecedented numbers, the role of the college changed in levels of instruction and the ages of the students as well as in actual nation building and in the public consciousness.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the American college had become a strategic cultural force in ways that it was not before, and that produced a precedent-setting collegiate culture. This new model of higher learning requires a historical explanation. The Great Awakening matured and peaked as a widespread religious event that arose without initial leadership or organization and substantively sharpened differences within and between the colonies and their denominations. For the first time, the colleges gravitated from their strictly religious didactics and began to use the language of theology to probe issues beyond religion. The Awakening's spread surprised America's Protestant leadership, but retrospectively its social and economic precedents make the event more comprehensible. In the 1730s, the American population had expanded nearly tenfold from the last decades of the seventeenth century. Desirable property in the eastern colonies compelled many new immigrants to move west, opening tensions between the less cultivated areas and the older settled sections. The strains of expansion and settlement exacerbated the problems of economic and political cohesion. Many colonial cities in the 1730s experienced a damaging diphtheria epidemic with an estimated twenty thousand deaths, and that underscored the fragility of existence. The epidemic made colonial thinking receptive to the larger shapers of their life chances. In addition, the epidemic coincided with the first major trade imbalance of the eighteenth century and the loss of fortunes that, in turn, made credible dire interpretations of divine judgment about human behavior. Similarly colonial leaders worried about the rise in premarital sexual behavior that signaled the loss of parental control of marriage. Such breaches disrupted not only family decorum but also the usual merger of property holdings that eighteenth-century marriages often connoted. Physical contagion, economic downturns, and aberrant social behavior all contributed a special import to Puritan sermons that chastised citizens for their religious insensibilities. The special economic tensions of the period set the context for the religious upheaval we have come to call the Great Awakening. Suddenly individual revival meetings crossed denominational lines and confused traditional roles of established ministers and familiar religious authorities. By the mid-1730s the religious turmoil had spread widely by word of mouth, spread from Georgia to Massachusetts by a new type of minister, who possessed no permanent institutional home and who might have had little formal education. These events would have a transformative effect on the colonies and would introduce an invigoration of and challenge to Protestant orthodoxy. Not the least of affected institutions were the colonial colleges, traditionally assigned to intellectual training and the production of God-fearing leaders.

It is impossible then to understand the eighteenth-century college in America without understanding the broader dilemmas presented by itinerant preachers. Their criticism of religious orthodoxy and ultimately their defense of multidenominational worship went to the heart of the Great Awakening. The most remarkable of all the itinerant preachers in this period was the Reverend George Whitefield (1714–70), a native of Gloucestershire, England, and an ordained Anglican priest, who visited America on six notable occasions and ultimately died there in 1770. His preaching has generally been credited as the strategic spark that accelerated the powerful cultural crisis, now called the Great Awakening. This movement produced the first serious intercolonial network of correspondence and travel of the eighteenth century. In a key communication to the students of both Harvard and Yale Colleges (July 1741), Whitefield enunciated the controversial message that would be seen both as bedrock common sense for some and for others dangerously disruptive heresy. "Learning without piety," Whitefield cautioned the collegians, "will only make you more capable of promoting the kingdom of Satan. Henceforward, therefore, I hope you will enter into your studies not to get a parish, nor to be polite preachers, but to be great saints. This, indeed, is the most compendious way to true learning: for an understanding enlightened by the spirit of GOD, is more susceptible of divine truths, and I am certain will prove most useful to mankind." How did such a message give rise to such social and intellectual turmoil for learned and unlearned alike? Why would it be especially disruptive to the three established colleges of Yale, Harvard, and William and Mary?

Whitefield set the pace for all subsequent itinerants, and in his own journals strove to translate a newly minted Methodist didactic into graphic, material terms that anyone could understand. In one German community, a woman heard Whitefield preach and claimed never to have been so edified, though she understood no English. His journals meticulously recorded the numerous daily sermons he delivered; they also underscored the frequency with which he preached in the open air to crowds too large to be contained in colonial assemblies; they offered frequent estimates of the hundreds or, at times, thousands who listened to his words. And, not long after the journals were written, they were published for widespread consumption, serving too as additional dissemination devices to converted and unconverted communities alike.

The very idioms of his language — the sensational, much-repeated "sweetness" — reflected a harmony of minds between preacher and listener. Movement toward such "sweetness," the force of the gospel upon the unconverted, he often called a "melting" or a "quickening," and the words matched the physical experience he described. Whitefield's favorite metaphor for engaging Scripture and probing his spiritual life was a "wrestling" with God. His extraordinarily physical itinerary, favoring the seaport towns and detailing all the impediments to travel, nevertheless covered all the colonies between Boston and Georgia, by foot, by horse, by boat. Even astute skeptics like Benjamin Franklin felt obliged to listen and engage when confronted by the experience of Whitefield. First, there was the standard of willpower. Franklin resolved to make no donation to Whitfield's cause but, as he listened, gradually lowered his resistance to the coppers in his pocket, then to the silver, then to the gold, capitulating in the end, to his own amusement, to all his pocket resources. "His delivery of the latter [the much practiced, much traveled sermon]," Franklin shrewdly observed, "was so improved by frequent repetitions that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice was so perfectly well turned and well placed that, without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse, a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music." Beyond this performance standard, Franklin then turned to mathematics and acoustics. On one occasion in Philadelphia, at the edge of the crowd, he could still hear Whitefield clearly. He then backed up to the point where the preacher's voice could not be heard, then imagining "a semicircle, of which my distance by should be the radius, and that it were filled with auditors, I computed that he might well be heard more than thirty thousand." In an instant Franklin believed once suspect stories of generals haranguing armies of thousands before a battle. Whitefield represented a phenomenon that challenged all manner of familiar eighteenth-century habits.

In England and America, Whitefield's preaching initially received enthusiastic endorsement. But gradually the power of his message and its manifest effectiveness in amassing unprecedented concentrations of people made all scrutinize his actual arguments in the light of established orthodoxy. These skeptics, especially the founder of Methodism itself, the Reverend John Wesley, found cause to reexamine the power of evangelism. But before these countercurrents began, exemplars of an old theocratic Calvinist inheritance, both governors and ministers welcomed Whitefield as an energizing presence. At Yale College in New Haven, he dined with the new rector, just appointed in 1740, Rev. Thomas Clap (Harvard 1722), only days before an enthusiastic Sunday reception with Connecticut's colonial governor. Neither seemed worried about Whitefield's recognizable theme of "the dreadful Ill-consequences of an unconverted Ministry" or fretted about anything more than an aggressive application of Calvinist orthodoxy. But rumblings had already begun about the itinerant having crossed the fine line between encouraging a constant spiritual discipline and criticizing specific ministerial authorities. Whitefield's Oxford training, his urbanity, and, even to Franklin, his manifest honesty protected him early on. His American counterparts were less fortunate, and by 1745 Yale's official attitude had changed dramatically. Upon his return to New Haven, Yale officially rejected Whitefield's preaching and no longer welcomed him to their ranks.

In part, Whitefield's successors were less nuanced in their intellectual arguments. Within the Calvinist frame, the will of God was inscrutable, yet all were obliged, upon pain of the loss of their souls, to accommodate implicitly the divine will. This pressing dilemma would be mitigated, never settled, only by close scrutiny of God's will reflected in Scripture, hence the importance of intellectual training and of gospel instruction, mediated by the authority of the congregation. In any literal theological sense, no one was saved, except by divine judgment, by God's grace, always elusive and imprecise in human terms. Historically, however, Calvinism could accommodate considerable shifts in social and political arrangements with very modest adjustments in theological emphasis; it stressed at different times literal adherence to Scripture, to the collective judgment of the congregation, and to the most learned congregant, usually the minister. All those views could make education a priority, but the nature and place of education made all the difference in the social and political latitude that followed. Both sides could defend "education"; each side stressed different mixes of formal and pious "learning."

In the case of Whitefield's precursors as well as followers, the suspicion of "learning" as a self-delusion, a sense of understanding divine intent better than others, sent believers down very destructive paths. Whitefield's thematic attack on "learning without piety" began to shift in the hands of his followers to a broad-brush attack on a learned ministry. After all, in a literal Protestant sense, education afforded no more spiritual achievement than the work of the illiterate. Whitefield was not above reprimanding college-trained ministers in both England and America, but he left the criticisms sufficiently muted to cause only a general and healthy discomfort, a disciplinary check upon the intellectual hubris of ministers. On the one hand, the Calvinist congregation in eighteenth-century New England channeled an orthodox theological dilemma directly into the halls of Yale and Harvard Colleges: learning could never achieve salvation on its own, and yet an untrained ministry ignored God's gift of intellect to decipher the meaning of Scripture. Within the eighteenth-century frame, the Calvinist colleges of Harvard and Yale were thought to be essential to the social and political fabric of the colony and yet, on another level, the college graduate was not more spiritually distinct than any member of the congregation. Such itinerant theology made denominational orthodoxy distinctly problematic, and seemed to discount the work of established educational institutions.

Whitefield's preaching served to disseminate this dilemma and opened the way for an itinerant preacher different from himself, one who possessed little or no collegiate training to interpret the Bible or who disparaged learning in preaching God's truth. In Whitefield's exact wake came a string of native preachers, like Rev. Gilbert Tennent (Yale 1725), Rev. James Davenport (Yale 1732), Rev. Samuel Buell (Yale 1741), and Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton (Harvard 1721), all of whom sought to model themselves after Whitefield. They corresponded with him, accompanied him on portions of his travels, defended him to his critics, and initially did not treat the three existing college communities — Harvard in Massachusetts, Yale in Connecticut, and William and Mary in Virginia — as special targets. His 1739 visit to William and Mary College prompted Whitefield's observation that students there "are under about the same regulation and discipline as in our Universities at home. The present masters came from Oxford. ... I rejoiced in seeing such a place in America." Whitefield, however, introduced a small caveat: unlike the "seminaries of paganism" at home, William and Mary College held promise of "learning Christ ... as one end of their studies, and arts and sciences only introduced and pursued as subservient to that." By the early 1740s, the itinerants pressured colleges and congregations both to keep piety foremost in any spiritual and intellectual training.

For the first half of the eighteenth century, the college presidents of the three colonial colleges were all college-trained, ordained ministers. Rev. Thomas Clap, who assumed the rectorship of Yale in 1739 at age thirty-six, had graduated from Harvard College (1722) and after his ordination had ministered to Connecticut congregations. Once appointed rector of Yale, he worked closely with the Reverend Joseph Noyes, minister of New Haven and spiritual leader of Yale students. The Clap-Noyes relationship underscored the absence of strict divisions between town and gown; the college was thought to be part of a homogeneous community rather than itself a separate autonomous entity. Still, the tight community of New Haven and Yale produced some distinctive historical features. During the 1740s, the entering classes at Yale ranged from twelve to thirty-six students, with an average class size of twenty-two individuals. The majority came from Connecticut, while a quarter to a third consisted of natives of adjacent colonies. Collegians experienced a division between poorer, older students who disproportionately entered the ministry and younger, more affluent and systematically prepared students who entered the professions, business, or lives of quiet retirement. Several tutors, usually recent graduates of the college with ministerial ambitions, assisted the president in a course of study that consisted of both lectures and tutorials.


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Table of Contents


Chapter One
The Great Awakening and the Eighteenth-Century Colleges

Chapter Two
Enlightenment and Denominationalism in Jefferson’s Virginia

Chapter Three
Antebellum Colleges and the Inculcation of Moral Character

Chapter Four
Science and System in Nineteenth-Century Collegiate Culture

Chapter Five
Land-Grant Colleges and the Emergence of an Academic Space

Chapter Six
The Generic University

Chapter Seven
Educated Women and the Inflation of Domesticity

Chapter Eight
The Academic Cultures of Nineteenth-Century Collegians

Chapter Nine
Progressive Ideology in American Higher Education

Chapter Ten
Academic Expertise in the National Interest

Chapter Eleven
The Other Captains of Erudition: From Science to General Education

Chapter Twelve
From the Liberal Core to an International Discourse

Chapter Thirteen
Federal Policy and the Postwar University

Chapter Fourteen
Clark Kerr: The Unapologetic Pragmatist

Chapter Fifteen
Challenging Pragmatism


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