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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Are Colleges Still Doing "Their Job?" (What is it?)

Were college academics better in the past? Were there real intellectual ivory towers?

From 1750 to 1800 the college curriculum was pretty much unchanged. For example, in 1802 - as Samuel Miller[1] tells it -- Harvard, for example, offered:
First Year: Arithmetic, English Grammar, French, Geography. Greek and Latin writers, Hebrew, Logic, Rhetoric, Universal History.

Second Year: Greek and Latin writers, Algebra, Arithmetic, French, Geography, Hebrew, History, Logic, Mensuration, Philosophy (Locke and Blair).

Third Year: Conic Sections, English Composition, Euclid, Forensic Disputations, Greek and Latin writers, History, Mensuration, Trigonometry.

Fourth Year: Astronomy, Elements of Natural and Political law, English Composition.Greek and Latin writers, Paley's Philosophy, Spheric Geometry and Trigonometry, Theology.

Don't some of these items seem rather elementary? Before we try to compare this curriculum with today’s college curricula, we should attempt to get answers to the following questions:

1. Who were the students this curriculum was prepared for? Ages? Background? Prospects?
2. How many attended college in 1802? How regularly?
3. Who taught this curriculum? How were they likely prepared to teach it?
4. How strict were the testing conditions? How frequent the tests?
5. What was at stake? Was the test retakable? How was it prepared for? (e.g. cram sessions?)[2]

College and University then were not what they are now. A lot came in between. And what they are now is not, unfortunately, what all too many people imagine them to be.[3]

For examples and to examine these issues further, see Are American Universities "Productive"? Definitely.)

--- EGR


[1] Samuel Miller, A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century in Two Volumes: Containing a Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science Arts, and Literature, during that Period (New York: T and J. Swords, 1803)

[2] A Classic on American Colleges is Frederick Rudolph. The American College & University. A History. 1960. U of Georgia Press.Throughout.

[3] For multiple essays on college and university organization, see Aspects of organizational functioning and culture.