John Adams asserted that the constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people” and is “wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” according to Professor of History Mark Kalthoff. This meant colleges had an important role to play in inculcating virtue in the American republic.
The Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship hosted their third event in a four-part series titled “Liberty in Education? Curriculum Battles, Academic Reform, and the Making of Modern American Higher Education” on Thursday, March 4. In his lecture, Kalthoff detailed the history of higher education in America, from its conception to the existence of today’s universities.
Kalthoff began with the 18th century, when government — and values — were being established in America. According to Kalthoff, Adams’ greatest achievement was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, in which he said that “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools in the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
In the colonial era, America had nine colleges. By 1860, the number rose to 203. Despite denominational differences, the American education focused on the Christian tradition and classical culture, with the goal of producing earnest Christian gentlemen to lead in American society.
“We should acknowledge right away, however, that while this was the high and noble goal of the early American colleges, it was only a goal, not an empirical description of a golden lost age,” Kaltoff said. “That it was the goal is significant, however, for if never fully realized, it maintained the stated end toward which learning aimed.”
The scientific revolution of the 17th century, however, had challenged traditional liberal education. According to Kalthoff, two events brought this to bear on American education: America had become “an expanding nation of practical hustlers,” who wanted useful knowledge that was applicable to their goals, and the Second Great Awakening in religious life led men to distrust authority in the political sphere as well.
The mid and late 19th century saw the rise of the scientific democrats, who believed science offered a basis for a cohesive modern culture. British polymath and architect of social Darwinism Herbert Spencer asserted that utilitarian education should dominate because of its use during the post-Civil War years, Kalthoff said.
This movement attacked American education by seeking to discredit the traditional method. Edward Livingston, a disciple of Spencer, published anonymous editorials in his magazine “Popular Science Monthly” with titles such as “Dead Language Studies Necessarily a Failure,” where he insisted that “Greek is not so ennobling as the study of sewerage.” Other articles said the classics should be abandoned because their study was “insufficiently masculine for men aspiring to become America’s leaders,” according to Kalthoff.
The new education devoted its focus to practical skills, creating research universities, and introducing the elective credit system to do away with a fixed curriculum. The Democrats urged support from the federal government for these utilitarian schools, which they got in the form of federal land grants.
Meanwhile in Germany, higher education had already introduced the concepts of “Lehrfreiheit,” the freedom to teach, and “Lernfreiheit,” the freedom to learn, in which professors could choose what to teach and how to teach it, while the students could choose what they wished to learn. This caught on in America, especially with Harvard president Charles William Eliot, who abolished all required tracks for seniors in 1872.
“It presumed the college youth present possess sufficient self-knowledge regarding scholarly aptitude and personal preference,” Kalthoff said. “Moreover, it assumed that students would not simply elect the path of least resistance and choose coursework requiring the least effort, which is in fact what happened by 1898. The majority of Harvard graduates graduated having taken only introductory classes. The curricular response was to create this new thing called the college major.”
The elective system assumes that every subject is of equal dignity and equal educational value, according to Kalthoff, and thus the classics were forced to stand on their own merit in the education battlefield of survival of the fittest.
In 1870, Harvard had a total of 73 courses with 32 professors. By 1910, it offered 401 courses with 169 professors. The loss of a unifying education for the students led to a lack of common mission which is present in many research universities today, he said.
“Liberal education could be found, but only by those sufficiently educated to know where and how to look,” Kalthoff said. “For the rest, liberal education had become, as one of my former Hillsdale colleagues liked to say, ‘A free-for-all of open curriculum, where the dazed and confused spend irreplaceable years browsing among survey courses, taking bites out of whatever nuggets randomly lie among the crumbs, learning little or nothing in particular.”
Graduate student Stephanie Helmick said she appreciated that Kalthoff highlighted the problem of disunity in most public colleges.
“You have science majors and English majors who can’t talk to each other because they don’t think that either one knows anything that’s useful to the other and they don’t feel like they can understand each other,” Helmick said. “But it used to be an education where these disciplines could talk to each other, and to me that was the big takeaway, the disintegration of college life and the community between different areas of study.”
Retired Professor of History and William P. Harris Chair in Military History Thomas Conner said Kalthoff was well-equipped to present on the topic.
“He has very thoughtfully analyzed and reflected on what he was describing today, which is basically the evolution of higher education,” Connor said. “Ultimately, it’s declined in this country. So it was very informative and enjoyable. Just what I was expecting.”
Dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship and Professor of Politics Ronald Pestritto said Kalthoff explained the development of modern education well, adding that the lecture was part of the PhD curriculum at the graduate school so that students will understand why Hillsdale is what it is.
“I hope they’ll understand more about the context of what makes the education that we provide here at Hillsdale are so important and so unique,” Pestritto said. “My graduate students will be going out into various colleges and universities, so they need to learn something about the nature of the modern university and how it came about.”