Kalthoff spoke at the Van Andel Graduate School of States­man­ship’s lecture series on the history of American edu­cation. Andrew Dixon | Collegian

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.”