The Magazine

The Left University

From the October 3, 2005 issue: How it was born; how it grew; how to overcome it.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By JAMES PIERESON
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FOR THE GREAT PART OF AMERICAN HISTORY, from the founding of Harvard College in 1636 down to around 1900, colleges and universities played a small role in the economic and political developments that shaped the nation. Through the colonial period and into the early 19th century, when state universities began to be formed, institutions of higher learning were built on a British model, and were founded or controlled by Protestant denominations, usually Congregational, Episcopal, or Presbyterian. The purpose of these institutions was to shape character and to transmit knowledge and right principles to the young in order to prepare them for vocations in teaching, the ministry, and, often, the law. Few thought of these institutions as places where new knowledge might be generated or where original research might be conducted. In England, as in America, research and discovery were sponsored by nonacademic institutions like the Royal Society in London or the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the latter founded by Benjamin Franklin.

It is true that some of the prominent founders of the nation were greatly interested in the role academic institutions might play under the new government. Many of the leaders of the Revolution and authors of the Constitution had attended one or another of the nine colleges that then existed in the fledgling nation. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, for example, had studied at Kings College (later Columbia) in New York City, Thomas Jefferson at William and Mary, and James Madison at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). Franklin had earlier been a founder of the University of Pennsylvania. Jefferson and Madison, in particular, were first exposed during their college years to the ideals of liberty and limited government by studying the works of John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, and other leading figures of the British enlightenment. Here, during their college years, they absorbed the philosophy that they later used to shape the institutions of the new nation. But these men understood themselves not as academics or scholars, but rather as members of a "republic of letters," to use Jefferson's phrase. They were broadly learned in history and philosophy, and studied ancient languages and politics in order to apply the lessons of the past to the practical problems of the present.

Jefferson, however, perhaps because of his own academic experience, was much taken with the idea of a university that would prepare the young to enter such a "republic of letters," and to take their place as wise leaders of the real American republic. He understood, as did Madison, that the new republican order they had helped to establish required academic institutions that were more secular and philosophical and less religious and vocational than those existing at the time. During their presidencies, both Jefferson and Madison proposed the creation of a national university with precisely this aim, but such proposals went nowhere in Congress because many believed that the security of the republic was based more in the design of our institutions and the temper of the people than in the education of a class of leaders--a point that Madison himself had made during the debates over the Constitution. In his later years, therefore, Jefferson turned his energies to the creation of the University of Virginia, which he conceived as the prototype for a new "republican" university, one that would enroll the best students in his state and provide them with a secular education in the languages and history of Greece and Rome, the practical sciences, and the correct understanding of the Constitution. He lived to see his dream realized when he attended the inaugural banquet (along with Madison and Lafayette) in 1824, two years before he died.

But Jefferson's vision of a new university for a new republican polity was stillborn. The sharpening sectionalism of the nation from the 1830s onward, and its increasing preoccupation with slavery and expansion, undermined the Jeffersonian ideal of a "republic of letters" that transcended geography, personal backgrounds, and narrow interests. The emerging Jacksonian culture that celebrated equality and the common man, so well described by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, was likewise suspicious of an institution that appeared impractical and aristocratic. Andrew Jackson and his followers ridiculed the idea of a national university as undemocratic and an affront to the common man. Pioneer democracy, as it was called, was notoriously suspicious of expert wisdom. Thus, as new colleges were established in this era, most were guided by vocational objectives rather than by Jeffersonian ideals.