Classical Studies at Dickinson College in the Nineteenth Century

Over the course of the nineteenth century classical ideals of eloquence and erudition endured in new guises as rote memorization and recitation of Latin and Greek texts receded, argues Drew Kaplan (’20)

Hand written title page of a Latin graduation speech given by a student at Dickinson in 1847.
Hand written title page of a Latin graduation speech given by a student at Dickinson in 1847 (Dickinson Archives)

In 1841, incoming Dickinson College sophomore Charles Stinson wrote to his father expressing doubts about his academic abilities. After meeting with college president John Durbin, Stinson “passed an examination, and the conclusion is, as I expected, that I am wholly unprepared to enter the Sophomore class. So here I was without knowing scarcely what to do.” Stinson’s progress in the ancient languages was well behind his peers, his abilities akin to that of a freshman. He suggests that, if his father approves, he should purchase extra lessons and continue his education despite these troubles, or else return home to work on the family farm.[1] Stinson was not atypical, and in this period of expanding college access many students arrived under-prepared for the established course with its heavy emphasis on Latin and Greek. By 1874, Professor of Modern Language William Trickett was reporting to the Trustees that “majority of applicants for admission to the College fell below the usual requirements” in Greek, both in their understanding of the grammar and reading abilities. Frustrated with teaching unqualified students, Trickett proposes a “change [of] methods of teaching [… w]ith improved best books, with better selections from … the modern languages.”[2]

From the late 18th to early 20th centuries, American higher education went through a period of tremendous change, both in curriculum and teaching methods. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, emphasis on the classical languages, and what moral lessons could be gleaned from classical texts, formed a major portion of the college curriculum.[3] Latin and Greek texts were taught by recitation, in which students would be required to repeat memorized passages to their professors and peers in the original language and answer questions on grammatical and other points of detail. Classical texts were valued as models of eloquence, and for many years a Latin oration was required of every student at graduation. Students were not required, nor expected, to conduct research into a particular sub-field, or even specialize during their studies. The summation of the course of study was a course in moral philosophy, typically taught by the president of the college. This era of American education was that of generalism, but this general education involved far larger doses of classical languages than even the most dedicated of classical studies majors encounter today.

As the nineteenth century progressed this system began to change. New topics, such as the physical sciences and modern languages entered the curricula, while the emphasis on the classics began to fade. Although some elements of traditional classicism were abandoned, an emphasis remained on the cultivation of eloquence. What had changed was the eloquence itself, or, more properly, what constituted eloquence. It was not that the colleges and universities stopped teaching eloquence and erudition. Instead, those values were shifted more towards English, French, and German literature. An 1849 student publication at Dickinson, The Collegian, the virtues of reading widely in works designed to induce “poetic fire.” The purpose of literary reading, according to the Collegian, was foster a sense of fellowship and “to stir the slumbering powers of a young man, to nerve his inactivity, to inflame his ambition, and fire his genius.”[4] The fourth issue featured extracts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, followed immediately by a discussion of the life and philosophy of Percy Bysshe Shelley, author of Prometheus Unbound (1820).[5] The fact that the issue included translations from both a Greek tragedian Aeschylus and a discussion of the related but more contemporary lyrical drama by Shelley is a sign of the shift toward including modern literature beside classical in the definition of eloquence and erudition.

Arthur Cohen observes that college life during the 19th century was understood “as a system for controlling the often exuberant youth and for inculcating within them discipline, morals and character.”[6] Classical texts, along with religious training, were the principal means to this end, with the emphasis in the case of the classics on civic and political aspects of virtue. Winterer observes the drawing of a parallel between the United States, Greece and Rome during the period; when the leaders of these classical societies had exhibited civic virtue, exemplified by both knowledge of their histories and the ability to make convincing arguments with rhetoric, their democratic and republican systems of government had triumphed. Rule by the people “depended upon the civic virtue of their citizenry to withstand corruption, private ambition and dependence, the relentless forces of decay.”[7]

The “Course of Study” documents preserved in the Dickinson Archives articulate the educational ideals of the time and chart the process of curricular change. One catalog from the 1830s notes that the purpose of its educational endeavor “is to excite, rather than to pretend to satisfy, an ardent thirst for information; and to enlarge the capacity of the mind.”[8] In 1823, incoming first year students would be instructed in geography, algebra and English literature. However, the primary focus is on classical texts; first years would begin with Xenophon and Sallust followed by Homer, while sophomores would read texts such as Livy, the juniors Demosthenes, and the seniors Tacitus and select tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus, among others.[9] From these authors students could glean virtues such as the discipline of Ajax, the cunning of Odysseus, vigorous democratic oratory in from Demosthenes[10] and in Republican self-sacrifice from the Roman historians, and poetic eloquence from the Greek tragedians. In addition, students would learn rhetoric both from classical speeches and by means of a dedicated class on the topic.[11] Cohen notes that such a strong emphasis on the classics “could be justified as practical training for all careers.” Because college educated individuals were expected to enter “the higher reaches of their professions, [… a] knowledge of rhetoric and Greek and Latin could certainly be justified as useful.”[12]

Rote recitation and an obsessive focus on grammar, however, could provide barrier to imbibing the higher lessons contained in the ancient texts. At Dickinson, where the primary method of instruction was the recitation,[13] students were expected to be able to recite texts and discuss elements from their work with the professors or fellow students.[14] Winterer remarks that the teaching system for classical languages was “so laborious and unpleasant for students that it became synonymous with much that was wrong with the colleges at the time.”[15] In 1836, college president John Durbin[16] noted that an unnamed student appreciated his method of instruction as it was “encouraging challenge and debate, even letting the young men believe they had lured him away from the routine of presentation and recital.”[17] However, other students held views differing from the student referenced by Durbin. Writing in 1848, Dickinson College student Christian Humrich reflected that his Latin Professor lacked the same flare as Durbin in his instruction, while his Greek professor was inspiring. Humrich consequently fell behind in his knowledge of Latin.[18] Moreover, in 1847, student Henry Clay Dallam asked a friend to buy him a translation of the plays of Sophocles. This was so that he could pass his recitations without doing his own translations.[19] Indeed, Winterer observes that the model of recitation and memorization often failed to instill any real degree of knowledge into students; many graduated with little ability in the classical languages.[20]

Cohen observes that the practicality of a classical education had come into doubt by the mid-19th century.[21] The United States was changing, affected economically by the industrial revolution, and as the college-going population increased and broadened, topics such as the physical sciences, English literature, and foreign languages were added the college curricula.[22] Ellen Lyon, daughter of a Dickinson College trustee, remarked in 1840 that the purpose of higher education was no longer just to prepare individuals for a career in public service. Although a knowledge of history is important to Lyon as “[i]t shows the evil effects of vice and the superiority of virtue,” that knowledge must be counterbalanced with knowledge in other fields.[23]

The curricula themselves were slow to adapt. In 1823, students only studied a rudimentary level of non-classical subjects; there was some mathematics and some science. The overwhelming portion of what students studied consisted of classical literature; there was no modern foreign language and what was taught on the English language focused on grammar rather than literature.[24] Dickinson College had not much changed which authors were read until the later part of the century. In the 1850s, juniors still read Demosthenes and first years still read Xenophon just as in 1823. What had was the addition of French to the course of study, alongside the option for a small level of Spanish or Italian.[25] By 1879 though, students were instructed in a wide selection of mathematical topics, inorganic chemistry, physics, the literature of Shakespeare, the history of Guizot, and the French and German languages.[26] Moreover, the classical texts had to some degree been swapped. Sallust, Livy, and Xenophon remained, but they were now supplemented by Ovid, Seneca, Horace, and notably, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.[27]

Alongside these changes came the advent of literary societies, student run organizations centered around fostering a common interest in literature. These societies aimed towards the same ends as the colleges but tended towards the use of modern rather than classical literature. Dickinson College had two, Belles Lettres and Union Philosophical Society (UPS). Cohen calls societies of this type “colleges within colleges.” Many issued their own diplomas to students upon graduation from the college. Both UPS and Belles Lettres did this. Belles Lettres had first come to the college in 1795 and offered lessons on public speaking. Eventually the membership of Belles Lettres and UPS encompassed nearly the whole student body.[28] The societies also boasted impressive libraries, with the library of each society individually containing more works that the library of the college by 1874. Moreover, the 1850s witnessed the first instance of student journalism at the college. Far from journalism in the modern sense, The Collegian, published by the cooperation of UPS and Belles Lettres, is more akin to a literary magazine containing works intended for student interest. The first issue, published in March 1849, contained among other works a translation of the Hymn to Jupiter of Cleanthes, alongside contemporary literary compositions.[29] Among students, there had remained an emphasis on the study of the virtue of the classical world. Students, however, could seek this in a forum separate from the college curriculum, and especially in a forum where they would not be required to recite the texts in the original as a precondition for learning from them.

Higher education remained an essential element of professional preparation, but, to some extent, the students took this process of higher education on themselves in the model Basil Gildersleeve termed “cultured erudition,” and which became the guiding principle of the modern liberal arts curriculum that developed in the early 20th century. The moral lessons and eloquence of Sophocles will still be available to him, but without the additional effort of translation. Students of the college remained interested in erudition and eloquence throughout the period, with the classics becoming just one of many routes students could take to this end.  The evolution of the classical curriculum at the college, and the experiences of the students, well evidences the persistence of classical ideals in American higher education at small colleges gradually shorn of the rigors of classical pedagogy. The values of erudition and eloquence remained, even as the strict focus on classical grammar was giving way to the cultivation of these values by other subjects. But as always, substantial curricular change was slow indeed. Dickinson College would not come to make the classical languages optional until 1947.[30]

[1] Letter from Charles Stinson to His Father. Dickinson Archives, I-DayL-1972-1.

[2] Faculty Report to the Board of Trustees, Dickinson Archives, RG1-2_2.2.35 Languages.

[3] Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) 3.

[4] “Editor’s Table,” The [Dickinson] Collegian, March 1849.

[5] “Extract from the Prometheus Chained to Aeschylus” and “Shelly.” The Collegian, June 1849.

[6] Arthur M. Cohen, The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), 23.

[7] Winterer, The Culture of Classicism, 19.

[8] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1834 – 1835) 12

[9] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1823 – 1824), 7–13.

This should not be read as an all-inclusive list of topics studied by students during the period. Rather, it is a selection.

[10] Specifically, the speech De Corona.

[11] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1834 – 1835) 15–16.

[12] Cohen, The Shaping of American Higher Education, 29.

[13] One such source for this is the diary of Horatio Collins King, a 19th century Dickinson College student. He refers to his daily recitations in various subjects. King, Horatio Collins. Diary, 1854-1858. MC 1999.9, Horatio Collins King Family Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[14] This system is similar to the tutorial system used by some institutions, amongst them the University of Oxford.

[15] Winterer, Culture of Classicism, 33.

[16] At the time, the college president often taught a senior capstone course in moral philosophy.

[17] Charles Coleman Sellers, Dickinson College; a History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 203.

[18] Christian Humrich to Samuel Davis. May 1848. I-Original-undated-15. Record Group 2/2, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. In the letter, Humrich spells “Xenophon” using the Greek. I have chosen to instead present the name translated.

[19] Henry Dallam to W. Boyd Williams. 5 October 1847. I-WilliamsW-1957-1. Record Group 2/2, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[20] Winterer, The Culture of Classicism, 36.

[21] Cohen, The Shaping of American Higher Education, 51.

[22] Ibid., 38, 63.

[23] Ellen Lyon, “What Branch of Study is Most Important in the Education of a Young Lady.” I-Original-undated-16. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[24] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1823 – 1824) 7–13.

[25] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1853 – 1854) 15–16.

[26] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1878 – 1879) 14– 16.

[27] “Course of Study.” Catalogue and Register of Dickinson College for the Academical Year. (1879 – 1880) 20 –23.

[28] Sellers, Dickinson College: a History, 93.

[29] “A Translation of Cleanthes’ Hymn to Jupiter.” The Collegian, March 1849.

[30] Sellers, Dickinson College; a History, 550.