The University of Virginia is in turmoil. Reports in The Washington Post and Charlottesville’s Daily Progress bring to mind Thomas Jefferson and the slow progress of higher education for the broad public.
And all by way of a forgotten college in pre-Civil War Cincinnati….
The high school I attended required freshman to take two languages: Greek or Latin and French, German or Spanish. My grades proved – particularly to my mother, uncle and grandfather, Classics teachers all – I had no facility for languages.
My adolescent misery inspired a touch of schadenfreude on reading a Washington Post report on the firing of the President of the University of Virginia, ‘U-Va. board leader wanted Teresa Sullivan to make cuts’.
The [Board Rector Helen E.] Dragas group coalesced around a consensus that Sullivan was moving too slowly. …They felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.
On a Sunday when Greeks voted whether to further straiten their nation, knowledge of the Classics might help Americans understand the cultural stakes. With the fate of the western economies in the hands of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the advantages of understanding her nuance in her language seem plain.
However a rant on national stupidification must await another day….
For the irony in UVA’s course, consider the epitaph Thomas Jefferson composed for his headstone. It reads in part:
HERE WAS BURIED
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
Jefferson believed the new republic’s future depended on a government by educated yeomen, citizen farmers with a breadth of vision for their counties, states and country. This was his notion of what came to be called ‘Jeffersonian democracy’.
As with all of Thomas Jefferson’s agenda, public education was far more difficult than his brilliant prose and elegant architecture made it seem.
The views in the 1670s of Virginia’s most important colonial governor prevailed in Jefferson’s day and well after his death in 1826. Sir William Berkeley wrote,
I thank God, we have not free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have these hundred years. For learning has brought disobedience, and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both!
American colleges before our Civil War incorporated far more of Berkeley’s post English Civil War philosophy than Jefferson’s.
In 1967 while doing research for what became my thesis, I learned about Farmers’ College of which I’ll be writing in another post, too.
This small Cincinnati school (300 students at its height) flourished for a decade and a half before the Civil War started in 1861. Farmers’ College’s curriculum served Jefferson’s yeomanry, though I can’t find a reference to him in the sparse internet record of the college.
One factor that distinguished Farmers’ College from all its peers was its elimination of Classics as a graduation requirement. Students could take Latin or Greek if they wished. But unlike UVA today, Farmers’ College never proposed to eliminate the disciplines.
Farmers’ College addressed the need Francis Wayland, Brown University’s great president, expressed in 1850:
if every man who is willing to pay for them, has an equal right to the benefits of education, every man has a special right to that kind of education which will be of greatest value to him in the prosecution of useful industry, it is therefore eminently unjust, practically to exclude the largest class of the community from an opportunity of acquiring that knowledge, the possession of which is of inestimable importance, both to national progress and individual success; and yet we have in this country 120 colleges, 42 theological seminaries, and 47 law schools, and we have not a single institution designed to furnish the agriculturist, the manufacturer, the mechanic, or the merchant, with the education that will prepare him for the profession to which his life is to be devoted. 
Farmers’ College is long gone. But its vision has triumphed. For the 2009-10 academic year, the 500 or so US members of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) reported over 1 million students – undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates.
None of the participants in the UVA coup is identified in either the Washington Post or the Charlottesville Daily Progress with traditional arts and sciences fields. They come mainly from business and other professional programs. The ousted president, however, is a sociology professor.
This morning’s Washington Post reports outgoing president Teresa Sullivan in a prepared statement told the UVA board yesterday:
“A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university,” she said. “Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers.” She underlined the word “former.’’
Sullivan is not likely right. The triumph of practical and fiscally sustainable curricula is nearly complete.
It is unlikely anyone will say about a contemporary university graduate anything like what John F. Kennedy said of Jefferson at a 1962 White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.
The important word here is ‘gentleman’. A gentleman of Jefferson’s generation had a liberal education. It was the skills and professions he built on it that made him – and his university – great.
1. [Francis Wayland,] Report to the corporation of Brown university on changes in the system of collegiate education. Read March 28, 1850 (Providence: G. H. Whitney, 1850), as quoted in [Giles Richards,] A plea for the Farmers’ college of Hamilton county, Ohio, and for a reformation in collegiate instruction: being a report to that institution, made July 17, 1850 (Cincinnati: Ben Franklin printing house, 1850), p. 14.
2. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, ‘Notable Comments on Jefferson – 20th Century’, quoting Public papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy; containing the public messages, speeches, and statements of the President, 1961-1963 (Washington D.C.: GPO, 1962-1964), 1:161.