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Failures Of Early American Higher Education

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The Failures of Early American Higher Education

The intention of colleges in the United Stated during the 18th and 19th centuries was to create a system that would serve in loco parentis (in place of the parent). In the early years of American higher education, college professors sought to be disciplinarians, who played a parental role. However, the students at these institutions often behaved in a disruptive manner towards teachers, as well as fellow students. This unruly behavior can be directly linked to the economic background of the students attending these institutions, in addition to the philosophies set forth by the colleges. During this time period, colleges attracted mostly upper class men who showed little interest in their academic studies. They were individuals following generations of family members to the institution, and as a result of their connections possessed more authority at the school than the faculty. This issue began to change in the early 20th century, when colleges began admitting more economically diverse individuals. The economic background of the students, in addition to their reluctance to abide by the rules, led to violent and unruly behavior at these institutions.

Students who attended these institutions of higher education were typically born into a wealthy family, where the individuals already had made a name for themselves. They survived college, as disruptive students, because college was not a necessity for them to succeed in life. Referring to Harvard College, in his family's newspaper, the New England Curant, in 1677, Benjamin Franklin wrote that it had become a "rich man's school, a place that wealthy parents sent their sons to, where, for want of a suitable genius, they learn little more than to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a room genteely" (Lucas, p. 109). Prior to the American Revolution, higher education did not impact the majority of the people first hand. It is estimated that no more than one in every thousand colonists attended any college present before 1776 (Lucas, p. 109). This supports the idea that college was only available to those individuals who had enough money to attend college simply for the ability to move up the social ladder.

Many individuals went to college, not for the education, but to continue a tradition set forth by generations of family members. They did not take college seriously, for it was simply the next step, in order to follow through along the path that their family members had paved. One such man was Henry Adams, who was born in Boston into one of the country's most prominent families. He attended Harvard College from 1854-1858, despite his lack of interest in furthering his education. The goal of Harvard College, according to Adams, was to turn young men into respectable and useful citizens in the world. "In effect, the school created a type but not a will. Four years of Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which only a water-mark had been stamped" (Adams p. 1). Harvard College had no way to control Adams' behavior because Harvard needed him more than he needed the college. To Adams and the other wealthy Harvard students, the only aspect of college that was relevant was the social advantages. For them, the college offered social advantages, rather than educational ones (Adams p. 5). College was a place where Adams socialized with other members of the social elite. At Harvard, he met various individuals from around the world, with whom he could socialize with. At college, Adams discovered the habit of drinking, which disrupted his perception of life. "The habit of drinking--though the mere recollection of it made him doubt his own veracity, so fantastic it seemed in later life--may have done no great or permanent harm; but the habit of looking at life as a social relation--an affair of society--did no good. It cultivated a weakness which needed no cultivation" (Adams p. 5). In his eyes, Adams accomplished nothing educational at college, but did learn how to cause trouble. This was possible in the system of in loco parentis because the faculty and students at Harvard could not confront a member of this famous Boston family. As for those who were not as notorious, the school could not justify confronting some students and not others. Therefore, the inability of the colleges to punish the wealthier students caused the entire campus to be in anarchy. As a result, the lack of authority of college administrators illustrates the failures of early institutions.

Colleges of the 18th century struggled to impose their will upon the students, in terms of social and educational ideals. During the antebellum period, institutions tended to be located in small rural towns, rather than large cities. This was an attempt to separate the students from civilization, and move them to a place where the administrators could exercise total control of them. The location of the college was thought to have an impact on the behavior of the undergraduates. However, the contrary proved true. According to President Wayland of Brown in 1842, "It matters really but little whether an institution be situated in a town or in the country. Place it where you will, in a few years there will cluster around it all the opportunities of idle and vicious expenditure. Under such circumstances, no physical means can be devised which shall furnish such supervision as will present an impassable barrier to unlawful inclination" (Lucas p. 126). In effect, nothing that the institution did had the capability to supervise the students at all time. The students



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