Weekly Standard Letter 10/17/05
In "The Left University" (The Weekly Standard, October 3, 2005), James Pierson presents a history of the evolution of the American university into the seemingly leftist bastion he thinks it is today. Although Pierson refers to the founding fathers and their desire for a "republic of letters" in America, he overlooks one of the earliest and most important proponents of a distinctively American education -- Dr. Benjamin Rush, an ardent revolutionary, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and founder of several American universities, including my own Dickinson College.
Mr. Pierson incorrectly attributes the politicization of American colleges and universities to the emergence of the modern liberal movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. Politicization of higher education by various parties is unfortunately a long-standing American tradition. Rush fiercely criticized the first president and the faculty of Dickinson College in the early 1800s for corrupting students' minds with "Federalist" ideology. It was well known that other colleges and universities, before and immediately after the Revolution, also were criticized for advancing political ideologies -- for or against the war with England; Federalist or Anti-federalist.
Pierson asserts that the founding fathers intended for American higher education to be "a republic of letters" -- classically oriented and focused on broad learning in history and philosophy and the study of ancient languages and politics "in order to apply the lessons of the past to the practical problems of the present." Pierson wishes for the resurrection of a republic of letters in hopes that it will improve America.
From the very beginning, Rush envisioned an American approach to education that would not simply duplicate "the republic of letters" as it was understood for centuries in England (based on an invincible admiration of the classical world) and even by his good friend Thomas Jefferson. In fact, Rush judged Jefferson on certain educational issues to be too greatly enamored of the "Old World" and not fully prepared to move into the "New." For Rush, the English classical curriculum mimicked by the colonial American universities before the Revolution was moribund, "unchanged for 250 years," and little but "monkish studies"-- thus not truly American in content or spirit.
A distinctively American college for Rush had to be based on a dynamic liberal education -- the unfettered non-political pursuit of truth and knowledge that would ultimately be entrepreneurial and useful. He argued vociferously for the study of modern languages, rather than Latin and Greek.
He also insisted on the inclusion of the modern sciences -- particularly chemistry -- knowing that they would create new knowledge necessary to fuel industry and commerce, the economic and competitive foundation of the new nation. And he simultaneously acknowledged the incompleteness of the American democratic experiment at its founding and called for the study of Native-American languages and cultures and advocated broader opportunities for women and African Americans. Change, inclusiveness, and adaptability were key components of the earliest conceptions of a distinctively American education, according to Dr. Rush.
Let us then fully appreciate this aspiration for a distinctively American higher education by this true patriot and founder of the country and contrast it with Mr. Pierson's incomplete and selective framing of what he calls "the left university." For in seeking to disclose and disarm a pervasive "left university," by returning to the "republic of letters," Mr. Pierson would have us educationally, at least, still be within the oppressive embrace of Europe.
William G. Durden