Keeping what is valuable from the past while keeping up with changing times

Princeton's Roots: An Amalgam of Models

Lawrence Stone

Two hundred years ago, Tom Paine rightly reminded us that "the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of tyrannies. It is the living and not the dead that are to be accommodated." In other words, institutions, if they are to survive, must change with the times, while simultaneously preserving what is valuable about the past, and avoiding rushing to and fro in pursuit of the latest fad or fashion -relevance, Women's Liberation, ethnicity, or whatever- the American universities face today. To set this problem in perspective, let us look at the Princeton of 1977 in the context of the history of the universities of the Anglo-Saxon world since the Middle Ages, to see where it was that we got certain thing which we take for granted today.

The medieval university's function was to train persons of lower-class origins for the three professions, and especially the church: "Universities be instituted only that the realm may be served with preachers, lawyers, and physicians," it was said in 1554. In England, however lawyers were trained elsewhere, and physicians were few, so that the university was very largely a degree mill for aspirin clergymen. The curriculum was exclusively the transmission of the established culture, which was mostly derived from classical antiquity: grammar, rhetoric, and logic, plus arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. There was nothing new to it; it would have been more or less familiar a thousand years before.

Academic freedom was a course actively discouraged as a serious threat to church and state. Dissidents and heretics were banned, if not burned. Both church and state quite rightly thought that the proper indoctrination of future clergymen was vital to their survival. Moreover, original research was virtually nonexistent. There were highly gifted teachers who attracted students from all over Europe, but nobody bothered much about research as we know it today and nobody respected it.

The major transformation began in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when a flood of wealthy laymen with no thought of a professional career came pouring into the universities of the western world. Rich parents were now willing to pay heavily for this education. Their motives were mixed. They wanted their children to be trained as members of a political elite, prepared for public service in peacetime, at the royal court and in local office. For such a career, the reading done at the university was thought to be useful. It is not all clear to me that this was true, but it was certainly what parents thought.

Secondly, they wanted their sons trained to take their place as members of social elite, and Latin was now regarded as an essential prerequisite of gentlemanly status. Moreover, the humanist had somehow persuaded the western world that learning was a hallmark of gentility. If one thinks about it, this was a rather bizarre idea. But the fact is that for a short time in the late 16th century learning was very highly prized by embers of the elite, and even kings and queens had pretensions to scholarship -which certainly has not been the case since.

There was also a more pragmatic motive in sending boys to the university -which is as true today as it has always been - the need to get these infernal nuisances out of the house at their most impossible age. Boys were "sent there by their parents to save themselves the trouble of governing them at home, during that time when they are least governable," as a contemporary cynically observed.

Parents expected that their sons, once at the university, would be kept out of mischief. Thus arose the concept that university authorities should act in loco parentis to prevent debauchery and vice. This had not been part of the duties of the medieval university, where lecture halls, brothels, and bars were all in comfortable propinquity, and no one bothered very much about what a student did in his spare time so long as he did not start a riot.

By the mid-17th century, student enrollment had grown to a numerical peak which was not reached again until the mid-19th century in England and Western Europe. Indeed, as a percentage of the age group, it was not matched again in England until the 20th century -and in places like Spain, it has not been equalled to this day.

The result of this flood of gentlemanly students demanding some education and a lot of moral and religious supervision was the rise of the Oxford and Cambridge model of a university, which was copied by Harvard, and parts of which still survive at Princeton. One characteristic of the English model in the mid-17th century, when enthusiasm for pure learning among the elite had already begun to ebb, was that it served two quite distinct types of undergraduates. There were lower-class boys, aged 18-22, supported by scholarships and work, aiming at careers in the church, and preparing themselves in the traditional medieval way by spending four years there and ending up with a B.A. degree. Then there were the upper-class boys, who were for the most part younger (16-18), usually aiming not at a profession but at politics, local administration, and the running of their estates. They wanted a little Latin, a little rhetoric, a little logic, as well as some modern subjects such as history, political theory, and French, and extracurricular training in fencing, music, dancing, etc. They spend about two years in college, with no idea of taking a degree, and then drifted off to the Inns of Court in London or the grand tour of Europe, in order to finish off their training for positions of authority.

The ideal of the upper-class group in this period was well summed up by the poet John Milton: "I can call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war." The streets on public office -prefiguring Woodrow Wilson's concept of "Princeton in the Nation's Service"- was present in the 17th century and indeed goes back to Renaissance. But by this time the scholar and the gentleman were two very different animals, and when an 18th-century Cambridge don proposed combining them again into the gentleman-scholar, he was thought very cranky and nicknamed "Mr. Union."

Another feature of the Oxford-Cambridge model was a collegiate system that provided very strict moral supervision. A total environment was created, so as to protect students from temptations to vice. The colleges were surrounded by high walls, the gates of which were shut at 9 p.m. Women were forbidden to enter college at any time. chapel was held twice a day, and attendance was compulsory. Most students slept in their tutor rooms. All the student's money was held by the tutor, so that the student couldn't even buy a glass of beer without asking his tutor for some money and explaining what he wanted it for.

Tutors could and did physically punish their students for disobedience or laziness, beating them over a barrel in the buttery. Extreme marks of outward deference to the faculty were rigorously enforced. For example, in my own college, as in many others, students not only had to take their hats off whenever they saw a faculty member, but they had to keep them off until the member turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

The tutor's duties, therefore, included intellectual instruction, but more particularly moral discipline and religious indoctrination. That discipline was, as one might, a very difficult and thankless task. Shakespeare defined the natural habitats of adolescent youths as "getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, and fighting." It was, and is still, the faculty who had to bear the brunt of that favorite adolescent pastime, "wronging the ancientry."- i.e., being rude to one's elders and betters. Moreover, somehow or other, the faculty had to try to stop the other three activities mentioned by Shakespeare. The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes took a very gloomy view of the prospects of success, having come to the conclusion that educating boys of that age was absolutely impossible anyway. Their minds, he felt, were unable to absorb knowledge since they were so totally preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of sex. This is fortunately not entirely true; otherwise universities would not be in business at all.

The curriculum for the elite continued to be mostly the classics, a good deal of it in translation, plus rhetoric and logic and some modern subjects like French, geography, modern history, etc. The stress on the classics persisted throughout the 18th century, and was actually revived in the 19th as the core and essence of what was called, oddly enough, a liberal arts education (although anything less liberating and broadening than classical grammar and composition I cannot imagine). This tradition only decayed in the 20th century, and in fact I was one of last to suffer from aridities of its ossified curriculum.

The reasons for its persistence are fairly clear. First of all, the classics were believed, with some justice, to contain much of the available wisdom of western society, Secondly, as noted earlier, Latin was thought to be an essential hallmark of a gentleman, the key to social prestige. This argument was best stated in the early 19th century by a leading member of my undergraduate college at Oxford, Dean Gaisford, who wrote: " The advantages of a classical education are twofold: it enables us to look down with contempt on those who have not shared its advantages; and it also fits us for places of emolument, not only in this world but in the next."

The nature of this educational system for the elite in the 16th and 17th century bears all the characteristics of a prolonged male puberty rite, identical to those found by anthropologists in primitive tribal societies. There is instruction of upper-class youths in the mysteries of the tribe and wisdom of the ancestors, given by a group of bachelors in an arcane language unknown to the masses. There is sexual and peer-group segregation in an isolated compound, with a regimen of religious ritual, physical exercise, cold baths -if any at all- routinized discipline, and strict moral supervision. Lastly, there is a severe physical punishment for disobedience. (This power of the faculty to beat students, which for better of for worse no longer exists, dropped put in England around 1660, but lingered on in America, not disappearing at Harvard until about 1720.)

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a number of important things happened. Firs, enrollment in unique universities al over the western world declined dramatically. In England, for example, it fell 5o percent in 60 years, the greatest collapse of enrollment in the history of higher education. There were, however, three striking exceptions to this trend -Scotland, Holland and America- whose Puritan religiosity may have helped to maintain educational ideals.

The causes of the general collapse varied by class. An excess of B.A.'s was being turned out for the jobs available in the church, and therefore the poor ceased to come. The rich, meanwhile, have become disenchanted with the education supplied by the universities. Parents felt, with good reason, that the moral discipline of the past was no longer being enforced by the faculty and that students were being allowed to picked up idle and dissolute habits. The 18th century's general view of the universities was summed up by a poem in 1718:

Our Colleges elegantly dull; our schools are empty, and our taverns full. The gownéd youth dissolves in amorous dreams, and pedantry to him all learning seems. He wastes his bloom in vanity and ease, and his chief studies are to dress and please.
Second, the Renaissance ideal of serious scholarship was no longer held in such high esteem Learning per se fell into some disrepute, and a superficial dilettantism was now thought to be adequate for a genteel education. For example, describing the ideal of a university in 1693, John Locke lists our four objects of education : virtue, wisdom, good breeding (i.e. good manners), and learning. And he adds: " I put learning last." There was also much hostility at this time to the emphasis on Latin over modern subjects. Voltaire, for instance, complained that all he learned at college was "Latin and stupidities." It was not uncommon reaction.

Third, and more important for our purposes, was the rise of the dissenting academies in England to teach those who were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge because they were Congregationalists or Presbyterians. These institutions taught a wide range of modern subjects, including science. Their prime object was to train future clergyman for their sects, but they educated the laity as well. This model was copied fairly closely in America, where sectarian colleges as Yale and Princeton sprang out train clergymen in a particular faith. And from the dissenting academies came to practice of entrusting management to a board of respectable lay trustees, instead of the faculty as a t Oxford and Cambridge. Since these small, unendowed institutions had no body of permanent faculty to run them an external board seemed the only solution.

A new element was introduced in the late 18th century with the arrival in America of the Scottish Enlightenment, personified at Princeton by John Witherspoon. He initiated a far more modern and broader curriculum, including such objects as history, science, modern philosophy, modern literature, modern languages, etc. Moreover, he attracted a growing number of students who were not destined for the ministry. As a result, Princeton ceased to be mainly a theological seminary, and became a secular training ground for the sons of farmers and tradesmen and gentlemen from the middle colonies, who planned to go on to careers in the professions or business or farming.

Princeton was still not a place for scholarly research or specialized teaching, however. By the way of illustration consider the duties that Witherspoon performed: he acted as a president, dean of the faculty, dean of the college, dean of the students, director of admissions, and fund raiser. In addition he found time to teach the following 10 subjects; Latin, Greek, Hebrew, theology, history (both classical and modern), eloquence, ethics, politics, and philosophy. I don't want to cast aspersions, but even President Bowen might find this a rather demanding schedule. My conclusion ,then, it not the race has degenerated but rather that education has changed at Princeton. In fact, the training offered in Witherspoon's day was nonspecialized, closed to the sort of thing that goes on in our better high schools today.

In the early 19th century, Oxford and Cambridge -and the major elite American colleges of the Ivy League- expanded in size and became socially more exclusive than before. The great majority of students were now aiming at purely secular careers, particularly in the professions. It should be noted in passing that during this period American colleges were plagued by the most violent and longest-lasting outbreak of student unrest in the history of the western world. Perhaps it was a delayed by-product of the inflated radical rhetoric and social upheaval of the American Revolution. Whatever the cause, it was infinitely worse than what happened in the 1960s.

Little or no serious research was done at Princeton before 1860. The library was extremely small -a mere 14,000 books- and it was open one hour a week! The faculty was also extremely small, and much of the teaching was apparently done by upperclassmen trough the two student societies of Whig and Clio, which dominated the college's extracurricular life from the 1760s through most of the 19th century.

The great transformation to the modern Princeton took place mainly between 1860 and 1910, when the institution was confronted by a whole series of new challenges. The first was how to cope with the growing specialization of knowledge, the demand for pure research, and the need for professional training of researchers. The solution arrived at was to build on the old college a new structure on the German model of a university. This involved setting up a graduate school to prepare future researchers and teachers, appointing internationally famous research scholars to train them, and expanding the research facilities of the campus, chiefly libraries and laboratories.

The second challenge was how to enforce Victorian standards of morality upon a now greatly enlarged student body, many of whom came from elite families and did not readily submit to discipline by pedagogues of a lower social class than themselves. The solution was much the same at Princeton as at Oxford and Cambridge. The soul was taken care of by compulsory chapel. The body was developed and the students kept out of mischief by organized athletics. Morals were supervised by a system of proctorial regulations. Social relations with one's peers were organized around the eating clubs.

This system, as it developed in the late 19th century, was a dazzling success in all aspects but one. It made absolutely no provision for gaining experience in how to establish easy and comfortable relations with women. So intense was the fear of pre-marital sexual experiments that contact of any kind with the other sex was actively discouraged. An attempt was made to create a purely masculine society and a purely masculine social ethic, revolving around life in the clubs. Needless to say, it didn't work.

As the quality of education was improved, it became vastly more expensive and could be supported only by tapping the generosity of affluent alumni. Alumni associations were organized to cultivate feelings of loyalty and the competitive sport of intercollegiate football, and the elaborate rituals of Reunions, helped cement the ties.

To accommodate the relentless growth of knowledge, which was expanding exponentially at this time, the university took on a massive increase on the faculty, including not only the bright young preceptors introduced by Woodrow Wilson, by also the world famous scholars attracted by the new graduate school. Indeed the faculty expanded much faster than the undergraduate or graduate student body, while a whole raft of new departments sprang up to sever new disciplines.

To preserve a well-rounded undergraduate education amid this explosion of knowledge and increasing specialization of disciplines , Princeton adopted the peculiarly American principle of prerequisites plus electives. Students were obliged to study a broad range of subjects, but ere allowed a free choice beyond them. The result was to provide an educational breadth which contrasted markedly with the more specialized track that was followed in England and Europe, where most students concentrated -and still do at Oxford- in one subject alone from the beginning to the end of their undergraduate careers.

To this Princeton added the preceptorial system, a method of stimulating small-group discussion under faculty supervision, which was borrowed from Oxford. Finally, all students were given a glimpse of the excitement and boredom, exhilaration and frustration, of pure research by being forced to produce a senior thesis. A further way of encouraging scholarship in depth was allow some of the more gifted undergraduates to participate in graduate seminars.

All these means were of a adapting the university to a wholly new concept of its function. The old ideal was to impart existing knowledge, to transmit to the next generation the traditional culture and learning: Latin grammar, Euclid, chemical laws, just the basic facts, which were also an ancient facts and had to be memorized by anyone wanting to share in the culture. This included indoctrination in the established values of whichever branch of the Christian religion was favored by the particular university.

The new ideal was to create open an adaptable minds, ready to question and challenge established facts and conventional wisdom. I want to stress how novel this was, and how rare and fragile. There was a massive conflict between those two ideals, which lasted for 100 years or more, and the latter only triumphed quite recently. It should be remembered that the old ideal was neither unreasonable nor unworthy. After all, whenever society is precarious -and it usually is- there is inevitably a demand that dissidents and heretics be suppressed. There is usually also a demand that research be restricted. Research s dangerous, for it creates new knowledge disturbs people, and undermines old values and institutions. Furthermore, as we are beginning rather belatedly to realize, there are limits to the amount of change the human organism can stand. Today we are all suffering for "future shock" because of the frenetic pace change in our lifetime.

For most of recorded history those in authority have thought it wiser to create closed minds, to educate students to conform to traditional values and to follow the accepted wisdom. Accordingly, it was perfectly natural to condemn Socrates to death for asking too many awkward questions. The traditional view about the dangers of learning was perhaps most forcibly expressed by Governor Berkeley of Virginia in 1671: " I thank God that there are no free schools and no printing in Virginia, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years. Learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world."

Over a century later, the same view prevailed. In 1792, William Wilberforce, the man who was primarily responsible for the abolition of slave trade, wrote to the East India Company directors in London asking them to encourage the foundation of schools and colleges in India. The director replied, " We have just lost American through our folly in permitting the establishment of schools and colleges there. Let us not repeat that folly in India." I am quite sure that the directors had Princeton under President Witherspoon very much in mind.

The new ideal of open mind had to challenge this conventional wisdom, and it took a log time to do so. One of the first and clearest statements of it came in the 1830s from Sir William Hamilton: "The highest end of education is not to dictate truths but to stimulate exertion. Since the mind is not invigorated or developed -in a word, educated- by the mere possession of truths but by the energy expended in their quest and contemplation."

In addition, the modern American ideal of liberal education for undergraduates entails a rejection of that most absurd of generalizations that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We all base important decisions on a little information, because the totally of knowledge is so enormous that each of us can only know a lot about one thing , if that. The principle of American undergraduate education is that it is absolutely necessary for all students to know a little about a lot. Breadth is essential, even if it means some sacrifice of depth.

These two principles -he open mind and breadth rather that depth were summed up superbly by Woodrow Wilson in the early 1900s:

We should seek to impart in our colleges...not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning. It consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, and in a habit of catholic observation and a preference for the non-partisan point of view; in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought, and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather that to stick to the letter of the reasoning; in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind. It is citizenship of the world of knowledge, but not ownership of it.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries also had to adjust to a new demand of academic freedom. The principle of academic freedom was not believed in at all from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. Faculty, presidents, trustees, churches, and the state all rejected the idea totally -not only in the more despotic states of continental Europe, but also in England and America. In all these countries it was normal practice to censor, harass, and dismiss professors who propagated unpopular or radical ideas.

The first clear statement of the principle of academic freedom I know of was made in 1734 by Arthur Onslow, an Oxford alumnus, lawyer and speaker of the House of Commons: "it seems to me the farthest thing in the world from what ought at least to be the design of a seminary of learning that nay animosity should arise there against any man's sentiments in the search of knowledge, which can only be held by the freedom of debate and without which the university would contradict its nature, and shall I say, its name".

This was a minority view in the 18th century, however, and indeed Oxford University went on cheerfully for another hundred years expelling desists and atheists and Methodists and anybody with radical ideas. It remained a closed stronghold of the Anglican clergy and firmly resisted all new flanged branches of knowledge and all new-flanged ideas about old branches of knowledge.

In America, the years 1850-1900 were a period of tension during which the trustees of universities grappled with the proposition that the advancement of knowledge can only be achieved in an atmosphere of total freedom for the faculty, despite the obvious risks. In the 1860s, for example, the trustees of Harvard University would not give a chair in history to an avowed agnostic for fear that he would teach his students "a doctrine of despair." Faculty and trustees fought critical battles over this issue until the turn of the century, by 1910 the faculty had won. Their victory was partly due to the growing strength of their professional organizations, but partly also to a recognition by trustees that freedom of opinion is essential for the advancement of knowledge. The trustees now wanted their universities to be in the international league and famous for pure research. Consequently they were obligated, like or not, to grant the faculty more or less unlimited academic freedom, revocable only for serious moral turpitude or gross neglect of duties -neither of which is easy to define or prove.

Academic freedom thus depends on the priority the society is willing to give the advancement of knowledge by a tiny intellectual elite of faculty, even if that freedom appears to threaten the doctrinal orthodoxy of students, who are some day gong to be the leaders of the society. Interestingly, the trustees of the great private universities like Princeton, instead of opposing academic freedom, have now become one of its main bulwarks, not infrequently defending the faculty against attacks from external political enemies. They did this because they realize, as the general public often does not, that such freedom is the price which has to be paid to have a faculty in the international vanguard of research. They have also probably concluded that students are less influenced by the subversive ideas of faculty members than is generally believed, and that the threat to society is therefore minimal.

To sum up, today's Princeton is an amalgam of a whole series of models developed elsewhere over the past 300 years. From the Oxford and Cambridge of the 16th and 17th centuries, Princeton picked up the idea of training an elite for public service, and the sense of responsibility for the moral supervision of the undergraduate body. From the Oxford and Cambridge of the late 19th century, it adapted the preceptorial system along with the rather peculiar but charming Gothic architecture in which it is largely housed.

From the 18th-century dissenting academy and the Scottish Enlightenment, it inherited the modern, broad-based, nonspecialized curriculum for the undergraduate. From the French Enlightenment, and the 18th-century Enlightenment generally, it derived the ideal of the cultivation of the open rather than the closed mind. From the 19th-century German university, it copied the graduate school and the pursuit of pure research.

But it is America itself which has devised the peculiarly flexible liberal arts program for undergraduates which hardly exists elsewhere. It is America which has developed independent financing through massive gifts from alumni, foundations, and corporations. And it is America which has provided institutions like the Ivy League universities with a measure of protection for academic freedom through the use of trustees of high status who are able, if they so choose, to defend the faculty from outside political assault.

That is how we arrived where e are today. As for the future, I see eight problems -or questions-facing us:

(1) Will it be possible to maintain indefinitely this combination of qualities: to be as good as, say Swarthmore at the intellectual and moral education of undergraduates; and at the same time to be as good as, say, Harvard at training researchers and pursuing pure research for the advancement of knowledge?

(2) While doing all this, can we also continue to run the university as a participatory democracy -of course, a guided democracy- which demands such a massive infusion of faculty time and energy in university committee work?

(3) Is it possible indefinitely to find the ideal faculty members to run such an institution -do they even exist in the real, fallible, human world? We expect them to be at once inspiring undergraduate lecturers, learned graduate-students teachers, creative original researchers, and wise and hard-headed committee members. Will it possible to sustain such high demands? I have my doubts.

(4) Can we preserve the educational goal of cultivating open minds in the face of growing demands for "relevance," faddish studies, and purely vocational training?

(5) Can we continue to remain as luxuriously small as we are? This smallness is absolutely essential to the social integration of the academic community, and any further major increase in numbers will destroy Princeton's intimacy, its sense of belonging to an extended family rather than academic factory. The massive growth of the university bureaucracy in recent years may have been inevitable, but it already threatens that sense of cohesion.

(6) Can we continue to preserve the principle of academic freedom against the external political pressures which are bound to arise again, as they do every 20 years or so? How will the trustees and administration behave the next time around?

(7) Can we maintain a student body drawn from all economic classes without regard to their financial capacity to pay? Or will we end up with only the children of the rich, who pay, and the children of the poor, who do not pay. having squeezed out the children of the middle-income groups?

(8) How are we find the money to pay for all this: the lavish research and residential facilities, the expensive first-class faculty, the abnormally high faculty-student ratio (which is essential for close student contact), the generous sabbatical leave policy (equally essential if we are to pursue excellence in research), and the large scholarship and student aid program? If much more public funding becomes inevitable -as it almost certainly will- how are we to be sure that it involves the loss of no more than the marginal elements of our independence?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions. As an historian, I can only explain to you how we have arrived where we are. As an individual, I will say that earnestly hope - without excessive optimism- the answer to all these questions is yes, we can, and we will.

Princeton Alumni Weekly. September 12, 1977, p. 16-21