THE INFLUENCE OF A REGIONAL COLLEGE
Brown Leaders in Education
The small rapidly expanding contingent of college educated Americans in the generation from 1800 to 1830 enjoyed unique opportunities for leadership. New England was urbanizing and industrializing, while her sons and daughters created a greater New England in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi Valley regions. As well as clergy, lawyers, and physicians (including products of its own medical program), Brown sent forth many dedicated teachers and graduated several of the formative leaders of the nineteenth century American educational systems.
Thus the achievements of alumni provide lasting significance to the administration of Jonathan Maxcy's successor, Asa Messer, Class of 1790, who served his Alma Mater continuously from his appointment as tutor in 1791 until his resignation as president in 1826. Messer's interests were scientific; he devised a "Pneumatic Engine" and patented a scheme for the arrangement of water wheels. Cautious and shrewd, Messer was viewed as a skillful disciplinarian, yet he never projected the imperious authority of his successor, Francis Wayland, and in the contentious final years of his presidency was savagely caricatured. Messer's leadership was pragmatic; one alumnus wrote in 1867, "His policy was that of demand and supply. He offered the country such a college education as it could pay for; and such, too, as the necessities of its condition compelled it gladly to accept."
Following the War of 1812, enrollment steadily grew and, notably, the percentage of graduates to non-graduates approached ten per cent in the early 1820s, a figure not attained in succeeding decades. The chief reason for this appears to have been the low level of tuition and fees and the opportunity afforded by a long winter vacation for students to earn income as country school teachers. But educational quality suffered from college straitened resources. The curriculum was limited and rote recitation the pedagogical norm. By contrast the extracurriculum -- particularly the activities of student literary societies -- was stimulating and engaging. Both formal and informal learning emphasized oratorical eloquence and literary style, and have been severely criticized by historian Jonathan Messerli: "The wasted effort in perfecting form and style at the expense of substance was unfortunate, but it was a far greated ... misfortune that Brown and other colleges were training an entire generation of young men to believe that the resolution of political and social problems was based on moral imputations, verbal manipulations, and exhortation." Yet with all its limitations, Brown remained a community of ambitious, creative, and sensitive young men, attracted to and inspired by the ideal of liberal education which the institution so imperfectly realized. Many would play influential roles in their professions and communities. And three in particular, Horace Mann, John Davis Pierce, and Barnas Sears, made major contributions to the shaping of nineteenth century American educational policy, while two other alumni, Samuel Gridley Howe and John Kingsbury, were notable educational innovators.
Tristam Burgess (Class of 1796), professor of oratory and belles lettres at Brown, 1815-1827. In 1798 he opened a "day school" for young ladies in Providence, while he pursued the study of law. He was elected a Representative from Providence to the General Assembly of Rhode Island in 1811, appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island in 1817, and elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1825. His political career interfered with his attendance as a professor, and in 1827 he was relieved of his duties, along with the professors of the medical program, by President Wayland.
John D'Wolf (Class of 1806), professor of chemistry. He did not graduate with his class, but having nearly completed the course was given an honorary A.M. degree in 1813, and appointed professor of chemistry in 1817. In 1826, distressed by the educational standards of Brown, he wrote to member of the Corporation, "For Heavenís sake raise your requisitions - dismiss your schoolboy studies - give the whole course a more useful & practical bearing - and minutely inspect the proceedings of your officers, & make us all do our duty, or dismiss us." He resigned in 1834, being unable to comply with a requirement of residency in the college.
Jasper Adams (Class of 1815), president of Charleston College and Hobart College. He was an Episcopal priest and tutor and professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Brown from 1818 to 1824. He became president of Charleston College in South Carolina in 1824, left for a two year presidency (1826-1828) at Hobart College, in Geneva, New York, then returned to Charleston from 1828 to 1836. From 1836 to 1840 he served as chaplain and professor of geography, history, and ethics at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His departure from Brown in the mid-1820s occasioned speculation in the Providence press; this marks the beginning of public controversies which ended in President Asa Messer's resignation.
Willbur Fisk (Class of 1815), president of Wesleyan University, 1831-1839. A Vermont native, he entered Brown as a junior after the University of Vermont, where he had enrolled, closed during the War of 1812. Dedicated to benevolence and public service, as well as his denomination, he was subsequently a law student, teacher, and Methodist preacher, principal of Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts from 1826 to 1831, and first president of Wesleyan University from 1831 until his death.
Horace Mann (Class of 1819), president of Antioch College, 1853-1859. Mann's collegiate essays foreshadowed the fervent commitment to humanitarian reform and social progress which drove his career. After graduation he served as tutor and librarian at Brown and then established himself as a successful lawyer in Dedham, Massachusetts. Afflicted by depression after the death of his young wife, the daughter of President Messer, he found an antidote to his grief in his career as a reformer.
Although schooling had been a town responsibility in Massachusetts since the seventeenth century, many communities were parsimonious. School houses were primitive and poorly equipped, teaching generally a part-time occupation. When the Massachusetts legislature, prodded by reformers, created a State Board of Education in 1837, Mann became its first Secretary and served until 1848. His annual reports, lectures, and publications promoted improvements in school houses, textbooks, pedagogy, as well as teacher training in "Normal Schools" and teachers' institutes and a richer curriculum. The "common school" in each community was to serve all its citizens, rich and poor, promoting democratic citizenship as well as economic and social progress. Mann's fervor involved him in bitter controversies over corporal punishment in schools and over the place of religious sectarianism and political controversy in the classroom. His work was influential far beyond New England, and he is recognized as a leader of national and international stature.
At Antioch College he introduced coeducation, welcomed female professors, added electives and science courses, and opposed racial discrimination and religious sectarianism. Despite his efforts, Antioch was suffering financial failure at the time of his death in 1859. His message in his final baccalaureate address was "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
Letter of Horace Mann to E. B. Willson, 1846, on the subject of Teachersí Institutes. [larger views]
Samuel Gridley Howe (Class of 1821), superintendent of Perkins Institution for the Blind, 1832-1876. A medical student at Brown and a graduate of Harvard Medical School in 1824, he became Surgeon-in chief of the Greek fleet during the Greek War of Independence. Returning to America in 1831, he was engaged to head the recently chartered New England Institution for the Education of the Blind. He educated two blind students in his home, and when his funds were exhausted, exhibited his students before the state legislature, gaining support and the gift of the mansion of Colonel Thomas Perkins, for whom the school was renamed. He then solicited funds from the Massachusetts legislature for the teaching of the mentally deficient, leading to a school founded in 1850, which later became the Walter E. Fernald School.
John Kingsbury (Class of 1826), founder of the Young Ladies' High School of Providence. He taught in the district schools for five years before entering Brown, and after graduation in 1826 joined G. A. DeWitt in the private Providence high school. In 1831 he founded the Young Ladies' High School, at which the students learned not the usual feminine accomplishments, but were instructed in such subjects as Latin, mathematics, chemistry, and political economy. He was one of the founding members of the American Institute of Instruction in 1830 and later served as its vice-president and president. After his retirement from the Young Ladies' High School, he was commissioner of public education in Rhode Island.
The school building, renovated by Kingsbury, was a novelty visited by and imitated by other schools. In 1848 it was replaced by a new school house designed by Thomas Tefft (who was a freshman at Brown at the time), which in turn became the first building occupied by the women students of Brown.
Joseph T. Robert (Class of 1828), president of Burlington University, 1869-1871, became president of the Augusta Institute in 1871. After the Institute removed to Atlanta in 1879 and became Atlanta Baptist Seminary, he continued as president until 1884. Atlanta Baptist Seminary became Morehouse College in 1913.
Alva Woods (professor and interim president), was a graduate of Harvard and Andover Seminary, an ordained Baptist minister, who served as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Brown from 1824 to 1828 and as interim president in 1826-1827 following Asa Messer's resignation. He was president of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky from 1829 to 1831, the first of a series of sectarian presidents following the ouster of Horace Holley. He was an enlightened and nondogmatic New Englander and promoter of interdenominational tolerance. From 1831 to 1838 he was president of the University of Alabama, resigning in the midst of student rebellion, and returning to Providence to serve on the Brown Corporation from 1843 until his death in 1887.
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