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New England Students and the Revolution in Higher Education, 1800–1900

  • David F. Allmendinger (a1)


Within the small buildings and gatherings of young men at New England colleges in the early nineteenth century, a social transformation began to work that would alter the experience of being a student. Unlike the conscious reforms introduced by the rise of universities after the Civil War, the transformation of the early nineteenth century proceeded without plan. No theorist designed it according to conscious pedagogical aims, and no institution either anticipated or really controlled the changes between 1800 and 1840. Only after 1840, when New England colleges already had assumed new forms, did a consciousness arise concerning what had transpired. The material conditions of collegiate life, the old communal arrangements that had controlled the behavior and intellectual activity of students through most of the colonial period had been demolished, creating a new disorder. Only after 1840 did plans arise for dealing with this disorder, a consequence of social changes sweeping over every New England institution of higher education. Long before the rise of universities, antebellum colleges had become places of dynamic change through the needs and workings of the student population itself.



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1. In slightly more than half a century, eight new colleges were founded in New England, closer to the hill towns and the rural poor than Harvard or Yale, transforming the institutional setting of higher education in New England. Those eight new institutions founded by 1822 were Brown, Dartmouth, Williams, Middlebury, , Vermont, , Bowdoin, , (Colby), Waterville, and Amherst, . See Tewksbury, Donald, The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War (New York, 1932), pp. 3254.

2. Humphrey, Herman, Valedictory Address, Delivered at Amherst College (Amherst, Mass., 1845), pp. 1617. Humphrey placed the exact number of charity students at 501; my own counts indicate that Amherst enrolled about thirteen hundred students in this period, including nongraduates. My estimate for the rest of New England institutions is based on scattered and fragmentary figures for the number of students who kept school, received tuition grants, or received aid from the education societies. This evidence has been compiled from various sources in published college histories and college archives. A close study of the social origins of all students from Southampton, Massachusetts, suggests that the one-quarter estimate is a fair minimum.

3. View of the American Colleges, 1831,” American Quarterly Register 3 (May 1831) : 294–95; “View of the American Colleges, 1833,” American Quarterly Register 5 (May 1833) : 332–33.

4. Historians have produced a large body of literature on this crowding, poverty, and exodus. See Kimball Mathews, Lois, The Expansion of New England (New York, 1962; originally published 1909); Bidwell, Percy W., “The Agricultural Revolution in New England,American Historical Review 26 (July 1921) : 683702; Bidwell, , “Population Growth in Southern New England, 1810–1860,” Quarterly Publications of the American Statistical Association, n.s. 15 (December 1917) : 813–39; Bidwell, , “Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 20 (April 1916) : 241–399. Kenneth Lockridge has focused on the revolutionary implications of crowding and poverty in “Land, Population and the Evolution of New England Society, 1630–1790,” Past and Present, no. 39 (April 1968), pp. 62–80; see also Lockridge, A New England Town: The First Hundred Years (New York, 1970), pp. 181–86. See also Lester Earl Klimm, The Relation Between Certain Population Changes and the Physical Environment in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties, Massachusetts, 1790–1925 (Philadelphia, 1933), pp. 5–10, 41–67, 106–9.

5. On the size of the student population, see [Francis Wayland], Report of the Corporation of Brown University on Changes in the System of Collegiate Education (Providence, 1850), pp. 2930. Wayland's figures, based on statistics in the American Alamanac, compare closely with my own counts based on published biographical registers of the colleges.

6. Allmendinger, David F. Jr., “Indigent Students and Their Institutions, 1800–1860” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1968), pp. 73102; and McAnear, Beverly, “College Founding in the American Colonies, 1745–1775,Mississippi Valley Historical Review 42 (June 1955): 24–44.

7. This estimate is based on determinations of the ages at graduation of students at Brown, Dartmouth, Williams, Middlebury, Vermont, Bowdoin, Waterville, and Amherst. The sources were the published biographical registers of students at each institution.

8. This paragraph and the four that follow are based largely on evidence in Allmendinger, “Indigent Students,” pp. 73–164.

9. The colleges did continue to provide housing for most students even after the newer alternatives developed, though traditional arrangements of the residential college could not be maintained. By the 1840s some college officials were urging the abandonment of all efforts to house students within the institutions.

10. Evidence for these statements comes from published college histories and from the manuscript faculty minutes and records of Amherst, , Harvard, , Yale, , Bowdoin, , Vermont, , and Middlebury, . These records are deposited in the archives or special collections of each institution.

New England Students and the Revolution in Higher Education, 1800–1900

  • David F. Allmendinger (a1)


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