Liberal Arts: Our Humble Beginnings

Hello, lovelies. Today, I am reading a book entitled Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College by Arthur Levine and Jana Nidiffer. In said book, the authors give a peculiar background to liberal arts education. They explain that the founders of Harvard College “proclaimed their intention to open the school to ‘poor, but hopeful scholars whose parents are not able to comfortably maintain them” (37). After Harvard began turning away poorer students in favor of wealthier elites, other schools picked up the torch:

With these changes in Harvard and comparable changes at the other colonial colleges, the task of educating the poor fell increasingly to a new generation of schools created between 1769 and 1822. They were rural, they were religious, and they had little in the way of resources. They were Brown, Dartmouth, Williams, Middlebury, the University of Vermont, Bowdoin, Colby, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst. In fact, Amherst was specifically created as a charity school to provide ‘a classical education [to] indigent young men of piety and talents for the Christian Ministry.”

In the antebellum years, about one-third of the students attending these provincial colleges were poor–nearly three times the rate at Harvard or Yale. But some of the new colleges were even poorer than their provincial counterparts. In 1829, for example, more than half the students at Bowdoin could be classified as indigent.

At Dartmouth, a majority of students were from farm families of limited financial circumstances. A member of the class of 1850 described his fellow students:

“They were not born in the purple of affluence or reared on the rainbow promise of great expectations…Reared on small sabine farms, they were inured to the discipline and hardship of stated labors. And better still, many of our boys knew what poverty meant. They had faced its hard conditions and experienced the weight of its pinched pleasure….Right well did they know the value of a college education that had cost them so much in labor and self-denial.”

Amherst was similar. Edward Herrick, a member of the class of 1859, put it this way: “Amherst was poor. There were few students here from wealthy families–one or two perhaps upon every row of benches in the old Greek room.”

Though life for the poor student was difficult, these new colleges made a good education possible. Their tuition rates were low. Financial aid, though very limited, was creatively used and consisted of small grants, loans and cancellation of charges. Amherst placed its entire endowment into a charity fund. Williams reduced tuition an average of two-thirds for poor students. Acceptance of payment in kind–coal, animals, produce–was common. The calendar provided a three-month winter break to allow students to take jobs. Student housing was built austerely to reduce cost. As a Williams student of 1818 wrote, “No room had a carpet, only one room had blinds, and not half a dozen were painted…We all made oor own fires and took entire care of our room…most of us sawed our own wood.”

Moreover, students at Amherst and Middlebury were permitted to live and eat off campus. This made it possible to find even cheaper housing and food. Foraging in the forest and hunting for meat were quite popular as well among the poor. scholars…(39-42)

Essentially, the liberal arts schools went the way of Harvard and started shutting out poorer students as they rose in prestige and state colleges started taking on the role of educating the nation’s poor.

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2 thoughts on “Liberal Arts: Our Humble Beginnings

  1. Sarah

    “They were not born in the purple of affluence or reared on the rainbow promise of great expectations… Reared on small sabine farms, they were inured to the discipline and hardship of stated labors.I desperately wish people still wrote so well.This was rather arresting, and inspiring, not in the high school graduation speech way, but in a “I wish I knew more about these people, and their backgrounds, and their lives of self-cut wood for fires and hunting and foraging to ease the cost of campus dining” kind of way. So thanks for sharing, it was one of the more interesting things I’ve read online in… a while.

  2. Sarah

    “They were not born in the purple of affluence or reared on the rainbow promise of great expectations… Reared on small sabine farms, they were inured to the discipline and hardship of stated labors.
    I desperately wish people still wrote so well.

    This was rather arresting, and inspiring, not in the high school graduation speech way, but in a “I wish I knew more about these people, and their backgrounds, and their lives of self-cut wood for fires and hunting and foraging to ease the cost of campus dining” kind of way. So thanks for sharing, it was one of the more interesting things I’ve read online in… a while.

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