Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

A Defining Era

In addition to his personal influences, it is important to place Packer within the larger context of the nineteenth century and changes in higher education to determine where he fits in. In order to understand whether or not Lehigh marked a departure from tradition, we must first examine the developments that led up to this point.  Based on the English model, early American colleges had strict curricula, including Greek, Latin and mathematics.  The Yale Report of 1828 is one of the most widely known defenses of classical education and is indicative of the debates taking place that challenged the dominance of this paradigm.  Just seven years later, John William Draper asked, “Mere literary acumen is becoming utterly powerless against profound scientific attainment.  To what are the great advances of civilization for the last fifty years due – to literature or science? Which of the two is it that is shaping the thought of the world?"  As Frederick Rudolph explains, “Thanks to a band of curious, inquiring pioneers, science was popularized in the United States and before long was recognized as offering that broadly utilitarian orientation which the ancient studies lacked.  The work of the pioneers, both in advancing science and in popularizing it, combined with the richness of the American continent in making science an instrument for exploiting the great natural wealth of inland America.”

In the nineteenth century, American education was still seen as inferior to the European system. Outside developments, like rapid industrialization, an atmosphere of manifest destiny, and, later, the need to rebuild after the Civil War, spurred change.  Institutions of higher education responded to the new needs of an industrialized country by modernizing their curricula to include science and engineering courses.  The nineteenth century also saw the creation of the first departments and schools of science, as well as the first B.S. and Ph.B. degrees.

As a result of this transformation, there was a boom in founding schools in the nineteenth century, which would come to be known as a definitive era for American universities.  In fact, over seven hundred colleges died in the United States before the start of the Civil War.  While the turmoil of the Civil War proved fatal for many colleges, it also created a crucial opportunity for reorganizing and reinventing.  Rudolph touches on the critical nature of this period and points out, “The opportunities for redefinition that lay before the American college in the years after the Civil War were large… New institutions and new approaches now seemed to announce in the clearest of voices that the time had come when the old-time colleges would have to decide whether they would be instruments of the past or of the future, and how they would meet the now imperative needs of an expanding industrial nation and of a developing national power."  The federal government responded to this transformation by creating the first Department of Education in 1867.  As Lehigh was founded in 1865, it is part of this defining and dynamic period in the history of American higher education.

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