Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Science and Utilitarianism

“The rise of the American university (post civil war)… was to prove itself a momentous phenomenon of almost revolutionary proportions.  American higher learning would never be the same again.” - Christopher J. Lucas

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the purpose of higher education shifted from educating future clergymen and politicians to educating the common man.  This democratization of education was enabled by the Morrill Land Grant Act, passed in 1862, which provided federal funding for "the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts."  Undoubtedly, Packer and his associates knew about this act but did not seek funding from it because they did not intend to make an agricultural school.  Whether or not it affected Packer directly, the Morrill Act is indicative of a larger trend toward “useful knowledge” and practicality, which is linked to the Victorian idea of masculinity.

American higher education took new forms that replaced classical education with multipurpose and utilitarian schools, based on applied science and the idea of “useful knowledge.”  As such, they were a response to the process of industrialization and focused on fields like agriculture, the main target of the Morrill Land Grant Act, and the applied sciences.  Universities also had to figure out how to attract students and convince them to go to school.  At the time, engineers did not need an engineering degree to work, so going to school meant delaying when they could begin working and earning money.  Schools like Lehigh had to develop curricula that would make the extra preparation worthwhile.  Interestingly, Lehigh attracted an international constituency in the early years, with several Brazilian and South American students represented each year.

Packer and Lehigh fit easily into this narrative as demonstrated by Lehigh's inclusion in Roger Geiger's chart of “non-land grant schools for agriculture or engineering.”  1865 was a significant moment for higher education as it also saw the opening of Cornell University (established as a land grant school with funding from generous benefactor), the first classes held by MIT (founded in 1861 but delayed by the Civil War), as well as Vassar University (also founded 1861 but opened 1865).  Evidently, Lehigh’s innovative start was shaped by the dynamic period of education in which it opened.  Lehigh resisted categorization as a "polytechnic" university by the presence of its school of General Literature, which was encouraged by both Packer and President Coppee and reflected the clause in the Morrill Act that included "scientific and classical studies."

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