Curricular Trends, 1864-1950

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Friends Historical Library recently digitized legions of college documents, including a representative sampling of course catalogs. They’re great fun to pore over, but I’m a little disappointed that the library digitized them after I wrote my thesis last fall on early trends in Swarthmore’s curriculum relating to American topics. What follows is a meandering summary of my research, mainly focusing on American topics, but with stops along the way to look at President Aydelotte’s disdain for non-Honors students and an Economics professor who taught eugenics.

Early Curricular Structure

Swarthmore didn’t offer distinct majors until 1902. Before then, students were differentiated by degree conferred. In 1871, the college granted two undergraduate degrees, the A.B. (precursor to the B.A.) and the C.E. in civil engineering. Later, this expanded to the Bachelor of Arts (built around the study of Classics), of Letters (built around the study of “modern nations”), of Science, and of Engineering.

Initially, few electives were offered, and students receiving the same degree followed similar tracks through the curriculum. All students, regardless of degree, took courses in elocution and composition. But though the curricular track of an individual student was basically set, academic departments were less rigidly defined than they are today. Instructor Elizabeth Storer, for instance, taught courses in English Grammar and Practical Chemistry.

American Topics in the Humanities and Social Sciences

For Swarthmore’s first 26 years, the English department taught no American literature. Not until 1890 were the first American authors included in the curriculum – Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Greenleaf Whittier. For the next several decades, there was reliably one course out of ten to fifteen devoted to American topics, while British literature dominated the curricular landscape.

Not until the 1930s did American literature become more fully integrated into the curriculum. Authors including Emerson, Melville, and Twain were taught in the Intro to Literature course, and the department added such radical courses as “Social Theory in Modern American literature.” This is consistent with national trends in literary criticism; the critical study of American literature didn’t really flower until the 20s and 30s.

Initially, the History department taught American history as an exclusively political topic. In 1885, the college taught “Constitutional History of the United States together with a comparative study of the English Constitution,” as opposed to the more culture-focused “Roman History with special reference to the manners and customs of the Greeks and Romans.” American history was constitutional, political, and grounded in the present day, while European and Classical history was driven by exceptional biographies, social customs, and narrative.

In other words, where European and Classical history was taught, history resembled the humanities; where American history was taught, history resembled the social sciences. Early iterations of the Honors program show this pattern as well. Initially, the college granted interdisciplinary Honors degrees in both the social sciences and the humanities, alongside Honors degrees in disciplines such as French, Chemistry, etc. Here, again, American topics were the province of the social sciences, with history seminars such as “The Supreme Court and American Industrial Society,” while the Honors degree in the humanities offered history seminars such as “Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century.”

Fun fact: From 1871 to 1880, all history courses were taught by Prof. Maria Sanford, whose statue currently stands in the U.S. Capitol building’s Statuary Hall Collection. Sanford is one of nine women honored in the hall.

Another fun fact: President Frank Aydelotte, the architect of Swarthmore’s Honors system, occasionally used quite strong language to describe Honors. Honors, said Aydelotte, separated “the wheat from the chaff,” and sorted the students with “great gifts” from the students who were “lame ducks.” Aydelotte created Honors in order “to give those students who are really interested in the intellectual life harder and more independent work than could profitably be given to those whose devotion to matters of the intellect is less keen…With these abler students it would be possible to do things which we dare not attempts with the average.”

Democratic Citizenship, Social Reform, and Eugenics

Goals of democratic citizenship in American society drove the study of Economics and Political Science. A speech by President Frederick De Garmo in 1894 argued that the social sciences were useful because “work in this department…will prove a valuable factor in the development of educated men and patriotic citizens.” The 1915 course description for the Economics Department read, “good citizenship implies intelligent citizenship…the study of Economics should appeal to all students, for the duties of citizenship await them all.”

The course offerings in Political Science and Economics (both departments split off from the Department of History and Political Economy in 1912), were almost single-mindedly focused on American topics. Political Science offered classes on federal, state, and municipal political systems, and Economics offered courses on railroads, trade unions, and “Social Reformers and their Programs.”

Speaking of social reform, here’s the creepiest course Swarthmore has ever offered, taught in 1911 by Prof. Scott Nearing:

“Current Economic Problems, 1911. This course is designed to emphasize the economic factors which through their effect on individuals as such contribute to race progress… (1) Changes in the economic status of the American home; (2) changes in the economic status of women; (3) the development of the new science of Eugenics as a means of insuring race progress.”

Proponents of Swarthmore’s progressive heritage might do well to remember Nearing, the only professor who ever taught eugenics at Swarthmore. Like many social reformers of the day, Nearing believed in abolishing child labor, strengthening women’s rights, and eliminating people with genetic deformities. In The Super Race: An American Problem, Nearing argued that the country must sequester the unfit:

“The price of six battleships ($50,000,000) would probably provide homes for all of the seriously defective men, women and children now at large in the United States. Thus could the scum of society be removed, and a source of social contamination be effectively regulated. Yet with tens of thousands of defectives, freely propagating their kind, we continue to build battleships, fondly believing that rifled cannon and steel armor plate will prove sufficient for national defense” (p. 40).

Of course, the study of eugenics was not unique to Swarthmore, and it certainly didn’t dominate the department. Social reform has been a hallmark of our Economics department since its inception, and in 1911, this took the form of a class on eugenics.

Postwar Triumphalism

American topics appeared with sudden prominence in the course catalog in the triumphal aftermath of World War II. 1945 brought an unprecedented Honors seminar in “American Colonial History.” In 1947, the History department added “American Social History,” and in 1949, “The Westward Movement.” This is in line with national trends; a report from the University of Maryland in 1945 argued that “[n]ow that thousands of Americans have laid down their lives in order that the American way of life may go on,” colleges and universities must make them “aware of the values included in our tradition.”

The only mention of America in the Fine Arts Department before 1945 was a course on “The Origins of Modern Painting… with special consideration for stylistic developments in France and their significance for American art.” But in 1945, coinciding with a rush of nationalist fervor, a course on “The Art of America” appeared, and Frank Lloyd Wright was added to the syllabus of Fine Arts 1, the prerequisite survey of “six great masters.”

Courses in the English department began to frame American literature as part of the trajectory of Western literature. The department offered “Dramatic tragedy from the Agamemnon trilogy to Death of a Salesman, with emphasis on Elizabethan and modern American tragedy,” and “Biography and Travel Literature” including “representative travel literature from Hakluyt to Dos Passos.” Classes connecting modern American literature to their classical forebears were unheard of several decades earlier.

The English department expanded by teaching translated material, such as Horace, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky. In 1949, the department also featured a radically different description of departmental purpose that put an unprecedented focus on the individual student rather than the Western canon: “Literature is considered as a fine art, as a cultural record, and as a guide to the student’s interpretation of his own experience in life.” With this new focus on literature as representative of the experience of present readers, we can begin to glimpse the debates of the last half-century concerning the place of socially marginalized groups in the curriculum.

My research concluded around 1950. In the 50s, the curriculum began to broaden its scope beyond the West, allowing courses like comparative religion (including “Mohammedanism”), foreign policy, and international development to flourish. Russian Studies, rising in prominence at the start of the Cold War, replaced Italian.

I focused on American topics here, since that’s where my interest lies, but I’m aware that I’ve only barely touched on the early stages of Swarthmore’s curricular development. Ultimately, this seems to be a story of progress and inclusion of new curricular topics, with a few detours. I’m left wondering about how these curricular reforms actually happened; you can only glean so much from extant departmental memos, and as far as I can tell, most curricular reforms required a devoted professor to champion their cause. Of course, I’m also left wondering about the history of how Swarthmore has taught Quakerism, engineering, and all the other topics I’ve left out. Perhaps someone can browse the new digital archives and find out.

The Phoenix