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The Early Curriculum
Erika Lindemann


Two schools of thought pervaded discussions of the University's early curriculum: the classical and the scientific. The classical view was represented by Rev. Samuel Eusebius McCorkle , who in 1792 had chaired a committee drafting the first curriculum. Like most American college curricula in the eighteenth century, Latin and Greek dominated a set sequence of courses that also included mathematics, rhetoric, logic, and moral philosophy.1 An inheritance of the medieval university's seven liberal arts, the classical subjects also had become an end in themselves, as Edgar Knight notes: "Completion of them was required because of their alleged cultural values and the dignity they were supposed to bestow upon the students who kept the faith and finished the course" ("Some Early Discussions" 3). In December 1795 William Richardson Davie submitted a different plan, one that put the sciences on a par with the classics. Influenced by the plan of Benjamin Franklin and by Thomas Jefferson's suggestions for the curriculum at William and Mary, Davie's plan "emphasized English and placed Greek upon an elective basis with the subject of French only surpassing it in interest. History, both ancient and modern, was proposed as a part of the program and Astronomy, Chemistry, Botany, and Natural and Moral Philosophy were to be encouraged" ("Undergraduate Work" 176).
According to Davie's plan, the president or presiding professor taught rhetoric "on the plan of Sheridan" and belles lettres "on the plan of Blair and Rollin."2 Four additional professorships comprised the faculty: the professor of moral and political philosophy and history; the professor of natural philosophy, astronomy, and geography; the professor of mathematics; the professor of chemistry, medicine, agriculture and the mechanic arts; and the professor of languages. Students under the professor of languages were to deliver to him twice a week an English translation from some of the Latin or Greek classics. All other students were required every Saturday to "deliver to the President an English composition on a subject of their own chusing, and he shall correct the Errors in Orthography, Grammar, Style or Sentiment, and make the necessary Observations thereon when he returns the Composition to the Writer" (Connor 1:454).
Davie's plan also included a preparatory school. Though the preparatory curriculum was heavily oriented toward classical studies, it admitted the study of French, encouraged the reading of contemporary English authors, and asserted that "The English exercises shall be regularly continued, this Language being always considered as a primary object, and the other Languages but Auxiliaries" (Connor 1:452). In fact, a student's parent or guardian could direct the preparatory school to omit instruction in languages, except for English. Regarding Latin and Greek as auxiliary, elective languages was revolutionary indeed. Students who completed the preparatory school, or grammar school as it came to be called, could be admitted to the University. Other students seeking admission were examined by the presiding professor, who determined which areas a student might need to make up.
As Davie recognized, many students were academically unprepared for university studies. Nicholas Delveaux and Samuel Holmes, who supervised the preparatory school, had much work to do to make up for the lack of secondary academies in the state. Students also lacked the social skills necessary to building a harmonious educational community in Chapel Hill, so relations between students and faculty members were often tense. Presiding Professor David Ker and Charles Wilson Harris spent considerable time admonishing students, enforcing college rules, and keeping order. The students, on the other hand, resented many of the University's regulations and those who enforced them. Reading the faculty minutes of this period gives the impression that the object of attending the University was to "get civilized," not to get an education.
Though the preparatory school continued to educate students until 1819, the University curriculum Davie envisioned ultimately did not take hold. It was never fully implemented because insufficient funds prevented hiring the four professors that the plan called for. And as Federalism declined in influence, so did Davie's enthusiasm for the educational reforms he had devoted a lifetime to bring about. By 1804, with the trustees support, President Joseph Caldwell installed a classical curriculum modeled on the College of New Jersey's (Princeton). No student could receive a degree without a knowledge of Latin and Greek.
Generally speaking, the first year of the college course in the early University was taken up by the study of Latin and Greek, including ancient geography, with a review of arithmetic and algebra. Sophomores continued their training in classical languages by reading Horace's odes and satires, the Græca majora, Homer's Iliad and Cicero or Tacitus, but they also took classes in geometry, modern geography, and when it was offered, French (or occasionally Spanish or German). Juniors finished French, the Græca majora, Horace and Cicero, and undertook significant preparation in rhetoric and the mathematical sciences: trigonometry, logarithms, chronology, navigation and surveying, measuring heights and distances, conic sections, and "fluxions" (differential calculus). Seniors studied logic, history (often Quintilian and Tacitus), economics, metaphysics, and moral philosophy as well as chemistry, astronomy, and geology. With relatively few alterations, this curriculum remained in place throughout the antebellum period.

Endnotes:

1. McCorkle , a student at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) from 1768-72, no doubt was influenced by that institution's curriculum, which saw first-year students translating Horace, Cicero's Orations , the Greek Testament , Lucian's Dialogues , and Xenophon's Cyropaedia . The College of New Jersey's sophomores were introduced to the sciences, geography, rhetoric, logic, and mathematics but continued with Latin and Greek as well. Juniors took mathematics, moral philosophy, metaphysics, chronology, and physics; students entering the ministry began studying Hebrew in the junior year. Seniors wrote compositions and reviewed "the most improving parts of the Latin and Greek classics, part of the Hebrew Bible and all the arts and sciences" (An Account of the College, quoted in Wertenbaker 93).

2. See Connor 1:451-55. The references are to Thomas Sheridan's Lectures on Elocution (1762), Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), and Charles Rollin's four-volume Traité des études (The Method of Teaching and Studying the Belles-Lettres , 1758).