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The Purposes of a University Education
Erika Lindemann

Throughout the University's antebellum history, the people to whom the institution looked for support viewed the purposes of a university education differently. Though the University always had its influential advocates, many North Carolina political leaders were unsympathetic to supporting education at public expense. They believed that the state had no right "to tax one person's property to educate another person's child" (Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 248). Others thought that a college education was an extravagance, possibly even a threat to ordered society. Though the legislature had approved charters for 177 academies by 1825, thirteen for girls, these schools were not supported by public funds, and many vanished a few years after they were established (Lefler and Newsome 304). The first public school in North Carolina would not open until 1840. According to Lefler and Newsome, "the dominant aristocracy of wealth regarded education as a privilege for the favored few who could afford it; education was for gentlemen and the professions only. Its extension to the common people would be costly and even dangerous" (304). Many people, then, regarded a college education as a luxury, an opinion reinforced by important political realities in North Carolina.
For others, though, including William Davie , who had struggled to bring the University into being, a university education secured the future of each rising generation by offering necessary preparation for discharging "the social duties of life" (Davie quoted in Connor 1:34). Supporters of the University sent their sons to Chapel Hill because a university education provided mental discipline, cultivated civic and moral virtues, developed character, and bestowed spiritual and social benefits. Students' letters home refer to their studies as training, a duty, and a means of exercising diligence and obedience. William A. Shaw , in his inaugural address as president of the Dialectic Society, asserted that college studies not only are "adapted to the purposes of public and private life," but also remain "an essential prerequisite to association with the polished circles of society, and a just claim to respectability" (William A. Shaw, Dialectic Society Addresses, UA). Disciplining the intellect and forming moral character were the two major aims of nineteenth-century higher education. Successful students, thus equipped, were prepared to become good citizens and leaders of society.
Those of us familiar with the courses offered in today's colleges and universities may find it difficult to imagine how the curriculum of 150 to 200 years ago "improved" people. For admission into the University, students were examined in Latin and Greek,1 but not in science or mathematics. First-year students studied primarily Latin and Greek, reading the whole of the Psalmist, Virgil's Georgics, Cicero's orations, the Græca minora and the first volume of the Græca majora, as well as other Greek and Roman antiquities. Ancient geography also was part of the study of Greek and Latin. Arithmetic and algebra, geography, English grammar, composition, declamation,2 and theses completed the course of study for first-year students. Sophomores continued the study of Latin and Greek by reading Horace, four books of Homer's Iliad , and additional works from the Græca majora. In mathematics, students finished algebra and began geometry. The study of modern geography, composition, declamation, and theses continued during the second year. The juniors, called "junior sophisters," were largely finished with Latin and Greek, though some students continued their lessons "to keep it fresh in our mind." Juniors encountered natural philosophy (physics) and several branches of mathematics, including logarithms, plane trigonometry, surveying, mensuration of heights and distances, spherical trigonometry, navigation, conic sections, and fluxions (differential calculus). In English, juniors read "classics," principally English authors of Queen Anne's reign, and continued work in composition and declamation. Seniors, called "senior sophisters," studied the natural sciences of chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and the philosophy of natural history. Pure mathematics yielded to applied mathematics as seniors completed the study of natural philosophy and began studying astronomy, chronology, and the "progress of the mathematical and physical sciences." The course in moral philosophy included metaphysics and the "progress of metaphysical, ethical, and political philosophy." In English, seniors continued reading "classics," writing compositions, and preparing declamations. They also studied logic and rhetoric (1822 Catalogue 5-7; 1825 Catalogue 5-7; Battle 1:256).
The method of instruction was primarily recitation. Students studied a portion of the textbook and were prepared to recite the answers to the professor's questions. Students sometimes were able to predict when they would be "taken up" or called on; if their answers were insufficient, students were "glistered" or disapproved, the professor recording the poor performance in his grade book. Science faculty occasionally performed experiments or demonstrations, but students were not responsible for laboratory work. Some written work was required in Latin, Greek, and rhetoric courses, and according to University catalogues of this period, composition and declamation were "taught through the whole [four-year] course" (1822 Catalogue 7; 1825 Catalogue 7). Final examinations were oral until the 1840s, when some courses instituted written examinations. Faculty and students do not say much about these end-of-course examinations. They occurred just before the Christmas vacation and again prior to commencement. Faculty members attended the fall examinations of their colleagues' classes as "assessors," and in the spring, visiting trustees participated in the proceedings. Presumably the trustees also could ask students questions, which would have made the public performance a formidable ordeal, but they appear to have done so only rarely. Indeed, faculty members sometimes complain that too few trustees attended the examinations. Battle , a student from 1845 to 1849, explains that, in his day, "the examinations counted hardly more than single recitations" (1:554).
Grades were given in each course, but the antebellum grading scale was different from that used today. Students' work could be judged very good (vg), good (g), very respectable (vr), respectable (r), tolerable (t), bad (b), and very bad (vb). Faculty members determined a student's standing by averaging all of his grades at the end of the year, and these rankings seemed much more important to students than their grades in individual courses. As Battle explains, "Those who obtained 'very good' in all, or nearly all, their studies, had the first distinction. Those who averaged 'good' obtained the second distinction. The 'very respectable' had the third distinction" (1:553). Students referred to these classmates as the first, second, and third "mite" men. Grade reports sent home to parents, however, emphasized a student's deportment. The December 4, 1823, report for Leander Hughes , for example, provides no course grades or rankings, it asserts only that he has not been absent from prayers or recitations (Leander Hughes Papers, SHC).
Students and faculty members also were aware of a significant "extra-curriculum" at the University. Students sometimes broadened their academic training by listening to visiting speakers and preachers, by attending festivals in Chapel Hill or nearby Hillsborough, or by traveling to Raleigh to meet famous political figures such as Gen. Lafayette . Apart from these special celebrations, students devoted considerable time to the work of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies. Weekly writing, speaking, declamation, and debate in these two societies extended the attention to composition and declamation in the regular course of study. Most students took their society duties seriously and paid fines for failing to perform them. The extra-curriculum also included religious instruction. In addition to attending daily prayers and a service in the Chapel on Sunday, students prepared recitations on religious works for Sunday afternoon classes.
Seniors encountered special writing assignments in connection with senior speaking and the annual commencement ceremonies. Senior speaking required every graduating senior to deliver on the public stage an oration that had been submitted to the professor of rhetoric for review.3 Seniors of this period prepared two speeches, one given in each term of the senior year. Students worked on their speeches for weeks and practiced them conscientiously. As solemn public events, senior speakings were attended not only by faculty members and fellow students but also by local townspeople and influential citizens. Students wore robes identifying them as members of one or the other debating society and customarily delivered their speeches from memory, without the aid of a prompter. Sometimes, music played by other students rounded out the program. Following these speeches, seniors had a month off prior to commencement, presumably to read law, medicine, or theology and to prepare commencement speeches. Those who could, went home.
Those who attended the 1827 Commencement exercises had the good fortune of hearing an address by North Carolina's most famous advocate of public education in the antebellum period—Archibald Murphey. A 1799 graduate of the University, Murphey became an attorney and by 1827 had already spent a decade urging North Carolinians to adopt a comprehensive, publicly financed plan for educating the state's children, especially those who could not afford private schooling. Without such a system of public instruction, he maintained, the state could not expect to progress.
In delivering his commencement address to the Class of 1827, Murphey argued that a college or university education "is intended only as a preparation of the mind for receiving the rich stores of science and general knowledge, which subsequent industry is to acquire. He who depends upon this preparation alone, will be like a farmer who ploughs his land and sows no grain. The period of useful study commences, when a young man finishes his collegiate course. At that time his faculties have acquired some maturity from age, and some discipline from exercise; and if he enter with diligence upon the study of a branch of science, and confine his attention to that branch, he soon becomes astonished at his progress, and at the increase of his intellectual powers" (Murphey 2:358). Murphey acknowledged that the classical curriculum, with its two years of required Latin and Greek, was not immediately applicable to the professions that most students entered. But for Murphey, a collegiate course of science and literature, properly engaged, strengthened the intellect, improved taste, and promoted genius. This view explains why every student took the same course of study. The assumption was that every student's intellect, sense of taste, genius, and soul would profit from the same knowledge and the same processes of mastering it. Such an education had value even for those who did not complete the requirements for the degree. In the period from 1820 to 1829, some 450 students enrolled in the University, but only 236 students or fifty-two percent graduated. For the rest, almost half of those matriculating, a few years of University training were sufficient. Many of these "irregular" students nevertheless "rose to eminence," as Murphey put it, without the advantage of a college degree.
Murphey also recognized, as did most students and their parents, that a college degree was only the beginning of the training required for successful professional careers. What careers did students pursue? For a partial answer, we may consult the membership records of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies. These documents reveal that most students attending the University in the 1820s became physicians (69), lawyers (49), planters or farmers (45), ministers (31), and politicians (28). A few students went into teaching (13), became merchants (8), or joined the military (4). The debating society records also identify two bankers, a journalist, an engineer, and an architect. Unfortunately, such information is provided for only 250 of the 450 students enrolled during this period, so the figures should be construed as defining trends, not as providing precise employment statistics. In some cases, too, students went on to multiple careers, a minister also becoming a teacher, a planter becoming a lawyer who also held political office, and so on. Nevertheless, the societies' membership records confirm that university graduates were most likely to become physicians, lawyers, ministers, and planters or farmers.
What do we make of this evidence about the careers of students attending the University in the 1820s? Myths about the moonlight-and-magnolias South notwithstanding, graduates of the University did not all belong to the plantation aristocracy. Though higher education was relatively expensive, the University also enrolled students whose fathers were merchants, tanners, postmasters, farmers, newspaper publishers, teachers, and ministers, or whose mothers were widows with an estate large enough to support the education of surviving children. In fact, a planter's oldest son might attend college for only a year or two, his significant training taking place, not in the college classroom, but beside his father on the plantation. Younger sons, however, unlikely to inherit large estates, would be sent to college to prepare for other careers. Young men whose families could not afford the tuition nevertheless sometimes received a college education by securing the support of a patron. Students who planned to enter the ministry could attend the University for free, and other students who were not well off received scholarships from the debating societies to which they belonged.
Though a liberal arts education provided important preparation for "the battlefields of life," students seeking practical training as physicians, lawyers, and ministers would spend a year or two after college apprenticed to someone already practicing these professions. Letters written by seniors sometimes explain that they were already reading legal, medical, and theological books prior to entering a professional apprenticeship. Other students might pursue advanced study at the University of Pennsylvania's medical school, for example, or Princeton's theological seminary. Like students today, some were troubled by doubts about their future course; others discovered that the professional goals they had set for themselves made them miserable. The majority of University graduates stayed in North Carolina and made their way professionally close to home.
"The next great object, after the improvement of the intellectual faculties,"Murphey argued, "is the forming of a moral character" (2:358). Finding ethical principles too much entangled with "the speculative doctrines of Theology,"Murphey advised his commencement audience of 1827, "We must look to our constitutional temperament, to our passions and feelings as influenced by external circumstances; and for rules of conduct, we must look to the sermons and parables of Christ: they are worth more than all the books which have been written on morals; they explain, and at the same time apply that pure morality which is founded upon virtuous feeling" (2:359). Though it may seem strange nowadays to read a statement so obviously informed by a Protestant Christian ethic, most of Murphey's audience would have agreed with it. Next to intellectual training, the responsibility to guide students' behavior and shape their character was a clear duty of the faculty, and parents expected them to exercise it. Religious instruction was a part of this training, enacted through daily prayers in the chapel, the requirement to attend Sunday services, and religious instruction on Sunday afternoons. These religious experiences were avowedly non-denominational, according to Professor Mitchell , intended to enable the young men to "go home to their parents better Episcopalians, better Presbyterians, better Baptists better Methodists than they were when they came" to the University (Matthias Murray Marshall Papers, SHC). Because antebellum records rarely reveal a student's religious background, it is difficult to determine whether or not Roman Catholics or Jews attended the University. At least one student in the 1820s was known to be "a Romanist," but most Roman Catholic students in the South probably attended Georgetown University, founded in 1789.4 Jewish students do not appear to have enrolled until the late 1830s.
The "forming of a moral character" was one objective behind many of the bylaws regulating student conduct. To be sure, these regulations served to keep order and made it possible to pursue an education, but they also enforced specific religious and social prohibitions against playing cards, drinking, attending horse races, profaning the Sabbath, or behaving inappropriately in the chapel or the classroom. The faculty, sometimes under duress by the board of trustees, were pledged to enforce these rules in ways that nowadays seem demeaning: checking students' rooms in the evening, doling out spending money to ensure that it went toward appropriate purchases, enforcing dress codes, and limiting where students might go in town. Minutes of faculty meetings reveal much time being spent addressing infractions, investigating disturbances, hearing testimony, and receiving written apologies for misbehavior.
Students quickly learned the importance of obeying the rules, which served the further purpose of "forming character." They became the means by which young men learned conformity to expected norms of gentlemanly behavior and, more important, obedience toward those in authority. Intoxication, for example, would surely bring a reprimand from the faculty, but a refusal to reform, to apologize for past conduct and to pledge to uphold the regulations in the future, would result in a student's suspension or expulsion. From a contemporary perspective, informed by constructive talk of student empowerment and self-actualization, we may find it difficult to understand why some students and the faculty so often were at odds about the rules regulating student conduct. In the 1820s, however, ethics, religion, and psychology were not separate spheres. "Forming moral character" meant molding students' passions, behavior, and "constitutional temperament," as Murphey put it, in ways that would encourage them to become educated Christian gentlemen.
The faculty were not the only stewards of students' intellectual and moral "improvement." Students themselves promoted their own education in the debating societies. Writing in 1887, Stephen B. Weeks prefaced his "Register of Members of the Philanthropic Society " with the following statement of the Society's goals: "The objects of the Society were and have continued to be two-fold. First, the improvement of its members in the science and art of debating, in English composition and the attainment of a good style, in the knowledge of parliamentary rules and modes of conducting public business. Secondly, the cultivation of moral and social virtues, and the formation of lasting friendships, founded on co-operation in honorable works" (Weeks 3).
In offering students valuable experience in reading, writing, and debate, the societies helped support and enrich the academic curriculum. Society debates addressed a wide range of contemporary and theoretical subjects that could be researched in a library of books and periodicals rivaling those available to the faculty. These debates obliged students to put their education to use, to apply it to political, social, and religious questions of interest to them. Students in these organizations also formed important pre-professional contacts during their Chapel Hill years, alliances that they could depend on in "after life," after graduation, to launch and sustain careers. In their letters, students invariably include information about their respective societies and its members in reporting their "news from the Hill." For better or worse, the societies also reinforced cultural and especially political values that students brought from home. The societies replicated the east-west sectionalism dominating North Carolina politics, and students appear only rarely to have engaged students from a rival society socially. Consequently, the societies legitimated a uniformity of thought and a conformity of behavior. To their credit, the students recognized and rewarded exemplary academic achievement, each society competing with its rival for excellent students, scholastic honors, and prominent honorary members. Graduating seniors also received a diploma from their society as well as from the University.
As Weeks notes, the societies also had as their object "the cultivation of moral and social virtues." In other words, students participated in the formation of one another's character. Though they avoided explicitly religious instruction, they nevertheless stressed a student's "duty" to the group and exacted fines for students who slacked off or misbehaved. Members of the Dialectic Society elected an officer, called the censor morum, "to inspect the conduct of the Members while in Society and at the close of each session he shall report to the Society the irregular and indecent behaviour of the Members while in Society" (Dialectic Society Constitution, Article 5, Section 1, UA). The Philanthropic Society had a similar officer, called the supervisor, who monitored conduct during Society meetings. Some of the regulations governing student conduct in the society halls seem as trivial as the regulations enacted by the trustees and enforced by the faculty, but they served to involve students in definitions of gentlemanly conduct that prevailed campuswide.
Murphey concluded his 1827 Commencement address with advice specifically directed to the "young gentlemen of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies." Like the faculty and most of the students in his audience, he recognized the powerful influence that the societies had "in maintaining the good order of this institution, in sustaining the authority of the faculty, and in suppressing vice, and promoting a gentlemanly deportment among the students. Every respectable student of proper age, is a member of one or the other of your Societies, and feels more mortification at incurring its censure than that of the faculty. This feeling is the fulcrum on which the power of the Societies ought to be exerted. Let me entreat you, then [. . .] to exert that power in sustaining the discipline of the University, in encouraging industry and good manners, and in suppressing vice. The united efforts of the two Societies can do more in effecting these objects than the authority of the trustees or faculty" (2:360).
Murphey's charge to the members of the societies reflects precisely those goals nineteenth-century educators articulated for college graduates: to sustain the good order of society, to encourage industry and good manners, and to suppress vice. The eloquence of educators and the aspirations of parents, however, did not always coincide with students' own views of what a university education should be. To be sure, most antebellum undergraduates subscribed to the views of their elders, enumerating in similar language the virtues of a liberal arts education. Others did not think much of the University, yet determined dutifully to endure the experience. Still others engineered their own expulsion. In reminding us of the diverse reasons students attend college, antebellum students are not so different from students today.


1. "In Latin—The Grammar; Prosody; Corderius; 25 of Aesop's Fables; Selectae Veterae, or Sacra Historia; Cornelius Nepos or Viri Romae; Mair's Introduction; Seven Books of Caesar's Commentaries; Ovidi Editio Expurgata; The Bucolics and Six Books of Aeneid in Virgil. In Greek—Greek Grammar; St. John's Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles; Graeca Minora to Lucian's Dialogues" (Battle 1:255).

2. Declamations involved a student's memorizing and delivering a speech written by someone else. Students performed declamations regularly as members of the debating societies, but all students except seniors also were required to declaim publicly, before the faculty, in the chapel (Person Hall). In February 1824, sophomore Anderson E. Foster was "dismissed from the University" for "not having committed the declamation to memory" and for refusing to perform it again on a succeeding evening (Faculty Minutes 3:36-37, UA). In February 1829, Robert Webb, a first-year student, also was dismissed when, wearing his gown "illy adjusted," he could not stop giggling as he spoke his speech and left the hall (Faculty Minutes 3:104-05, UA). Upon signing apologies and promising to repeat the assignment, both students were reinstated two weeks later.

3. On the requirement to submit speeches to the professor of rhetoric, see faculty minutes for October 3, 1826 (Faculty Minutes 3:67, UA).

4. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston was created in 1820; prior to that time, Roman Catholics fell within the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The first synagogue in North Carolina was built in Wilmington in 1875 (Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 126-27).