Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Review: "Collegiate Republic"

Margaret Sumner's Collegiate Republic: Cultivating an Ideal Society in Early America (UVA Press, 2014) is a new and important book, which should find a wide audience among those interested in American higher education during the early national period. Drawing on a very impressive range of archival collections and a broad base of secondary research, Sumner moves beyond the single-institution-model, arguing that those who established and promoted the post-Revolutionary colleges saw them as an "essential resource for the nation - a model world that reminded it of the need for collective harmony" (p. 4). The colleges were "idealized as peaceful spaces where young minds were being molded and shaped for the future and where the powers of good and evil would not be allowed to 'wage' their 'strife'" (p. 4).

In "Cultivating the College World," her first chapter, Sumner profiles Washington College president George Baxter, highlighting one of his multiple fundraising trips to the east for the purpose of soliciting money for the young institution. Baxter provides a useful springboard for a discussion of how college trustees, presidents, and faculty members working together sought to create collegiate communities, and explores to some degree the contributions (whether in the form of land, cash, books, scientific instruments, &c.) required by the early national colleges. I was hopeful that she would treat here the trend of subscription-based college establishments (a important factor in the foundation of Union College, among others), since that doesn't seem to have been much examined in any depth anywhere, but nonetheless the chapter provides a very good cross-regional study.

The second chapter, "Organizing the College World," is centered on the families of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, arguing for the importance of "coeducational sociability" as a key component of college life. The role of faculty members and their families as surrogate parents and siblings to the college boys (often to the extent that living quarters were very close, if not actually shared) is explored thoroughly, with a wide range of useful examples. The idea of shared spaces extends into Sumner's third chapter, "Building the College World," with Franklin College providing the focal point. Here Sumner reaches a bit further, bringing in an argument about the role of colleges in several social reform movements (temperance and colonization).

"Working in the College World," Sumner's fourth chapter, she explores the changing notion of academic pursuit as a new kind of labor, and the idea of the need to balance mental and physical exertions. I was very glad to see that she included the most notable example of this that I knew of: Union's president Eliphalet Nott encouraging professor Isaac Jackson to spend time gardening (Jackson's efforts remain a vital and beautiful component of Union's campus to this day). Sumner's case here as elsewhere also encompasses the key role played by women in this context, with excellent examples in the form of Louisa Payson, Margaret Junkin Preston, and others.

Finally, in "Leaving the College World," Sumner highlights the experiences of John Russwurm, the first black graduate of Bowdoin College, and Jenny, a slave owned by the daughter of a Washington College trustee. While both stories make for interesting examples, and several other cases of poor white servants are included as well, I felt here that Sumner drew a few two many sweeping generalizations based on isolated data points, and this seemed to me the least successful chapter. Given Russwurm's circumstances, it would have been worthwhile, perhaps, to spend some time exploring (as is done just briefly earlier in the book) the long-lasting ties between college leaders and their students, as well as between students themselves, as they leave the college community to make their way in the wider world.

I'm quibbling, mildly, and there are a few very minor typographical errors ("principals" for "principles" at several points being the most noticeable), but overall the book is nicely done. This period remains a vastly understudied time in nearly every respect: there is very little good, broad-based literature about the courses of study at these colleges, their libraries, their cultures, &c. Sumner's contribution to this field is to be applauded, and I do hope that it will spur additional study and exploration. The importance of the post-Revolutionary colleges in the history of the early republic cannot be understated, and I hope we'll see more good studies like this.

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