Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


The traditional classical curriculum introduced at Tufts when it opened in 1854 lasted, with minor changes, for almost exactly twenty years. Most courses had been prescribed. There were no such things as credit hours, letter grades, majors, minors, or foundation and distribution requirements. President Capen's major contribution for the next twenty years (after 1874) had been to recognize and to extend the elective principle. Greater variety had


been introduced into the liberal arts curriculum, but there was no wholesale review of the entire structure until 1892. The mandate given to a faculty committee in 1878 "to take into consideration the whole character of our course, and after comparison with those of the other colleges and after due consideration of all the circumstances, to report," produced less than spectacular results. The programs of the first two years remained unchanged; the only alteration in the junior and senior years was a reduction in the number of required courses and an increase in electives in the normal fifteen-hour program.[1]  There was other minor tinkering with individual courses over the next fifteen years, but no thoroughgoing revision. Freshmen were required for the first time to take English composition (one hour for a half-year) in 1888-89.[2] 

Intimations that more significant curricular changes were in the offing came in 1891, when a committee was appointed "to prepare a scheme of study for candidates for the degree of A.B. without Greek." Greek as a requirement either for admission or for the A.B. was dropped, effective in 1892-93, although it remained an optional offering.[3]  Thereafter, there were two programs for the A.B.: for those who entered with Greek and for those who came with elementary training in one modern foreign language (French or German) and advanced (a minimum of two years) training in the


other. Not until 1928-29 was the ancient language requirement (Greek or Latin) dropped as an A.B. requirement.

The most momentous and far-reaching academic change in the college of letters in the nineteenth century was the introduction of a new curriculum in the fall of 1893. Although the terminology and some of the details changed over the years, the basic structure was still intact as the College continued into its second century.[4]  If President Capen had returned to the campus in the 1960's the system of majors, degree requirements, and credit (term) hours would all have sounded very familiar to him. The plan, something of an innovation when it was introduced, had a distinct philosophy behind it. President Capen explained it to the Trustees in his annual report for 1892-93.

The new plan has been adopted in the belief that the trueground for promotion is intellectual attainment, and that thefixed requirement of a certain number of years of study, withoutregard to the mental power and achievements of the individualstudent, does not tend to encourage the highest scholarship. It isalso believed that the series of compromises between the old prescribed course of study and the new elective system has produceda curriculum which is arbitrary in its arrangement and susceptibleof great improvement in the direction of a system looking at onceto the requirements of the general culture which should be theprime object of the undergraduate college course, and to the development of the individual on the lines to which he is especiallyadapted.

The new requirements for the A.B. degree, expressed in term hours, combined prescription and election in five areas: foreign languages (three from among Latin, Greek, French, and German: eighteen); English (rhetoric, composition, themes, and oratory: twelve); mathematics (six); natural science (one from among physics, chemistry, and biology: six); mental and moral sciences (one full subject or two half subjects from among psychology, logic, ethics, history, and economics: six).[5]  Work in the latter group was


not to be taken in the freshman year without special permission. At the end of his first year the student chose one major subject in which he was to complete eighteen hours and could include work already done in one of the prescribed groups.[6]  Eighteen additional hours were to be taken in collateral subjects that tended "to strengthen and assist" in the work of the major field. The remaining forty-two hours of academic work could be made up by free election, subject only to prerequisites or restrictions of particular subjects.[7]  The total requirement of 126 hours was to include two credit hours (four terms) of physical education.[8] 

If the classical ideal of the harmonious development of body and mind proposed by the ancient Greeks was to be achieved, Tufts should have offered a program of systematic required physical education from the first, and for all seasons. But it did not do so; among other reasons, New England weather conspired against such a program. President Miner admitted that although the location of the College was "in one of the most salubrious and commanding in all this region of the country," it was subject to certain drawbacks during the winter months. He felt that at such times "a Gymnasium would be much used by many of the students and would greatly promote health and cheerfulness." Here was a need that "some thoughtful friend" might supply. The physical education requirement had been introduced in 1865-66 but was not consistently maintained even when facilities were provided by the construction of Goddard Gymnasium in the 1880's. Before outdoor apparatus was set up, such physical exercises were conducted in the chapel in the College Edifice "as could be made without injury to the building; this, of course, limited their content very much." The requirement that became a permanent feature of the


curriculum in 1893-94 provided for meetings three times a week, "from about the middle of November to about the middle of March." Physical education almost became an elective in 1894 because of the full academic program and because of a shortage of space, but the problem was solved by scheduling the course on Saturday afternoons.[9] 

Beginning with the second year, the student's major instructor was to be his official adviser for the remainder of his undergraduate program and was to assist him in selecting related subjects. Students had twelve departments from which to choose a major at the time the new curriculum went into effect.[10]  Initially, students could change their major no later than the junior year, and only then by vote of the faculty. A double major was also permitted, effective in 1902.

The new plan was not intended to be obligatory until the fall of 1894, but the proposed changes met with such favor from the student body that it was put into immediate operation. President Capen was most enthusiastic. "Perhaps nothing has been done in the whole history of the College that has so powerfully quickened and strengthened the interest of students in their work." The students seemed much more strongly motivated than under the old system, in which so large a part of their work had been compulsory. The new curriculum found general approval and seemed to be working so well "on the classical side of the College" that the faculty were already considering the possibility of applying a modified version to the engineering course. However, Samuel W. Mendum, who served on the Board of Visitors to the college of letters in 1894, had some reservations. He approved of a fixed curriculum and was very critical of the elective system introduced by President Eliot of Harvard in the 1870's. It tended, in his opinion, to allow overspecialization and to result in an unbalanced and not truly liberal education. He was inclined to favor the more prescriptive curriculum to which Yale still tenaciously held.

As might have been expected, the new curriculum had immediate effects on the departments of instruction. The required mathematics was now limited to algebra, solid and spherical geometry, and trigonometry. As the engineers required more advanced courses, they were thereafter taught separately from the liberal arts students. With the engineering course extended to four years and with mathematics continuing through all four years of the liberal arts program, it became necessary to create sections within courses and to depend more and more on teachers below professorial rank. Students, whether offering physics to meet their natural science requirement or not, flocked to hear Professor Dolbear lecture in Physics 1, which in 1900-1901 had an enrollment of 114. He also gave a well-attended extra course of lectures on the telegraph and telephone, in which fields he was a pioneer inventor. The basic work in chemistry (inorganic) was improved because it was no longer required of the junior class and tended to draw only students sincerely interested in the subject. Enrollment in biology decreased very little, but Professor Kingsley managed to maintain his requirement of two lectures and four hours of laboratory each week throughout the academic year by dividing his class into sections and employing an assistant. During the second term, students from the medical school at first did their laboratory work in histology in Barnum Museum.[11]  Under the new program, biology majors developed sufficient sense of solidarity to organize a "Journal Club," which met regularly to discuss scholarly articles appearing in current professional publications. These students also took advantage of invitations to attend the Harvard Zoological Club.

The requirement of three foreign languages for A.B. candidates created something of a problem. Most students entered with German and French and "more or less Latin." But the first Latin course presupposed secondary school preparation, while Greek (which could comprise the third language) did not; hence, students with little or no preparation in Latin deserted to Greek, for which no preparation was expected and which could be taken as a double subject with double credit. In 1900-1901, half of the class were


graduating seniors who found this a comparatively easy way to complete this part of the degree requirement. The problem was alleviated, if not solved, when the foreign language requirement for the A.B. was reduced to two (one ancient and one modern), effective in 1915-16. Candidates for the B.S. needed only a modern foreign language.

With its system of majors and related fields, the new curriculum created a logical structure for the introduction of other degree programs. The advisability of establishing a course sequence leading to the degree of Bachelor of Literature was discussed in 1895-96 but was reported unfavorably out of committee. A proposal the same year to offer the Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree was adopted. This new degree, in turn, reflected the growing nationwide stress on the function of the college as a training ground for the professions. Four combinations of courses were available: General Science, the "Biology Special," the "Chemistry Special," and the Medical Preparatory. From its very origins, the science degree allowed less election than the A.B.; in fact, those choosing to become candidates for the B.S. were assigned to a major instructor at the beginning of the freshman year. Forty-eight hours were specified for a major, with twenty-four hours in collateral studies. The four programs were frankly pre-professional in their objectives; they were intended for those who wished "to prepare themselves for specialized scientific work" and, like the engineering courses, were "placed upon a technical basis." English, history, and two foreign languages were the only non-scientific courses required. The diplomas of those enrolled in any one of the four programs indicated the specific field (e.g., Bachelor of Science in General Science). After the other programs lapsed or were incorporated into the general major, only one remained a distinctive degree by 1915-16. The Bachelor of Science in Chemistry continued to be listed as a separate degree, with its own prescribed curriculum, until 1957-58.[12] 

One trend in Tufts undergraduate enrollment watched with growing concern by College officials after 1900 was the steadily diminishing number of men in the A.B. curriculum. This tendency, by no means limited to Tufts, was occurring while enrollment in the B.S. programs increased markedly and the engineering school had grown to the limits of its physical plant. President Hamilton discerned several causes for the decline of liberal arts enrollment. Coeducation, in his estimation, was partly responsible. There was also the drift toward vocational training, particularly in the laboratory sciences, that seemed more attractive than linguistic, literary, historical, or philosophical study. This was being reflected at all levels of the educational system and was illustrated by the steps taken in Massachusetts to develop an ambitious state-wide tax-supported system of industrial education. It seemed that "the Age of the Engineer" had arrived with rapid technological advance and the need for specialists.

Another cause for decline in the so-called humanistic studies at the college level was the growing difficulty of obtaining a classical education in the secondary school. Greek in particular and Latin in general were being edged out of the curricula by greater emphasis on modern languages and science. President Hamilton laid the blame - if blame it was - for the decline of appeal of arts courses on the widespreaed use and misuse of the elective system, which tended to be much less commonly found in scientific and technical areas. In the latter, even though some choices were allowed, the curricula in the main were prescribed, and the student felt from the beginning that he was "being trained for something"; he had a goal and a definite path before him to achieve that goal. This was not the case with the students in the arts courses. They were usually left to their own devices and were wont to wander more or less at will through the academic offerings. The student with non-scientific leanings was more likely than his more technically oriented classmates "to follow fancy and convenience, student fashions, and the lines of least resistance" in making up his course program. At base, "the Arts course seems to promise an education, the scientific or technical course seems to promise an education for something."

There was no simple solution to this rather complex problem, but the president offered a possibility that was apparently favored by the faculty. A rearrangement of the A.B. courses to counteract


some of the less desirable effects of the elective system without sacrificing the principle of election was undertaken, to take effect in the academic year 1910-11. This was less an overhauling of the arts curriculum than a reshuffling of course listings to make it appear that a certain combination would lead to a certain vocational objective. Just as in the engineering school there were basic courses in the freshman year from which students followed divergent paths leading to civil, electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineering, so also were there several liberal arts courses above the common freshman level that, if properly grouped, could be considered preparatory for law, teaching, journalism, social service, business, and the like. There were still abundant free electives both for those students with a specific vocational or professional aim in mind and for those who had not yet settled upon a life calling. This plan was intended to give a focus to the potential usefulness of an A.B. degree.

Only one area of instruction required particular strengthening to carry out the plan as Hamilton outlined it. Teacher training had been neglected by the College, and what courses in education were then being offered were an adjunct to the main efforts of the instructor.[13]  On Hamilton's recommendation, a chair of Psychology and Education was established in 1910-11 to remedy this deficiency. From that date until the mid-1920's there was no independent Department of Education. Instead, it was listed, in various combinations, with philosophy, and psychology, and for many years was not considered a "major" department. President Hamilton's hope for pre-professional classroom training for potential teachers was realized in 1912-13, when arrangements were made for "observation and practice teaching . . . through the courtesy of the Somerville School Department." Within the next five years supervised teaching for Tufts students was extended to the high


schools of Arlington, Medford, and Winchester. The facilities of other public school systems were provided in the next few years. Hamilton's emphasis on "efficiency" and "practical training" was recognized in the stipulation in 1915-16 that "no student will be recommended by the Department of Education for a teaching position, unless he has shown teaching ability in the course in practice teaching." A combination of liberal arts education and professional and pre-professional training had become a fixed part of the Tufts philosophy by the time of the First World War.

There was no busier man on the campus throughout the period of curricular change in the 1890's than President Capen. He insisted that one of his prime duties was to keep in as close touch as possible with the students. In the very first year of his administration (1875-76) he introduced the progenitor of "Freshman Orientation." He delivered a series of lectures on "Education, and Methods and Objects of Study." He continued to teach from seven to ten hours a week, but found his administrative duties increasing at such a rate that he hoped someone else could be found to take over the teaching of Ethics, and Ancient and International Law. He taught Political Economy (alternately called Political Science after 1893) for several years, and in order to reduce the size of his classes the faculty had ceased to require the subject for seniors. But this did not appreciably diminish the number of students in the course, for many of the thirty-one enrolled in 1893-94 elected Political Science as their major field. Further, Political Economy was made a required subject for all engineering students beginning in 1895-96. The days when the president of Tufts was primarily an administrator were still in the future.

President Capen was strongly opposed to a lock step curriculum. He argued that the time element as a condition of graduation should be eliminated. "The College no longer says that a man must remain in college four years before he shall be entitled to its honors. . . . Those who can, . . . may take enough to make eighteen, twenty-one, and even twenty-four hours a week, and, receiving credit for all they do, may be advanced toward their degrees as rapidly as their work will carry them." This was no idle talk or empty promise. Announcement was made in 1893-94 that a student could be awarded the A.B. degree after he had completed the aggregate requirements. At first no specific number of courses was


required in any one term.[14]  If the student wished to receive his degree in three years, he was encouraged to do so provided he could maintain a "B" average for his entire course.[15]  Even more was possible under the new curriculum, and was a natural outgrowth of the three-year A.B.

There appeared in the catalogue in 1899 a statement indicating that the Master's degree was not to be reserved solely for graduates who desired to continue or to resume their studies. It was provided that the Master's degree could be awarded simultaneously with the Bachelor's degree at the end of four years' work to those who had enriched their program and intensified their work so as to have completed the undergraduate degree requirements in three years with a "B" average. Between 1898 and 1913, twenty-three students completed the combined program. At least eleven, representing a variety of fields, entered the academic profession. Among them were Samuel P. Capen, son of President Capen and at one time chancellor of the University of Buffalo; William R. Ransom, teacher of mathematics at Tufts for some fifty years; Arthur B. Lamb, prominent chemist at Harvard; and Vannevar Bush, for many years associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and internationally known as scientist and engineer.[16]  The opportunity to receive combined degrees lasted until 1924-25 and formal provision for completing the baccalaureate degree in three years remained in force until 1938-39, but few students elected to follow either program.

The new liberal arts curriculum sought to provide a judicious balance between the required and the optional, between general education and specialization. Its elasticity made for durability, for the groups, and subjects within groups, could (and were)


changed from time to time as new subjects were introduced or old ones discarded, without altering substantially the foundation on which the whole curricular edifice was constructed. The only part of the original plan modified to any extent was the period within which "the mark of the scholar, the degree" was obtained. It tended to remain at the customary four years for the vast majority of students in spite of Capen's hope to the contrary. But "acceleration" had at least become an officially approved parallel to "enrichment." Tufts was willing to experiment.


[1] The closest approximation to a concentration requirement between 1879 and 1893 was the provision for seniors that six hours of elective work were to be divided between two departments and the nine hours of required work among three departments.

[2] Proficiency in English grammar and composition had not been required for admission until 1876.

[3] At the same time, courses began to be numbered. Between 1915-16 and 1939, each department was assigned a code number, followed by the number of the course; e.g., English 12-1. Since 1939-40, courses numbered 100 or above have been open to both undergraduates and graduates. "Program" (credit) hours were introduced in 1892-93. A grading system based upon letters (A, B, C, D, E) rather than percentages was adopted in 1899, on the ground that accurate marks "on an exact numerical scale" were "an impossibility." In 1908 the grades of A, B, C, L, F, and FF were substituted, and this system lasted exactly half a century. In 1958 the grades of A, B, C, D, and F were adopted. The grade of F ("conditional failure)," which could be made up as an L or became an FF ("failed completely" - facetiously known as "failure with distinction"), caused no end of confusion. The difference between the F and the FF had to be explained periodically to the faculty as well as to the students.

[4] The foundation, distribution, and degree requirements have been reviewed many times (e.g., 1907-8, 1915-16, 1931-32, 1939-40, 1960-61) and changes have been made, but the basic curricular edifice of 1893-94 withstood all onslaughts.

[5] The requirements in natural science and in Mental and Moral Science were increased by six hours each in 1900-1901. A proposal was made in 1897 that mathematics be made optional but was tabled indefinitely. Mathematics was not dropped as a degree requirement until 1932-33.

[6] The requirement for a major was increased from eighteen to thirty hours in 1932-33.

[7] After 1895 no course listed in the catalogue as "Elementary" could be counted toward the major.

[8] In 1907-8 the degree requirement was reduced to 122 hours, with a minimum requirement of seventy-two hours of "C" work or better. After pluses and minuses began to be computed and entered on student records (1958-59), the minimum honor (quality) point requirement was changed to eighty-one credits of "C-."

[9] The system was revised in 1910-11 so as to require two hours a week from October through May, with out-of-door exercises when weather permitted. Regular practice with any team sport was accepted as a substitute.

[10] Engineering was at first listed as one of the departments in the college of letters in which a major was possible. After 1898 the Engineering Department became a separate division. Philosophy was added as a major department in 1895-96.

[11] Administratively, at least, the Biology Department was broader than its title indicated; for some years it included the instruction in geology and astronomy. The latter courses were taught by William Ransom, who also carried a full load in the Mathematics Department.

[12] No candidates were accepted after September 1957 because a reorganization of the Chemistry Department offerings made the degree no longer distinctive or necessary. The last candidates for this degree (two Tufts students and one Jackson student) were graduated in 1960. A comparison of the catalogue statements of 1915-16 and 1956-57 indicates that virtually no change had taken place in the requirements in the forty years in which the degree was offered.

[13] The first education course taught at Tufts was Pedagogics, offered in the Philosophy Department as a substitute for Ethics. The enrollment was large, for a high proportion of liberal arts students entered the teaching profession. Professor Cushman gave two lectures a week on "the ethical and psychological principles involved in teaching." They were supplemented by lectures by teachers in the Greater Boston area. Pedagogics (The Theory and Practice of Teaching), as it was designated in 1902-3, was taught infrequently for the next decade, and was first known as Education 1 in 1908-9.

[14] Capen's optimistic plan for a "ceiling unlimited" on course programs for all students had to be modified in the light of experience, although the principle of acceleration was still approved. The faculty put a limit of nineteen term hours on first-semester freshmen and a sixteen-hour limit on those who made below a "B" in more than six hours (two courses) or below a "C" in as many as three hours (one course). A twenty-one-hour limit was placed on those who had a certain proportion of work below "B."

[15] The first student to take advantage of this new program was Orren Henry Smith (Class of 1896), long-time editor of the Tufts College Graduate.

[16] It was also possible to obtain the Master of Science instead of the Master of Arts under the combined program. Bush was one such recipient.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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