Taking a stand for the Liberal Arts
John Milton Gregorys views on a university education still resonate today
According to Harry Kersey, author of “John Milton Gregory and the University of Illinois,” educational practices in the arts and humanities were seen as symbolic of “social aloofness” and “intellectual snobbery.”
“Classical and theological studies were equated with position and privilege, both of which were anathema to the democratic spirit of that semifrontier state,” Kersey said.
In that climate, and with the university made possible by the Morrill Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln, the purpose of Illinois’s new land-grant university quickly became controversial. Many at the time felt the university should be devoted exclusively to training students in agriculture and industrial education.
But for John Milton Gregory, who attended a liberal arts college and believed in well-rounded teachings, agricultural and industrial growth could not succeed without the addition of science and humanities. As Gregory addressed the first 68 young men to enroll at the university, he vowed that Illinois would serve the industrial interests of the state—and more.
A true supporter of an agricultural and industrial education, Gregory nonetheless declared that the new institution would not “send forth men who were puffed up by some little smattering of science, but clear-headed, broad-breasted scholars, men of fully developed minds.”
Incorporating a liberal arts education at the university was no easy task. Gregory’s desire to teach the liberal arts alongside these fields was fiercely debated, with many citizens demanding the university avoid a “theoretical education.”
“By the terms of the law which called it into being, (the university) is designed to promote knowledge of the sciences relating to agriculture and the mechanic arts,” read a newspaper prior to the university’s opening. “The age of dogmatism is giving away to a better era.”
Others felt that the institution should provide students the skills to match the climate of the nation.
“Essentially [the country needs] the services of men trained in the mechanic arts which most intimately relate to the everyday concerns of life,” a newspaper declared.
As the debate intensified, Gregory was publicly attacked for his desire to teach the classics. He was also ridiculed for his background in religion. However, his experiences were essential to who he was. Gregory attended Union College, a liberal arts college in New York, where he studied law. However, he soon embarked to the Midwest to serve as a Baptist preacher.
However, this vocation didn’t last. After reaching the Midwest, Gregory pursued his true passion: education. Gregory was elected Michigan’s superintendent of public instruction in 1858 and founded the Michigan Journal of Education. He served as president of Kalamazoo College from 1864 to 1867, and he also wrote a well-known book on education, titled “The Seven Laws of Teaching,” which emphasized the necessity of philosophical thinking in education.
Gregory gained enough valuable experience in the field of education to earn him the spot of first regent at Illinois 150 years ago. However, when his campaign for the liberal arts became apparent, many ignored his educational background and instead focused on his brief career as a preacher.
Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a prominent proponent of the Land Grant Act within Illinois, was one of the many who did just this. This was significant, as reportedly Turner himself encouraged Abraham Lincoln to sign the Morrill Act. “O Lord,” Turner said in an address. “How long, how long, how long, an ex-superintendent of public instruction and a Baptist preacher. What could be worse?”
However, Gregory’s support for the liberal arts at the university never wavered, and he gained allies. Aside from advocating for the liberal arts, Gregory also lived them. Along with many industrial and agricultural courses, Gregory taught philosophy at the university, as well as political economy, according to an obituary written in the Champaign Daily News in 1898.
Gregory’s confidence in the liberal arts was shown not only in his own pursuits and teachings, but also among the university as a whole.
In the 1867 course catalogue, a list of 19 courses to be taught were laid out plainly, including “English Language and Literature,” “Modern Languages,” “Ancient Languages,” “History and Social Science,” and “Mental and Moral Philosophy.”
The same catalogue began with text that clearly defined the purpose of the university: “The chief aim of the university is, ‘the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes, in the several pursuits and professions of life;’ And in order to this end, the university is ‘to teach such branches of learning as are related to agricultural and the mechanic arts, without excluding other scientific and classical studies,’” it read.
With this, Gregory asserted the right of the university to provide a complete education to its students. His views became accepted, as he served as regent and president from 1867 until his resignation in 1880. During his tenure he also cast the deciding vote to admit women to Illinois.
“By the educated I mean not those whose minds have been filled by an unwieldy undigested knowledge of books,” Gregory said, during his term, “but those who, whether they have studied one book or one hundred, have been trained to think for themselves, and to exercise all the facilities of their minds.”
Samantha Jones Toal
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