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When Harvard declared its distrust of the Boston College degree, the Jesuits claimed religious discrimination. They may have been right, but there was more to it
Some 50 Boston College alumni gathered in Boston’s Parker House Hotel on June 29, 1899, for their annual reunion and banquet. The turnout was respectable, considering that there were little more than 300 graduates of the school altogether, and some had died or moved away. Organizing the alumni into a formal association had been students’ idea. Such a group “would materially aid us,” wrote the editors of the Stylus, the school’s only student publication, in 1884, “by making the college more widely known and esteemed, and by infusing a lively and kindlier interest among the older students for us of the present.” Two years later, the association began the practice of holding an annual dinner. “Miscellaneous business,” such as the election of officers, was conducted, but for the most part these dinners were simply the gathering of “a merry company loaded down with happy reminiscences,” according to one newspaper report. Toasts were proposed; “old boys” talked with favorite faculty members; the president gave a short report on the latest happenings at the school.
The president’s report was usually full of good news about the progress Boston College had made since its founding in 1863 and the admission of its first students in the fall of 1864. Enrollments had fluctuated from year to year, occasionally rising as high as 400, though the number was usually closer to 300. The first bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 1877, and every year about 20 students completed their requirements and received their diplomas. Some 20 faculty members, almost all of them Jesuits, guided the students through their schoolwork, each professor teaching a range of subjects to pupils who might be as young as 10 or as old as 30. Though the institution was called a “college,” its curriculum, like that of other Jesuit schools in the United States at the time, covered a wide sweep, from what we would think of as middle school through genuine undergraduate studies. The students (all male) were mostly the sons of working class immigrants, eager to use their education to advance the fortunes of their families by stepping up into the white-collar work force. The original school building, located in the block between Harrison Avenue and James Street in the South End neighborhood of Boston, had undergone a major expansion in 1889, and it attracted people from the community to a variety of cultural and other events in its spacious assembly hall and its newly equipped gymnasium.
At the alumni gathering on that summer evening in 1899, however, there was a troubling matter to consider. A special guest speaker had been invited: Monsignor Thomas Conaty, the rector and president of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Conaty was a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, and he had graduated from the College of the Holy Cross. That night, he delivered what the Pilot, the newspaper of Boston’s Irish Catholics, called “a scholarly and eloquent address.” After some general remarks, he came to his point, telling the assembled alumni “that there was no need of making an apology for being a graduate of a Catholic college. It was an honor to have received a degree from such a college as Boston boasted of.” His language was veiled, but everyone in the room knew exactly what he was talking about. Even as he was speaking, Boston College was engaged in a contentious public argument over the quality of its education. The dispute would hurt the pride of students, teachers, and alumni, and it would rally them to their school’s defense. But it would also suggest to a succession of Boston College presidents the need for decisive changes. The initial provocation was a snub by the Harvard University Law School.
Charles William Eliot became the president of Harvard University in 1869 at the age of 35, and he served until 1909, longer than any individual before or since. Unlike his predecessors, all of them ministers, Eliot had trained as a chemist; he briefly taught that subject at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after it opened in 1865. A self-conscious reformer, he had definite ideas about higher education and how it must change to meet the demands of modern life. Undergraduates, in his view, should continue to focus on the liberal arts, but certain traditional subjects (most notably Greek) should be deemphasized, while others (especially the sciences) should get more attention. At Harvard, he pioneered a thoroughgoing “elective” system, allowing the college’s nearly 1,700 students (as of 1899) to choose the subjects they wished to pursue, rather than prescribing a strict program of study. Even freshmen could elect from among 50 courses in 19 subject areas, as they followed their own intellectual interests. Graduate and professional education, subsequently undertaken, would foster the study of specialized fields and develop the ability to do original research.
Together with a handful of other university presidents—including Andrew Dickson White of Cornell and Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins—Eliot pressed to standardize admission requirements for both undergraduate and graduate students, leading eventually to formation of the College Entrance Examination Board. A man of limitless energy, in retirement he edited the Harvard Classics, a “five-foot shelf” of 51 books, intended to represent the seminal texts of Western civilization. A man could spend just 15 minutes per day reading these books—as could a woman, although Eliot thought the prospect unlikely—and have “a good substitute for a liberal education,” he suggested.
A fellow reformer at Cambridge was James Barr Ames, who began teaching at the Harvard Law School in 1873, immediately after graduating from it. In this, he was an unusual member of the faculty, which until then had consisted of practicing lawyers who taught on the side. Appointed dean in 1895 and serving until just before his death in 1910, Ames extended the reforms begun by his predecessor (the formidably named Christopher Columbus Langdell) and may rightly be considered one of the founders of modern legal education. Previously, a full course of formal legal study could be accomplished in a year and a half; under Ames, the standard doubled to three years. Ames also helped popularize the case method of instruction. Rather than working through grand legal principles from textbooks, students in Harvard law classes discussed actual cases, how they had been argued and how they had been decided, to discover what the law was and how it worked. In the late 1800s, individuals could enter the legal profession without obtaining a law degree, and in some states this is still possible, but the program that Ames put in place became the national norm.
Boston College might have remained unaffected by the reforms that Eliot and Ames were instituting at Harvard. The Jesuits’ confidence in the superiority of their curriculum, prescribed by the Ratio Studiorum (Plan of Studies), was firm. The Ratio, first published in 1599, grew out of the educational program for Jesuits themselves, which guided a novice of the order through studies that prepared him for ordination as a priest. Emphasizing the Latin and Greek classics, together with large doses of philosophy and theology, it was adapted repeatedly over the centuries. By the time of its application at Boston College in the 19th century, it was a hybrid, a seven-year program that combined secondary and higher education. Beginning with a grade level called Rudiments, a student proceeded through three years of Grammar (sometimes called Humanities), a year called Poetry, another designated Rhetoric, concluding with a year of Philosophy.
The line the Ratio drew between high school and college-level study was indistinct, but the program nevertheless had the advantage of coherence. It led a young scholar progressively through the grades, so that a boy who entered the system with only the rudiments of reading and writing might emerge from it nothing less than a philosopher. What a contrast with the elective approach, “the disjointed and broken pieces of learning from which a Harvard student constitutes his curriculum,” one Jesuit would write during the Eliot era. If students were free to choose their own courses, they might emerge from school entirely ignorant of certain subjects, avoided for reasons variously good and bad. As this priest saw it, a young man could graduate from Harvard without, for instance, “any knowledge of general philosophical principles. Logic and the laws of thought may be as unfamiliar to him as the Devanagari alphabet”—used in the writing of ancient Sanskrit—”and the basic doctrines of rational psychology as unknown as the hieroglyphs of an Egyptian scarab.” This was but “the shell” of real learning, “a thing of shreds and patches,” the Jesuit opined, cleverly echoing a line from the popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta the Mikado. “If conferring degrees were a mercantile pursuit,” he continued, the elective system “would be an indictable offense,” rather like selling margarine as butter; compared to the education available to students at Boston College and other Jesuit schools, “the studies of the average senior at Harvard [were] little less than trivial.”
The Jesuit who so exuberantly denounced Eliot’s program of electives was Timothy Brosnahan, who served as president of Boston College from 1894 to 1898. A Virginian by birth, Brosnahan had joined the Jesuits at age 16. He came to Boston in the early 1880s as a scholastic (the stage of Jesuit formation after novice) and taught at Boston College for four years—”a successful professor,” a friend said later, “rigid in his demands from his scholars”—helping to found the Stylus as a student outlet for literary endeavors and news. After his ordination, he oversaw younger Jesuits at the novitiate in Maryland, returning to Boston College to teach philosophy for two years before being appointed president.
Though still young himself (just 38 on assuming the presidency), Brosnahan kept a watchful eye on the faculty, giving “wise directions to young teachers” and showing a special ability “for discovering the chief deficiency of a professor” and working to correct it “in a way to be remembered.” Generally cheery and quick-witted, he “took great delight in the mental development of his pupils, and no teacher was more observant, or quicker to detect, or more grateful for their progress”—all praise conveyed in his obituary, published in 1916 in the Jesuits’ Woodstock Letters.
One unresolved question during Brosnahan’s time in office was how to deal with what was called the English course. Not an individual “course” in the modern sense, this was a track of classes first put in place in the 1870s, “at the earnest suggestion,” the catalogue explained every year, “of the Most Reverend Archbishop” of Boston, John Williams. Robert Fulton, SJ, Boston College’s president from 1870 to 1880, started the program, but the repeated insistence that it was the archbishop’s idea suggests that the faculty may not have been wholly enthusiastic. With its “exclusive application to English, the modern languages, and the sciences,” as the catalogue of 1882–83 explained, the English course was “intended to offer the advantages of a thorough English education to that class of our youth who, not intending to follow the professions, stand in no special need of classical training.” This description leaves the impression that the course was for students who were not quite as bright as their fellows or for those who simply set their sights lower. Its appeal was to “sons intended for business,” and it was sometimes referred to as “the commercial course,” the addition of a bookkeeping class reinforcing that perception. It was a four-year program, in emulation of the English high school programs emerging elsewhere. In American secondary education, the older Latin schools, which once had the field to themselves, were encountering competition.
Over the years it was available, 1879–93, only two students ever completed the English course at Boston College. Archbishop Williams seems to have thought of it as a program that might take the graduates of local parochial schools, most of which stopped at the eighth grade. However, Williams’s own dispositions may have worked against this wish. He was much less enthusiastic for the opening of parish schools than were his episcopal colleagues in other cities: Barely one-third of Boston area parishes had schools, compared with virtually all parishes in Chicago, for instance. In that context, the Boston College English course was left pretty much adrift. “Nothing has been spared that could be availed of to make [it] successful,” Jeremiah O’Connor, SJ, (president from 1880 to 1884) said, but it was plainly not what the school’s clientele wanted. Students and their parents sought the “real thing” from a Boston College education—meaning the classical studies that were its hallmark.
Because of this confidence in the traditional curriculum, an announcement from Cambridge in the spring of 1893 came as a shock. Seeking to raise the standards of its law school, Harvard put several new requirements in place, all designed to go into effect three years later. Whereas admission had previously depended only on a student’s interest in the law and assurances of good moral character, the possession of a bachelor’s degree would now be a prerequisite. Not all bachelor’s degrees were created equal, however, and to that end Harvard prepared a list of 69 other colleges whose degrees would meet the qualification (Harvard graduates would, of course, be admitted directly). The list was not “exhaustive,” and it would probably have to be modified as time went on, Harvard officials thought, but it was a starting point. Graduates of colleges not on the list might be admitted to the law school on probation, though they would have to take exams that other students did not and maintain an average at least 15 points higher than their regularly admitted fellows.
Approved were the Ivy League (Brown and Columbia, for example), the large public universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, California), certain of the small liberal arts colleges (Haverford, Oberlin), and even schools from Canada (McGill and the University of Toronto). What immediately struck some readers of the list, however, was the absence of Catholic colleges. Wasn’t it “strange,” asked James Jeffrey Roche, editor of the Pilot, in a letter to Eliot, that the list did “not contain a single name of the many excellent Catholic universities and colleges in the United States and Canada?” Was this not a clear case of religious discrimination?
Roche wrote Eliot privately for an explanation, and, when Eliot wrote back, the editor promptly published the response in his newspaper, on July 1, 1893. At first feigning ignorance of why Catholic schools had been excluded—”there is doubtless some reason,” Eliot wrote airily—Harvard’s president quickly came to his point: The educations provided by Catholic and non-Catholic colleges were simply too different, and the former were clearly inferior to the latter. “When a young graduate of a Catholic college desires to enter a Protestant or undenominational college with advanced standing,” Eliot said, “he finds that his studies have, to a considerable extent, not been equivalent to those pursued in the college which he wishes to enter.” Not knowing when to stop, Eliot specified the cause of this inferiority: The “directors [that is, the faculty] of Catholic colleges have generally received only or chiefly the education of priests.” He may or may not have sneered that last word, but the matter was settled in his mind. A priest might be qualified to teach religion or theology but little else, and no appeal to long traditions of learning could counterbalance this fundamental deficiency. As Eliot said in his inaugural address, the training that may be “logical” in a seminary for priests “is intolerable in universities.” On another occasion, after hearing a lecture by the president of Yale praising the medieval tradition, Eliot did not hesitate to say bluntly, “The American university has nothing to learn from medieval universities, nor yet from those still in the medieval period.” In identifying American Catholic colleges as substandard, he left little doubt as to who “those still in the medieval period” were.
Faced with this apparent insult, Jesuit educators rose to the defense of their schools. After consultation with Brosnahan, J. Havens Richards, SJ, the president of Georgetown University, wrote to Eliot soon after his letter appeared in the Pilot to take up what he termed the “public attack on the standing of all Catholic colleges.” Richards was the descendant of a family that had been in Massachusetts almost as long as Eliot’s and, on his father’s conversion to Catholicism, he had attended Boston College for two years before entering the Jesuits. This made him the perfect candidate to challenge the president of Harvard. Richards sent along a copy of the curriculum from Georgetown, essentially the same one followed in other Jesuit schools, sure that it would show the value of a bachelor’s degree from any of them. “Other things being equal,” Richards concluded, those who had “graduated from reputable Catholic colleges” were not only acceptable students; they were, he boasted, “better prepared for a course of Law, than any other class of students.” (He never explained why, but perhaps he was alluding to their extensive coursework in philosophy.) By the end of the summer Eliot wrote back, conceding that Georgetown and “the two Catholic colleges in Massachusetts,” Boston College and Holy Cross, could be added to the law school admissions list. This was “the most effective way,” he said in a kind of non-apology, “of repairing such injury as may have been done.” Even so, he refused to back down from his expressed opinions. A review of the Ratio-based curriculum, he wrote, only confirmed his conclusion that there was a “very marked difference between all the Catholic colleges and all the Protestant colleges.” When the law school list was finally published in Harvard’s 1893–94 catalogue, Georgetown, Holy Cross, and Boston College—the last identified simply as “Boston”— were there.
For the time being, the battle had been won, but the war resumed with publication of the 1897–98 Harvard catalogue, when Ames, now the dean of Harvard Law School, again dropped Boston College and Holy Cross from the list, this time retaining Georgetown. In a letter dated March 11, 1898, he explained to President Brosnahan that, since graduates of Boston College would henceforth be admitted to Harvard only as sophomores (a new ruling of the Harvard College admission committee), a degree from the South End school would cease to guarantee law school admittance effective with the class of 1899.
In the summer of 1898, Read Mullan, SJ, succeeded Brosnahan as president of Boston College. The new president came from a Baltimore clan with deep Catholic roots, and he had seen service at St. John’s College (now Fordham University), Holy Cross, and elsewhere. Mullan took up the primary responsibility for defending Jesuit education, though he did so with the benefit of regular strategizing with Brosnahan (reassigned to Maryland) and Richards. Writing to Eliot on September 1, 1899, he asked for both an explanation and a reversal of the decision. Mullan said he was sure that Harvard would “be guided by a sense of fairness.” He was equally certain he could demonstrate that “the graduates of Boston College are as well prepared for professional studies as those of any other college in the country. . . . Boston College is young, but there are more than 150 graduates . . . in Boston and vicinity, most of whom are in the professions, and who form an honorable body in the community.”
At first, Eliot tried to deflect Mullan’s letter, having his secretary respond, “I regret to say that I do not see much possibility that it can be answered in the way you wish it to be.” Incapable of resisting a fight, however, Eliot soon joined the argument with fervor. Writing to Mullan shortly before Christmas 1899, he quoted Ames on the performance of nine recent Boston College graduates in the law school. “The highest was among the lowest of the A men,” he explained coolly. “The B man was on the border between B and C. Of the six C men three were nearer D than B, and the ninth obtained D.” This, he concluded, proved the inferiority of their degrees and hardly justified any “special claim” from Boston College.
Private letters, restrained in language but pointed in argument, continued to go back and forth between Cambridge and the South End; in the process, the tone of the dispute sharpened. Eliot insisted that “we are not influenced by the fact that your college belongs to the Catholic Church,” but the Jesuits found this assertion unconvincing. When Eliot tried to claim that he only had their best interests at heart, he seemed disingenuous and, worse, condescending. “My sole interest in the discussion between us,” he wrote Mullan on February 6, 1900, “has been to contribute to the raising of the standard of Jesuit Colleges, Boston College included.” If only Mullan would stop arguing about law school admissions, he would be happy to outline “the facts about the low standard of the Jesuit colleges and the inferiority of their programme. . . . I want to see the Jesuit Colleges improved and benefitted, not hurt or impaired in public estimation.” Mullan and his colleagues thought they needed no such help and their schools no such improvement.
Meanwhile, the fight had gone public again, owing to an essay Eliot contributed in October 1899 to the Atlantic Monthly, the quintessential Boston periodical that had published Emerson and Thoreau. In this essay, Eliot praised the elective system. A curriculum full of requirements was a thing of the past, “precisely the method followed in Moslem countries,” he wrote dismissively, “where the Koran prescribes the perfect education to be administered to all.” Similarly, in Jesuit schools, he wrote, teaching had “remained almost unchanged for four hundred years,” even as “the immense deepening and expanding of human knowledge . . . have made uniform prescriptions of study . . . impossible and absurd.” In both these educational systems, “nothing but an unhesitating belief in the Divine Wisdom of such prescriptions can justify them.” If Eliot was trying to be helpful, this was a strange way of going about it.
From Maryland, Brosnahan prepared a rebuttal, but the Atlantic refused to print it, prompting further suspicions of anti-Catholic bias. Undaunted, in 1900 he published two defenses, in the form of pamphlets: The Courses Leading to the Baccalaureate in Harvard College and Boston College and President Eliot and Jesuit Colleges. Pocket-sized and plain, they sold for 10 cents (12 cents by post) and could be obtained at 35 Jesuit institutions of higher learning in the United States and abroad. Both circulated widely and were reprinted in Catholic newspapers around the country. In the latter booklet, refuting what he called Eliot’s “derogatory insinuations,” Brosnahan enjoyed poking fun at the president of the nation’s oldest college. First, he corrected the “mathematical confusion”: the span between publication of the Ratio in 1599 and their own day was 300 years, not the 400 Eliot had calculated. Then, he showed how the Jesuit curriculum had in fact changed over time, particularly through increased attention to the sciences. Finally, he launched a frontal assault on the elective system, pushing it to its logical extreme. If Eliot’s program were pursued across the board, “We shall yet witness the exhilarating spectacle of ‘tots’ of eight or 10 years of age gravely electing their courses . . . with the approval of their nurses.”
The alumni of Boston College also joined the fight. At their annual reunion and dinner in June 1900, they unanimously adopted a resolution that was full of bravado. Denouncing Eliot’s argument, they congratulated Mullan and Brosnahan for countering it. They may well have believed their resolution’s assertion that Boston College, “far from being injured by the attack upon its reputation made by some of the authorities of Harvard University, comes forth triumphant and unscathed.” But in fact Eliot had simply stopped arguing. Exasperated, he had told Mullan in his February 6 letter, “I do not propose to say one word in reply.” And so the public dispute ended. A few years later, the precipitating affront also disappeared. In the Harvard catalogue of 1904–05, the list of acceptable colleges was omitted, never to return, and applicants to the law school were advised to inquire individually about the terms under which they might be admitted.
Boston College’s pride had been bruised in the dispute and, although the school achieved a kind of victory when Harvard gave up the fight, the episode raised questions that would not go away. Just where did Jesuit colleges stand at the end of the 19th century, and how did they compare with other schools? Was the education at Georgetown, Holy Cross, Boston College, and the other institutions that were guided by the Ratio equivalent to that of public and non-Catholic universities? Eliot and Ames thought the answer was clear: “The low standard of the Jesuit colleges and the inferiority of their programme” were, as Eliot had written Mullan, “facts” that could not be denied. A young man with a degree from Boston College might be the equal of a sophomore, but nothing higher, at Harvard. Was that estimation right?
As the 20th century began, developments in American education were coming to render the plan of studies outlined in the Ratio Studiorum obsolete—”doomed,” a later historian would say. For one thing, a new consensus was emerging around the country on a distinction between high school and college. Although English and Latin programs would continue to compete for students, it was thought that secondary education should consist of four years of high school, and that these years should be complete and sufficient in themselves. Students who wanted to pursue higher education would subsequently undertake four years of college. (Eliot played a role in establishing this four-four standard, codified in the report of a “committee of ten” published in 1893 by the National Education Association.) However much the Jesuits may have insisted on the value of their approach, their schools blurred these increasingly clear lines. Their seven-year square peg no longer fit into the four-year round holes of American schooling, and a defense of the Ratio might not be sustainable for much longer.
Brosnahan, Mullan, Richards, and other Jesuit leaders recognized this, and some Jesuit schools were already experimenting, with St. Louis University leading the way. Belgian Jesuits had arrived to take over responsibility for a predecessor school in that frontier city as early as 1818, making theirs the oldest institution of higher learning of any kind west of the Mississippi. By the 1880s, a “St. Louis plan” had adapted the Ratio‘s outline, dividing the school into two distinct four-year programs, although the college retained the traditional designations (humanities, rhetoric, poetry, philosophy), instead of applying the newer ones (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior), which were used in the high school. A decade later, even as Boston College was publicly defending its traditional structure, it was quietly taking a similar tack. In the school year 1896–97, as the dispute with Harvard was in a brief lull, its catalogue for the first time made a distinction between “the course of studies in the classes of the preparatory school” and “the course of studies in the college department.” (The unpopular English course was included in the preparatory division.) Here was the first appearance of what would later be Boston College and Boston College High School. In the college department, both old and new nomenclature were used for the class years: “Junior (Rhetorica)” and “Senior (Philosophia)” were the capstone of a student’s studies, following on “Freshman (Grammatica Suprema)” and “Sophomore (Humanitates).” By putting the newer names first and relegating the traditional designations to parentheses, Boston College officials were beginning to speak the same language as the rest of American higher education.
But as Mullan and other Jesuit leaders saw it, a second issue had been raised, albeit indirectly, by the Harvard dispute. It had to do with Catholic students attending non-Catholic colleges—and there was troubling evidence on this score. Since the days of Boston College’s founder, John McElroy, SJ, and its first president, John Bapst, SJ, (1863–69) the presumption had been that Catholic students would naturally go to Catholic colleges if they were available. Half a century later, that expectation was no longer holding. Students and their parents wanted the best education possible; they also wanted the general advantages—the lifelong associations and contacts, professional and social—that came with it. Connections such as those that Boston College alumni made with one another at their annual gatherings constituted one of the clearest practical benefits of attending college. If these were more readily available or desirable somewhere else, that’s where students preferred to be. By the time of the fight with Harvard, Catholic educators could not help but notice that many of the students they considered rightfully “theirs” were choosing public or private non-Catholic alternatives. University enrollments everywhere in the United States skyrocketed in the decade of the 1890s, but growth outside the Catholic “league” of schools outstripped that within. Total college enrollment in America increased by nearly 70 percent between 1890 and 1900, exceeding 100,000 for the first time. In the same period, enrollment in Catholic schools increased by only 40 percent, to about 4,200.
These national trends played out clearly at Boston College and Harvard. During these years, the number of students at Boston College increased but growth was slow, and in any given year enrollments might go down as readily as they went up. The South End school had seen a respectable gain in students, from 334 in the 1890–91 school year to 419 five years later, but the number dipped back to 335 by 1904–05, resulting in an increase of exactly one student in a decade and a half. In the same period, the number of Catholics enrolling as undergraduates at Harvard, while small, was going steadily up. In 1894, 10 Catholics graduated from the college in Cambridge; twice as many students graduated from Boston College that year, but why were the numbers even that close? In the Catholic press, glowing accounts began to appear of “Catholic Sons of Harvard,” representing “another barrier swept away from mutual understanding and sympathy between representatives of different religious denominations.” Harvard’s early Catholics had been Yankee Protestant converts, but soon enough the children of immigrants were attending, the very clientele for whom Boston College had been founded. A sufficient number were in place by the 1890s so that the St. Paul’s Catholic Club was formed at Harvard in May 1893, connected to the church of that name just outside the school’s walls. Within a few years the club was claiming a membership of 250, making Harvard, a later chronicler noted with irony, in effect one of the largest Catholic universities in the country. Individual Catholics at Harvard stood out, then and later. Best known would be one Joseph P. Kennedy, the son of a second-generation saloonkeeper and ward politician from East Boston, who graduated with the class of 1912.
To be sure, Catholic students at Harvard came from around the country, while Boston College, lacking dormitories, educated students from primarily the greater Boston area; but the numbers were telling. At the height of the dispute between these schools, it was not much of a stretch to think that Catholic students might be as likely to attend Harvard as Boston College, if they could. It was easy for Brosnahan to make fun of the academic “nibbling” that in his view characterized undergraduate education at Harvard, but increasing numbers of Catholic parents were choosing that school for their sons nonetheless. How the leaders of Boston College responded to this challenge—by creating a sharper separation between the high school and collegiate divisions, by developing a full college program eventually including electives, and by moving that program to a new campus—would take their school into a new era.
James O’Toole ’72, Ph.D.’87, holds the Clough Millennium Chair in History at Boston College, and is the author of The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (2008).
St. Ignatius (1491–1556) first envisioned the Jesuit order he started as “itinerant catechists,” according to John W. O’Malley, SJ, in Ratio Studiorum: Jesuit Education 1540–1773, a publication of Boston College. But even then Ignatius was no stranger to higher education, having attended classes at the universities of Alcalá and Salamanca in Spain and at the University of Paris. Sometimes depicted as a bearded adult studying among boys, Ignatius came to scholarship late, believing it would help him in his evangelizing, and in 1541 he wrote up a plan for educating newcomers to the order. Having experienced various pedagogical styles, he favored the Parisian approach, with its ranks of grades and preordained curriculum, taught in orderly progression. From that bend at the root eventually would come the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum (Plan of Studies) in 1599.
By then the Jesuits were well into their mission of educating others (at Ignatius’s death they were running 30 schools, most of them secondary). The product of multiple drafts, with contributions from Jesuits in Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Holland, Sicily, and elsewhere, the Ratio would align all Jesuit schools, in curriculum and conduct. By the early 1770s, it held sway over more than 800 institutions, elementary, through university, through seminary. By 1900 it defined curricula in Europe, Asia, the Middle East—and in more than 20 Jesuit colleges in the United States.
The goal of the Ratio, as set out at its first publication, was to teach “our neighbors all the disciplines in keeping with our Institute in such a way that they are thereby aroused to a knowledge and love of our Maker and
Redeemer.” To this end, there was little the plan overlooked, from what to teach when; to how to teach (advice to the Professor of Hebrew: “the strangeness of the language should be mitigated by energetic activity”); to requirements for prayer (“before the class”) and for vacations (“not briefer than one month, nor longer than two”); to who might participate in the monthly and weekly disputations: “Only the more learned students should dispute publicly. The rest should practice privately.”
So how was the Ratio represented at Boston College in 1898? For all its rules (and there were upwards of 500), the Ratio contained, from the beginning, allowances for “diversity according to the diversity of locales.” What’s more, it too had undergone revisions—in 1616 and again in 1832. And so the course of studies Boston College laid out in its 1898–99 catalogue—and the facilities described therein (including a “well-equipped gymnasium” with “a complete apparatus, track, baths, etc.”)—departed somewhat from the medieval model. In “regular college classes,” students in the freshman course (Grammatica Suprema) studied English, Latin, Greek, Christian Doctrine, Mathematics, and French or German. In language study particularly, the method was old-school: review of the precepts (grammar), study of the models (readings from well-known authors of prose and verse), and practice (speaking and writing themes). The sophomore course (Humanitates) introduced chemistry via textbooks, lectures, and “laboratory practice.” Junior year (Rhetorica) continued the same subjects, but with an emphasis on the oratorical arts—”exposition, argumentation, persuasion”—and, in literature, on drama (reading Macbeth and King Lear).
With senior year, the focus shifted more radically, to Philosophia, “the necessary crowning of any system of education professing to give culture,” according to past president Timothy Brosnahan, SJ. Seniors studied Mental Philosophy, Physiological Psychology (including “hypnotism, etc.”), Physics, and Geology.
This was a far cry from Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum at the time, in which undergraduates elected courses from 37 departments and sub-departments (not counting architecture and engineering) and from a range of 227 offerings that included Modern Danish and Norwegian Literature, Advanced Harmony and Counterpoint, The Labor Question in Europe and the United States, The Carbon Compounds, Microscopical Anatomy, Meteorology, and on.
Nonetheless, Brosnahan would ask, “Since Harvard admits electivism and the principles of universal equivalence in studies, has it any logical grounds for declaring that this election should be made by the student rather than by the faculty?” That, as he said, was the “state of the question” in higher education in 1898.
This is the first of three articles by Professor James O’Toole highlighting defining moments in Boston College’s history that BCM will publish as the magazine begins its observance of the sesquicentennial of the University’s founding in 1863. As with this article, the remaining two will be drawn from a book-length history of Boston College being written by O’Toole to be published in conjunction with the 150th anniversary celebration. This March, the University community will receive an announcement and schedule of events, with directions to a newly created sesquicentennial website offering historical and interactive features of interest to alumni, faculty, staff, students, parents, and friends. Stay tuned.