This is the start of the discussion on the inaugural speech of Henry Hopkins
This discussion is being led by Patrick Spero of the University of Pennsylvania

Patrick Spero will be an assistant professor of history and leadership studies at Williams this fall. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and is currently the Pew Post-Doctoral Fellow in Early American History at the American Philosophical Society. In the fall, Spero will teach a course on the American Revolution and one on leadership from the colonial era to the Civil War.

On June 24, 1902, Henry Hopkins became the seventh president of Williams College. To mark the occasion, Hopkins delivered an inaugural speech that laid out his vision for Williams’ future. When Hopkins took the stage, it was the dawn of a new century, a time of buoyant optimism, a time before the world knew of the Great War or its sequel and of their horrors. Hopkins captured this hopeful feeling in the opening of his speech, declaring that “this is an age of amazing and intense educational activity … so rapid as to amount in some quarters to a revolution.”

Revolutionary times bring about great changes, some of which threatened an institution that Hopkins held dear: the liberal arts college. The rise of the American university in the late-nineteenth century, as well as other trends in intellectual circles, had led to greater specialization in higher education, a development that challenged the traditional curriculum of liberal arts colleges. Many claimed that a liberal arts education was a thing of the past. Such a college, the argument went, did a disservice to students by leaving them ill-equipped for the modern world. One professor at the University of Massachusetts reportedly argued that “the college is no longer needed” in American education and that all students seeking education beyond high school should go straight to the universities.

There were few people better prepared to defend a liberal arts education than Henry Hopkins. Hopkins was born in Williamstown and educated at Williams. More than that, his father was Mark Hopkins, the longest-serving President in Williams’ history who played no small part in building the strong foundation upon which Williams rests today. After graduating from Williams in1858, Henry went on to become a minister of national renown. In 1902, the Williams’ Board of Trustees called upon Henry to serve as President for six years, believing that he could rekindle a little of his father’s spirit on the campus.

Hopkins cast the contest between the growing university system and the liberal arts as a Darwinian struggle for survival. The twentieth century was a “new time” in which ”every cause as well as every opinion holds … its life subject to challenge and competition.” “Natural selection,” Hopkins said, “is master.”

Hopkins did not believe that the struggle would result in one system completely replacing the other. Instead, he believed that “the fittest [liberal arts colleges] will survive.” More than just survive, the best liberal arts colleges would thrive in “the great unified system that is to emerge” by providing the “best preparation” for the world beyond.

Like his father before him, Hopkins used the podium as a pulpit from which he preached the glories of a liberal arts education. Hopkins refused to be swayed by passing fads. Instead, he offered a full-throated defense of the traditional liberal arts curriculum, which stressed wide knowledge, interdisciplinary learning, intellectual curiosity, and a supportive faculty. A good college will “develop the ‘all-around’ man, the cultivated woman of trained intelligence, the informed man of affairs,” and the “industrial, commercial, and political leadership” for a nation.

Hopkins also offered a pointed critique of a university education, which he called “a big educational department store.” While he acknowledged the need for the specialization of knowledge, he equated the “early specialization” at the undergraduate level then popular at universities with intellectual death. Early specialization left the mind too immature, undeveloped, and regimented to innovate, to see the bigger picture and push the boundaries of a field in new directions. In universities, with scholars focused more on research than teaching, courses could become “too scientific, desiccated, over-systemized, too abstract, speculative, and theoretical.” A university education would consign a student to a life in a “dead mechanical world.”

A liberal arts education, on the other hand, treated the mind not like “a mechanism, but a living thing.” In order for students to grow intellectually, they needed the right environment: “smaller, separate colleges” rather than the “populous universities” with their “congeries of incongruous and unrelated courses.” Instead of the specialized and research-oriented faculty of universities, liberal arts faculties were “teaching scholars” who knew that “there is a living man dealing with a living fellow man, that he may lead into a fuller and better life.” In such a setting and with such a faculty, students would receive “a priceless blessing:” the ability to see beauty, to discover truth, to know the world, and “to think, to act for” themselves. Their broad knowledge of the world would leave liberal arts graduates, not the overly specialized university graduate, the best equipped to succeed in life and handle its vicissitudes.

Those who read Mark Hopkins’s 1836 inaugural speech will notice many similarities between his vision for Williams and his son’s. Both Mark and Henry emphasized the importance of physical education, of “learning by doing,” of aesthetics, of interdisciplinary learning, and of an open intellectual environment. The father was very much alive in his son.

Perhaps most notably, each cast his speech as a necessary defense of the liberal arts from perceived threats. What is striking, however, is how different the threats were at the dawn of the twentieth century from those in the early-nineteenth century. In 1836, Mark Hopkins believed that he needed to justify the liberal arts to a public that was growing increasingly hostile to institutions of higher learning. The market revolution had wrought incredible change in the country, and as the nation grew closer together through trade, internal improvements, and incredible technological innovation, many people began to view established and exclusionary institutions with contempt. As Mark Hopkins related, some said colleges were “aristocratic,” others believed the curriculum “did not keep up with the spirit of the age,” and still others complained that colleges encouraged physical weakness, poor health, and bad manners. Facing this hostility, Mark Hopkins used his speech to explain how liberal arts colleges “meet the wants of the community.”

While his son heard similar criticisms, the biggest opposition came from different quarters. Henry Hopkins did not need to justify the college to “the community.” The question in 1902 was not whether or not America needed institutions of higher education. Rather, the question was what type of higher education society most needed in the twentieth century. The growth of the public high school and the state-funded land grant universities had made educational institutions an accepted part of America’s educational landscape. Henry Hopkins thus had to justify the importance of liberal arts colleges within higher education, not higher education itself.

The shared fear of father and son that the liberal arts college might vanish without a vigorous defense lead me to some questions for discussion.

• If Mark Hopkins saw societal pressures as a threat to the liberal arts colleges and if Henry Hopkins saw educators and other educational institutions as a possible threat, what threats (real or perceived) do liberal arts colleges face today and how, if it all, should they address them?

• To the challenge of the university, Henry Hopkins promised Williams would not waver from its traditions. As he said, “Williams College stands unequivocally for the specific thing which we call the liberal education, and proposes to stand for just that… The purple flag means always, and after all, one thing.”

• Does the purple flag still stand for what it meant in 1902? 1836?

• If not, what does a good liberal arts education mean today?

• Throughout Henry Hopkins’s speech, he outlined a symbiotic relationship between liberal arts colleges and universities. He believed that the liberal arts could provide the best graduate and professional students for universities. Where do liberal arts colleges fit within higher education today?

• I know that this course aims to use history as a way to foster discussion about Williams in the present, but the historian in me wants to throw out one just for fun: What was it about Jacksonian America that made society so hostile to established and exclusionary institutions like the Second Bank of the United States, the Masons, and the College?

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