In a recent issue of History of Education Quarterly, 48(4), Michael Lee discusses William Rainey Harper’s role in the founding of — the second — University of Chicago in 1891 and what the recognition of his explicitly religious approach means for the standard secular histories of higher education.
Harper’s conception of the relationship between scholarly research and Christianity challenges and complicates the dominant history of the development of universities in America. Whereas most mid- and late nineteenth-century university presidents in America gently reassured a nervous public that the Christian religion had nothing to fear from research and scholarly freedom, Harper trumpeted a different message: the research university would save Christianity. (pp. 510-511)
Harper’s approach distinguished him from the other visionary administrators of his time, while at the same time connecting him to an earlier tradition.
American colleges, like Harvard and Yale, were originally little more than boarding schools for young boys training for the ministry. Professors strove to instill godly character and knowledge of the Bible by recitation, rhetoric, and simple mathematics. They were seldom expected to research or discover new knowledge. In the mid- and late nineteenth century, educational leaders such as Henry Phillip Tappan of the University of Michigan, Noah Porter of Yale, Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins University, G. Stanley Hall of Clark University, and Seth Low of Columbia College hoped to elevate the level of scholarship in the United States, and the German universities served as their ideal. In this regard, Harper was like many of the first generation of university presidents. However, this article argues that Harper’s vision of a university made him unique among his peers. (p. 510)
The results of this difference shaped the specific character of the early University of Chicago—and the institutional context that greeted John Dewey upon his arrival from the University of Michigan in 1894.