Princeton University, Office of Communications, Maddy Pryor (2023)

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. — Albert Einstein

For the start of a new year we really hope will bear little resemblance to the old year, there seem two distinct ways for History Central to go: either cutting edge, downplaying the past entirely — for example, examining the antecedents of the new Quantum Science and Engineering Ph.D. program — or in contrast, just throwing caution to the winds and diving back to a time whose hot issues and institutions are now insanely anachronistic, seemingly more from another planet than just another age. 

Just mentioning the total throwback approach sounds like the start of a script outline for Doctor Who, the time-traveling fixation of British media which has sailed past its 50th year in full stride around the globe. The British seem to have to have a gift for these sorts of wacky adventures, with H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, J.R.R. Tolkien, Douglas Adams, George Orwell, and mounds of others coming immediately to mind. I would add to these in a special odd way the domain of Julian Fellowes, chief mover behind stiff-lipped upper-class megahit Downton Abbey, who has more recently created a world that would fit effortlessly into the travels of Doctor Who: the 1880s’ New York City of The Gilded Age. I would certainly think it a fair fight to put any random scion of the Vanderbilts or Astors against the worst Dalek. In any case, I think our desired remove from present concerns is easily accomplished by the machinations of New York’s elite 400 and their wannabe playmates, all busily concocting elaborate formal events and favorable matches for clueless offspring in the service of social betterment (slavishly copied from the upper-class Brits, hence Fellowes’ expertise) while ruthlessly extorting wealth from banks, railroads, and shipping around the globe. Good times!

So let me introduce you to someone right out of Fellowes’ casting call, Courtlandt Palmer Jr. of the Gramercy Park Palmers. He was in many ways the prototype of a Gilded Age social symbol, second-generation money educated at Columbia, Williams, and Columbia Law whose major reason for being was impressing his brilliance and social standing on the 400 and the nouveau riche nipping at their heels. In the age of exclusive social clubs (there were around 150 in Manhattan by the turn of the century) and society see-and-be-seen gatherings, he carved out a unique niche for himself by creating an intellectually showy corner of society, sort of a TED-talk-by-invitation club which rich folks could attend to create a pretense of valuing the life of the mind as well as the life of the almighty dollar. The Nineteenth Century Club, as he dubbed it, termed “curious and interesting” by The New York Times, invited speakers of high renown to present their takes on burning issues of the day: art criticism, intellectual property, scientific advances, women’s suffrage, that sort of thing. The popularity of this self-flattering group grew implacably, overwhelming Palmer’s showplace mansion, then various adjacent larger sites, and finally into the huge social rooms of the spanking new Metropolitan Opera House (a major social totem in The Gilded Age). The positive spin in the Times verged on the embarrassing; then Palmer died unexpectedly at 45 and the obituary portrayed him, despite his agnosticism, as almost a messianic intellectual figure. 

Meanwhile, in American higher education, the game was afoot. In the wake of new European university models and the freeing of Oxbridge from an Anglican Church stranglehold, those in America with the discretionary money to send their lads to college for “education” became interested in what precisely that entailed. Three landmark occurrences (in retrospect) took place in succession, which set the table for a fresh answer. In 1868, the 57-year-old James McCosh, renowned professor of logic and metaphysics in Belfast, was convinced to become president of the college at Princeton, bringing a surge of energy across the pond. One year later, Charles Eliot — a 35-year-old science professor from an old Boston Brahmin family, experienced in Cambridge, Massachusetts; France; and Germany — became the youngest person to be president of Harvard. And in 1876, newly endowed Johns Hopkins University opened for business with 44-year-old Daniel Coit Gilman as president, fresh from the same position at the University of California. Gilman, who spent a preliminary year visiting the German institutes, built from scratch the first research university in the U.S., with immediate focus on post-graduate education. Eliot set about liberalizing the Harvard curriculum as well, although he had centuries of tradition to overcome. This took two initiatives, in addition to the fundraising to support them. First, strengthening the faculty and facilities to support post-graduate research similar to Hopkins, and second, liberalizing the restrictions on the undergraduate program by emphasizing electives over required courses. The latter was also underway at Princeton under McCosh, but on a more measured scale, as the school had about half of Harvard’s students and faculty, and a far more limited budget and renown in global circles. 

By 1885, these parallel efforts had been running for 10 years and the developments and contrasts had become more and more a public discussion. Finally Eliot, in the service of modernization and “relevant” education, proposed to essentially ditch all required courses for undergrads following the freshman year. This was too much for McCosh, who began to publicly comment on the downsides to such an extreme approach. (While he clearly did feel that way, his faculty was apoplectic even at the idea of Greek being “optional” in a college curriculum, so his stance was prudent as well.) It didn’t take long for this difference of opinion to bubble up to the formal dinner tables of the robber barons around Gramercy Park whose offspring were off at college, and so it found the ear of intellectual tastemaker Courtlandt Palmer. The Nineteenth Century Club may or may not have been seen by the colleges as the epitome of academic sophistication, but its membership, dripping in money and New York social influence, certainly had the potential to make such initiatives happen. 

And so on Tuesday evening, Feb. 24, 1885, Palmer’s mansion was the scene of perhaps the oddest Match of the Century ever concocted in front of the national press: Harvard vs. Princeton arguing the nuances of the inscrutable 18-year-old brain. (As opposed to the body: The national champion Tigers had dominated their football contest 36-6 the prior November.) Eliot, by then a 50-year-old with 16 years on the job, had the more extreme position, so was asked to lay it out first. He came from the viewpoint that a mature 18-year-old had experienced enough to know himself (sorry, ladies, before your time) and his own intellect, and so should have the sole choice over his program of study. And a college’s rules should be predicated on this exemplum’s capabilities, not those of some lazy, distracted hooligan (which was certainly a stereotype of the college boy at the time). There were still required exams in each course, and standards to be met from the faculty, but choosing each of those courses, and even attendance in class, were the sole responsibility of the student who had to live with the results. 

McCosh followed, and the big 73-year-old with the thick Scots brogue brought his years in the pulpit to bear. Having experience of plenty of 18-year-olds in Scotland, Ireland, and America, he opined that allowing one a college degree after a program solely of “music, arts, and French plays” was not the way to go; that challenges in English literature, Greek, philosophy, mathematics, and science should be experienced by all, although freedom of some electives (as already practiced at Princeton) would indeed allow a student to test his boundaries. He closed by sticking in the knife: “Scholarship in America is not yet equal to that of Germany or England. Some of us here are desirous of raising the standard. We are discouraged by this new departure of Harvard College.” 

Eliot, in rebuttal, said that four hours study of Greek or Shakespeare per week did not necessarily a scholar make, but both sides had scored significant points. Breathless coverage ensued in newspapers across the land, and impassioned letters from readers streamed in; probably the most cogent argument, sympathetic to McCosh, was that the European gymnasiathat prepared students there for university had then no analog in U.S. secondary education; thus, filling in some pre-existing systemic gaps in American colleges was highly advisable. 

But from the parochial Princeton point of view, that likely was not really the point. The one American college name known across the globe was Harvard; McCosh had in 17 years taken the shards of the college left in Princeton after the traumatic Civil War and by virtue of ceaseless work, strategic vision, incessant experimentation and (yes) high-pressure fundraising developed an institution that could meet Harvard on a highly substantive public platform and come away on an equal footing.

As for the substance of the debate, the comeuppance would happen from 1902-10 at Princeton (Eliot was still at Harvard!), where Woodrow Wilson 1879 cherry-picked the best ideas of both sides in creating departments, precepts, and electives that paved the way for the Four Course Plan. Wilson had enthusiastically received his own Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins.