Marsh’s innovation in college curricula

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(Host) This month VPR continues its occasional series Great Thoughts of Vermont – essays that explore the intellectual life of the state and the legacy that many of our neighbors left to both the region and the world. One such Vermonter’s innovative thinking revolutionized the way our colleges and univerisities design curriculum. Commentator Ruth Page has his story.

(Page) In 1826, when President James Marsh became its president, the tiny University of Vermont had a faculty of three, including Marsh himself. Under Marsh, the little school attained considerable fame in learned circles: Marsh persuaded the Trustees to pull the curriculum out of its strait jacket and turn the students loose to start thinking for themselves. In time, colleges in many parts of the country followed that example; so little UVM led colleges far and wide to re-think their curricula.

Until Marsh took over, students could prepare for careers only in law, clergy or medicine. They read texts and spent hours listening to droning lectures, then gave back the information in tests. “When,” the deeply-learned Marsh apparently asked himself, “do they learn to THINK?” Some students became so bored under the old system that they quit college after two years.

Marsh himself, though a Dartmouth graduate, found he learned best on his own. He read widely and thought deeply. He taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, French and German. He felt philosophy was profoundly important, as it required coherent thought and could pull a mix of disciplines into an organic, interactive whole.

He was a devotee of England’s Samuel Coleridge. That famous poet was also a philosopher. Coleridge insisted that there could be true knowledge not dependent on sensory information; the mind could intuit knowledge well beyond what eyes and ears provided.

Thus Marsh altered UVM’s curriculum to make it coherent, capping it with Philosophy in the senior year to get students to think about what they’d studied and develop their own ideas. He set up four departments: English Literature (UVM was the first university in the country to have a Department of English Literature); Languages (Greek, Latin, French and Spanish); Math and Physics; and Political and Moral Philosophy. Marsh himself worked with seniors, who fully participated, in examining economics, politics, religion, logic, metaphysics and ethics.

Himself a minister, James Marsh tried to help students use their intellects to inform their religious views. He said the thinking man “…has…but one system in which his philosophy becomes religious and his religion, philosophical.” In short, he wanted to free men’s minds (of course it was always “men’s” in those days) to develop fully, on basic Christian principles.

Marsh worked personally with the seniors, encouraging, advising, and requiring them to re-think and re-write papers that were too dependent on book-learning and too little on the young men’s own thought processes. They loved it. Students flocked to him. After his death they wrote accolades of praise for his humanity, understanding and kindness, as well as his wide knowledge of many subjects.

He managed UVM brilliantly until money-raising became vital to the growing college. Knowing that was not within his abilities, he resigned in 1833 and became a full-time Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy. He died of tuberculosis in 1842 at the age of forty-seven.

This is Ruth Page, reminding us that in its early youth, UVM, with just three professors, influenced colleges around the country.

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