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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

James Monroe Taylor, “Vassar’s Contribution to Educational Theory and Practice”

Hailed as Vassar’s “second Founder” at the time of his retirement in 1914, after nearly 30 years as Vassar’s president, James Monroe Taylor returned to the campus the following year to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the college’s opening.  The event, on October 10-13, 1915, combined the semi-centennial observance with the inauguration of Taylor’s successor, Henry Noble MacCracken.  MacCracken’s father, Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Chancellor Emeritus of New York University, offered the invocation at his son’s inauguration, and over the four days addresses were given by the presidents of Brown, Mt. Holyoke, the State University of New York, and Yale, by distinguished alumnae, and by other academic dignitaries.

Rev. Taylor’s remarks, characteristically begun with a lengthy comparison from “Hebrews,” probe the “popular impressions” and “accepted traditions” about Vassar’s early days. They recall the ambitious curricular structure envisioned by its original planner, Milo Jewett, and the young college’s serial discoveries about the condition of women’s education. Taylor reflects on the question of graduate study within the liberal arts college as it evolved in his day, and he draws particular attention to early Vassar’s contribution to “the social aspect of educational theory and practice.”

Presidents MacCracken and Taylor with (l. to r.) Julia Lathrop ’80. Mary Augusta Jordan ’76, Ellen Churchill Semple ’82, and Louise Meigs ’91 at Vassar’s 50th anniversary.
Presidents MacCracken and Taylor with (l. to r.) Julia Lathrop ’80. Mary Augusta Jordan ’76, Ellen Churchill Semple ’82, and Louise Meigs ’91 at Vassar’s 50th anniversary.

ON such a day as this one can almost hear the roll-call of the heroes of the faith, who through long years watched and prayed and waited for the deliverance of women from the shackles of tradition which bound their minds to narrow limits and feared the dawning of a freer day. They had indeed “need of patience, that after they had done the will of God, they might receive the promises. . . . They saw them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them. . . . Warned of God of things not seen as yet, they waxed valiant in fight, out of weakness were made strong, through faith subdued kingdoms and wrought righteousness. . . . Of whom the world was not worthy ! . . . These all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:  God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”  

Among them all Emma Willard and Mary Lyon, great personalities which tower above an only less distinguished host of men and women, must never be unmentioned on these anniversary occasions—great in vision and in practical force, and pointing the way to new heights from which should be caught the glimpses of a larger kingdom. For these women were never so misled as to fancy they were establishing colleges, however great may have been the prophetic gift vouchsafed to them. The distinctly collegiate claim, however, was soon after advanced by Georgia and Mary Sharp at the south, and at Oberlin in the northern and then distant western state of Ohio, pioneers of a multitude that between 1830 and 1860 essayed to give collegiate training to women. When Vassar was chartered in 1861 several institutions of acknowledged collegiate grade admitted women, including one state university, Iowa. Did Vassar, opened to students in 1865, make any original contribution to this educational movement?

Did we answer that question with a plain negative, we should but enroll this with the vast majority of colleges, which have been less busy in initiating new experiments than in practicing the best known principles of education. The claim to novelty is not generally reassuring, and we students of the history of education are too well used to the promulgation of old theories as new to be easily duped by claims of originality. Yet it is interesting to ask, to-day, if this college whose position is so distinguished in the history of woman’s education, and therefore of all education, has contributed anything comparatively new to the theory and practice of its time. And if not new, has its practice introduced or fostered aught that has seemed new to its generation? 

It is not strange that to the popular mind Matthew Vassar seemed an originator of a new movement in educational history—and there was no small measure of truth in the belief. When Vassar was chartered, how many young women were there in the world who had received college degrees from recognized institutions? It is not easy to give an accurate answer, but perhaps two hundred had the A.B. degree—most of them from Oberlin and Elmira—more the B. S . ,  which was distinctly inferior,  or the B.L., which always marked a still weaker course, or some forgotten degree, such as M.E.L. or L.A. The total was so small that it had made no impression on American society, and when Elmira was chartered as late as 1855, apprehension was rife as to results in the small circle that noticed the fact  at all, and even professors and college presidents expressed themselves in a way that argued quite complete ignorance of what Oberlin had done for twenty  years. So widely trained an educational expert as Milo P. Jewett, whose influential career in Massachusetts had been followed by a professorship at Marietta, Ohio, and who was familiar with education at the south by long experience, assured Mr. Vassar that he was establishing “a new thing under the sun,” and that the foundation of a great college for women with standards like those of the better colleges for men, well endowed, recognizing the claim of every side of education and culture, physical, mental, spiritual, social, would place his  name among the great originators. No one who reads the newspapers and magazines of that time can fail to see that whatever others had done, to the masses and to the educated classes, in general, this seemed something new. And so indeed it was! If the idea was not original, yet Mr. Vassar’s grasp of it was new and unexampled, and his vision of the requirements of such a college for women was as unprecedented as his effort to make the dream a substantial fact. 

The educational plan of President Jewett, if not original, seemed so to all northern teachers. It was a daring novelty as applied to women, a university scheme, a series of schools like those at the University of Virginia, in which students should complete a definite number of courses to obtain the Master’s degree. It questioned the Procrustean four years’ course, introduced a group system and election among groups, discussed fully the objections to an elective system (remember that this was in 1863!), favored teaching without text-books, and written examinations, then little known in our colleges. Such a scheme, supplemented by the visions Jewett portrayed for Mr. Vassar, before 1860—endowments, apparatus, libraries, art-gallery, museum, physical training, a college home in an attractive park—justifies some claim to originality. 

The break of friendly relations between the president and Mr. Vassar defeated the trial of the novel plan, and Dr. Raymond, who was rightly convinced that young women then needed rigor and guidance rather than freedom of election, offered a curriculum similar to that of the typical American college with such modifications as were thought to be called for by women. His discussions show full grasp of the questions raised then and now, regarding the special needs of girls, the demands on educated women, and the responsibility to society of the woman’s college.  Recognizing that there must be much experiment, he yet entrenched himself securely in the threefold conviction that the course must be liberal and of full collegiate grade, and must not be a servile copy of existing models. If anything could be found better adapted to woman’s needs, he said, change must be made “without hesitation.” The claim of aesthetic culture seemed clear—more attention to literature, chiefly notable then in our curricula by its absence, more emphasis on art and music. But was anything else clear? Practical studies are urged, but he asks what are practical, and what not? The question was answered by a promise of opportunity for instruction in domestic employment and business methods, which was not fulfilled because “the trustees were satisfied that a full course could not be successfully incorporated into a liberal education.” 

See now what this signifies. Here was a broad course of study, a faculty which contained several men well known in their work and one distinguished woman, and laboratories for the sciences such as few colleges could then boast. Note it as evidence of outlook and advanced stand, that when the first building. Main, was erected (1861-65), provision was made for a students’ laboratory (then very uncommon in America). As early as 1874, when Dr. Cooley came to Vassar, he found a large senior class ready for laboratory work in qualitative analysis, provided with the most recent text-book designed for classes in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and this laboratory work was necessary for a degree. And Vassar kept pace with the later advance in educational practice when, in 1880, she built and equipped the Vassar Brothers Laboratory for general work. From the opening there was an observatory with a telescope, then second or third in size in the country; a “ cabinet, ”as it was then called, reckoned rare and excellent by such a leader of geological science as Dana; an art- gallery, the equal of which did not exist in more than one or  two American colleges; a gymnasium, where the  best physical system at that time known for women, Dio Lewis’s, was installed; a riding-school fully equipped, even to a German baron and his wife; a  music school, well furnished; a small but growing  library, and ambitions and ideals beyond limit. Mark this! As Jewett promised, it was “a new thing under the sun.” 

The popular impression was not a mistake. And remember, all this was prepared during our great war, which had closed the southern colleges and reduced and almost extinguished educational interest in many northern institutions. When the war closed, in 1865, leaving through the north a vastly awakened and intensified life and deeply developed and broadened interests among women, who had learned organization and wider service in local societies, sanitary commissions, and at the front, Vassar threw open its doors to meet this great new demand with such an answer as the world had never before given to womankind. No wonder that other, less prominent efforts were for the time forgotten or obscured! The hour had struck, and the new call was greeted with an answer unprecedented in all the annals of woman’s efforts and woman’s aspiration. Matthew Vassar received no more than he deserved. If not, in our objective way of reading history, strictly an innovator, he was virtually an originator, as he thought himself to be, and his new institution offered a novelty in education and an answer to what was then practically a new demand. 

Let us note particularly that this offer of a broad education for woman, without relation to what was thought to be her special sphere or responsibility, then practically a novelty, was deliberate and not accidental. We are told commonly that the first trustees and faculty of this woman’s college aimed to give woman a man’s education, the only one then available and understood by them, that no other point of view occurred to the pioneers, and that it is left to us, their wiser children, women having now proved their capacity, to indicate the special directions in which they may apply their abilities without wasting them in lines better fitted for the masculine mind and life. In short, it is said, our fathers were so enamored of this ideal of equal education that they had no thought for differentiations demanded by differences of sex. 

So far as the first trustees of Vassar are concerned, this is pure fiction. I wish I might so emphasize this as to make some slight impression on an accepted tradition and on reiterated assertions of those unfamiliar with the original records. They never forgot that they were acting for women. Their letters, their discussions, their formulated plans, abound in evidence that they were seeking all the time for the supposed demands of a girl’s mind and its special limitations. The Founder, a plain man, awakened to this ambition late in life, wished a woman to have all the rights she could use, but was most cautious, in defining those rights, to emphasize her intellectual independence and claims. Dr. Jewett kept in mind in all he did the consideration of the peculiar needs of women, and President Raymond’s “Prospectus “ acknowledged them and promised opportunities for domestic training and “peculiarly feminine employment,” such as telegraphy and phonography, practical lessons in decoration of rooms, dress, flowers, etc. He sought not a man’s education, he said, “but one suited to the sex.” While the essentially similar intellectual faculty of girls would be answered by the ordinary college curriculum, constitutional differences, intellectual and moral, would be kept in view, he assured the public. The first lady principal, a lady of the old school, emphasized constantly the importance of cultivating the feminine graces and powers in a woman’s college. They were all awake to the question as to what the mysterious mental difference might be in girls of eighteen to twenty as compared with their brothers of like age.

Why, then, do you ask, was there so little to distinguish the course at Vassar from the general curriculum of the American colleges of the sixties? Because in actual observation and experience they could not discover such mental peculiarities as called for different training in a general, liberal education, such as a college is supposed to give to undergraduates.  Were they not confronted with the vocational issues of today? Did they have no discernment of woman’s special function in the home, no understanding of the responsibilities of motherhood, no knowledge of the need of a girl to cook and sew, and administer a household and care for children? They were old-fashioned folk, these fathers. So far as I know, there was not among them one who was likely to forget  “woman’s sphere,” or to fail to define it in a way satisfactory to those most concerned for these things to-day. Moreover, from the press and occasional correspondents came brisk reminders of woman’s proper “empire.” It has not been left to our day, be it said to our younger contemporaries, to discover how important to women is a knowledge of domestic science and of the birth and care of children.

How did it happen, then, that all promises were forgotten and all plans canceled which looked toward such instruction in the first Vassar? Because Mr. Vassar wished the daughters to have the intellectual opportunities and the means of culture which were so freely provided for the sons; because he and his trustees had faith that such training of body, mind, and spirit as they planned would prove better, broader, and more promising than special education, and immensely superior in its provision for the resources of maturer life. Moreover, with all their search they were unable to find such intellectual peculiarities in the feminine mind as should change the essential elements of education. No one who reads the reports of the hundreds who applied for entrance to Vassar fifty years ago can doubt that American education for girls was in the main pitiable, superficial, and deadening. Dr. Raymond said in his Vienna report—and no one knew as well as he—that it was “a sham.” The fathers therefore had a duty to womankind, to educate girls really, to train them to study, read, and think, and to awaken them to loftier ideals. They chose the instrument at hand, not because it was for men: Jewett had been teaching girls for sixteen years in Alabama. They had failed to discover the subtle distinctions which demanded another kind of mental training for women—just as our wise generation has also failed.  Woman should have a chance: that was Mr. Vassar’s purpose. The life is more than meat. She should be educated, therefore, not as homemaker, not as mother, but as an individual; so that whatever her life might be, she should give herself to home, family, social life, public service, with all the better equipment, skill, and accomplishment because she herself was trained. 

Some of you think that times have changed and that the demand on women calls for another kind of education. But one thing has not changed and will not change—the need of a soul for its own development, for resource, for mental breadth and outlook, unharried by immediate needs, or the fancied call of a sphere that may never be aught but a fancy and a vision. Let no word of mine be thought to reflect on other modes of education as meeting specific demands or immediate calls. I give them my unqualified respect and sympathy, as means to particular ends. Liberal education, however, has broader promise and resource and inspiration for the soul’s life, and that is fundamental in our preparation for special work, for professional life, for social service, for the ministry to church or state. Larger-souled men and women are quite as important today as those stamped with efficiency.

The new tendency among women, so many of whom clamor now for the specific before the general—to learn to teach, for example, before they have anything to teach—is a backward step to the times before Vassar, singling women out again for special spheres instead of training them well to choose and fix their spheres. It is the old argument revived of a writer in “Godey’s Lady’s Book” of 1865, that men’s colleges, forsooth, are preparatory, but a seminary for young ladies is designed ”to complete the education of its inmates,” that is, to fit them for their specific sphere. Watch your heritage, college women! Watch the tendencies to reduce your colleges of liberal learning by a theory which would logically make our colleges for men into schools of business, professions, training for fatherhood, education in blacksmithing or for bank clerks. Better housekeepers, wives, mothers, teachers, social workers, stenographers, saleswomen— yes! yes! Our need is manifest. But better women, first of all, larger in grasp, wider of vision, fuller of resource for the soul in the conflicts of these latter days— that was the message, practically new, that Vassar flashed on a questioning world. We must indeed meet the needs of our time, but what are its chief needs? Sane vision; calm weighing of theories that seem to threaten with dire signs home and church and state, and as never before the very existence of the democracy we love and treasure; broad views of life’s responsibilities; the spirit that knows that violence destroys and never constructs;  and hope and faith as well as fearlessness. Where shall we put our chief emphasis? That is the question. On bread, or “on every word of God“? It was the Master’s answer to the tempter that we may well carry into all our ideals of education: ”Man  shall not live by bread alone.” On a hard and overworked material efficiency that eventuates in horrid and all-destroying war? Or on the trained spirit which, while efficient, can yet see visions and dream dreams? 

Here, then, was the first, great, chief contribution Vassar made fifty years ago to educational theory and practice, with a new emphasis such as it had never before received. Confronting the prejudices of the day, though firm believers in woman’s sphere and specific duties, these first trustees of Vassar declared that women should have here the opportunity of broad and liberal training, leaving the question of its specific use for their own determination in maturer years. It was a great contribution, in 1865, the year of the closing of our Civil War. It was even then recognized as such, and by most it was believed to be new.

For ten years Vassar stood quite alone in the popular estimate. Again it was not alone, but to most it seemed so. It was the special exponent of a cause and the special butt as well of the foes of that cause.  What in those years before Smith and Wellesley opened, and while the state universities were tardily falling into line, was the contribution of Vassar to the great issue? We have a notable pamphlet which in part tells the story, President Raymond’s report for the world exposition at Vienna in 1873.  It shows that there was no occasion for an apologetic stand on Vassar ’s part toward other colleges, under the standards and limitations of the period immediately following our great war. A want of historical perspective is revealed in judging the Vassar of that time by the standards of today. The presence of a preparatory department, for years a grim necessity, social rules adapted for that very different epoch, and a curriculum quite unlike that of today, are no impeachment of Vassar’s stand from 1865 to 1875. 

It is with the college of that day that it must be compared, and it bears the comparison well, in curriculum, in the enforcement of its standards (quite another thing), and in its products. Fourteen years after Vassar opened, in 1879, President Barnard, whose services to woman’s education must always be remembered with gratitude, thought that no separate college could meet the standards of the institutions for men, but his addresses show sometimes a want of actual knowledge of what Vassar was really doing, and an undervaluation of the ideals and  equipment and faculties of the younger colleges for  women now opened, to say nothing of an idealizing  of the relations of the equipment of a university to  actual undergraduate requirements and use. Vassar ’s president was a very able leader and was fully accustomed to college ideals and standards, and in the small faculty were several well-known scholars and teachers, eminent then or since, with experience in colleges for men, and with tremendous determination and enthusiasm to make the new effort worthy of the fellowship of the best. Moreover, they were met by an eagerness and purpose on the part of their students not so manifest among young men, and a sense of responsibility for a new cause that dominated their conduct. The sciences, as we have seen, were remarkably well equipped for that day, and the standards in the older disciplines of mathematics and the languages, which constituted the bulk of the studies of that time, were as high and as well maintained as at most American institutions. 

In those ten years, then, Vassar demonstrated that a woman’s college, well equipped and well officered, could maintain high collegiate standards, could train women intellectually as well as their brothers were trained, and could fit them for life, in public or private service—yes, for woman’s life! Scholars indeed were few, and that was also true in the colleges for men; and for women there were almost no encouragements outside the love of learning. Yet of three hundred and twenty-three who graduated in the first ten classes, thirty -five were officers and instructors in colleges in 1900, twenty of these in colleges of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, and thirteen were heads of private academies. Thirty-five had taken the Master’s degree; three had won the S.B., and two the Ph.D. (by 1900); and remember that in those days few men took a Ph.D.  in course. Upwards of thirty wrote books or contributed to magazines, besides eleven who wrote textbooks. Twelve were physicians, striving against great prejudice. Four were artists, two farmers, two book-keepers. Though the great movement of organized philanthropy came later, three held administrative positions, one hundred and twenty-eight had taught, one-third of whom had been married before 1900. Of the whole number, 56.03 per cent married, one hundred and eighty-one out of three hundred and twenty-three; and they had three hundred and sixty-one children, an average of two to a marriage, but five of them had six each; two hundred and four were boys and one hundred and fifty-seven girls. Sixty-nine of these graduates had died by 1900. These three hundred women had proved by their normality and efficiency that college women were of value in home and church and state, and in all spheres influenced by woman’s life. The fears of men had not been realized: the girl student after all did not talk Greek to the college man’s well-garnished slang, and Sidney Smith’s old sneer was verified in that she did not generally prefer a quadratic equation to a baby. 

Vassar had met the challenge of an unbelieving world, and made the conflict less poignant for all who should come after her. The arguments against woman’s physical and mental capacity, the fears that a college training would unsex her and destroy her faith, and separate her from interest in woman’s life and functions in the world, were chiefly directed against Vassar. The supposed necessary weakness of a curriculum for women was tested at her door.  The fear that girls could not be held to exact results and solid discipline was met in her classrooms. The expectation of abnormality and morbidity was answered by the strong life of her graduates. In a degree not true of any other college, because of her equipment and her prominence, she was forcing on the world attention to the new demands of women, advocating their claims, setting standards that compelled acknowledgment, and educating leaders for the colleges yet to be. Patiently, against want of faith and want of interest, against false views and prejudiced antagonisms, Vassar led the battle for the better day, and slowly, slowly— too slowly —won at last the recognition she had long deserved through her honesty and thoroughness. If history does not strictly give her the priority among colleges educating women, it must allow that her place and work through these ten years made her first in responsibility and first in achievement. 

The later problems concern us less today because the life of the pioneer was now merged in the general movement. To improve American standards of scholarship, to make scholarly men and women as well as scholars, and so to train them as to make them more useful in society and the nation, was the task of all, and involved no peculiar service from  Vassar. But be it ever remembered that for many years there was no equal opportunity for the woman scholar, even indeed if now there is. 

Yet throughout this period, in the spirit of American individuality, each college was aiming at the goal in its own way. Will it not indeed be a sorry, dismal day for our colleges when the standardizers and apostles of efficiency succeed in reducing them to the deadly and deadening unity to which they have brought, for instance, the hotels of Europe?  Many believed, and now believe, that every college should establish and maintain graduate work. The problem seemed vital to Vassar. To many of its faculty and trustees it seemed clear that more differentiation was needed in American education, and that the efforts of most institutions to carry on graduate work must result either in hindering undergraduate progress or in superficializing graduate study.  The subject was carefully considered, extensive correspondence was held with leaders of American education, and in 1894 Vassar withdrew the offer of the Doctor’s degree and limited the advanced work offered by the college to study for the Master’s degree, and for the encouragement of higher scholarship undertook the establishment of fellowships for study at universities. 

Some of you think Vassar gave a wrong answer to the question. To my own fresh memory of conditions then—the weak graduate courses at so many of our colleges, and the offer of the Doctor’s degree where there was no possibility of giving the work which should underlie it—the stand of Vassar seems a distinct contribution to the scholarly ideals of that time, taken by a college then as able as most of its compeers to offer graduate work, and deliberately taken in what seemed to it the interest of undergraduate thoroughness and for the clarifying of the ideals of graduate scholarship. For Vassar, at least, the plan has worked successfully, and large numbers have gone from her classes to study in various universities. Last year ten fellowships were awarded for that purpose. Meanwhile, the college gained greater opportunity to study and develop the conditions of undergraduate teaching and progress. 

One other principal problem has beset our colleges during this period— the enormous increase in the numbers of undergraduates and the relation of this to efficient work. To some that has not seemed a problem at all, but almost everywhere one has heard an undertone of questioning if perhaps numbers might not become too great for efficient handling, until the habit of the mob should dominate the college. Certainly the question is two-sided. The large college has great advantages, and just as unquestionable are the claims of the small, if both are well equipped and well disciplined. Whether there might not be a compromise is open to trial. Would not a college establishing several distinct units, bound by one tradition, one government, one worship, one central library, but developing in each unit distinct characteristics due to separate faculties and deans, unite the advantages of the large and small? It is to be regretted that the funds at Vassar were not sufficient for the hopeful experiment; and it was boldly decided to limit its students to one thousand. For many years it has adhered to this policy, meeting many practical difficulties, sometimes miscalculating the number of its accepted candidates, but always honestly, and generally successfully, holding to its policy. It has found, again, its energy set free for its undergraduates in giving to the thousand all the care and thought involved in providing for uncertain but surely increasing numbers. The effort to add to the buildings, the necessary reconstruction of the “plant”—so-called—to answer to the larger college, the sudden adjustments of the faculty, have given way to the focusing of attention on a definite problem. As no limit was placed on faculty or courses offered, these have increased while the student body has remained practically stationary. 

The contribution of Vassar to the social aspect of educational theory and practice deserves a tribute.  Our American colleges have seen periods when in loco parentis was read literally and extremely; others when the class-room has seemed to bound the teacher’s vision of responsibility (with due injury to theories of teaching as well); and others still, when to a full recognition of the independence of the young  has been added a sense of the responsibility of experience to inexperience, and of maturity to youth.  Probably women’s colleges have been more prone, from the nature of things, to remember this aspect of the teacher’s duty. At least it is true that Vassar in its earliest history put forth boldly, strongly, and with conviction the theory of a “guarded education,” the fact of responsibility assumed necessarily and inevitably by any body of older people who admit to their circle of influence inexperienced and untried youth. It founded a lady principalship which should have special care of the social interests and life of students, which should offer them friendly counsel and should try to meet their problems with them, by sympathy, advice, and regulation. It never recognized the theory that students may shock all the conventions of a refined moral society with impunity. No woman’s college then—or even now—could be as indifferent to this as colleges for men have too often been. So it came to pass that regulations were established that seemed to older girls like the rules of a boarding-school, and so it happened that they were relaxed as society became freer  and as young women proved their own inherent love  of order and reasoned life. 

But mere regulation was not its chief purpose.  Some like to scoff” at “influence,” as if implying something vague and sentimental and unappealing to reason, yet the influence of such a personality as Hannah Lyman’s, that instilled into the college  generations qualities of womanly force, regard for  law, religious interest, hatred of the coarse, ungentle, and bizarre, and respect for the characteristics  in speech and act of the true, refined lady; the influence of Mrs. Kendrick (to name only the first  and last of an honored line), who for twenty of these  fifty years, by her cultivated mind and heart, her  poise and great social gifts, her ideals and her sane  Christian faith, impressed thousands of young women: these are to be reckoned with as forces in education, intellectual as well as spiritual, and they are  among Vassar’s distinct, deliberate, and purposed  contributions to educational theory and practice. 

There has been no lack here of recognition of the student. No college could have believed more in its students, or more fully trusted them. But Vassar has thus far adopted no extreme form of student government. There is a splendid, but crude individuality at twenty, full of self-assertion that life will train down, unbalanced because inexperienced, which sees all reform without fringes of comparative good and bad, a condition non-existent outside the fancy of an enthusiast. To learn restraint, patience, knowledge before utterance; to gain also from the experience of one’s elders, and not merely from crass and wasteful experiment, is the meaning of education. The very continuity of an institution’s life demands more than a changeful rule. The splendid enthusiasm and unbalanced individuality of youth must beat against the policies that express the experience of maturity; and experience and knowledge have to answer to this trust, not so much to the youth of to-day, as to this same youth chastened, disciplined, and ripened by ten years of life in a world that measures rigidly and judges harshly, and only by results. Is it not worthy of note that the graduates of our colleges of ten years’ standing generally remark on the tendencies to license in the undergraduate? 

Whether we will or not, faculty and trustees and administrative officers must answer to families and to society for the influences that gather about their students. Happily, in late years, at Harvard and Yale, at Columbia and Princeton, and at a host of American colleges, there has been a growing conviction that we are responsible for our youth, and are wrong, unutterably wrong, if we cast them off from our counsel and our sympathy. We are learning, perhaps, that the ten commandments have as large a place in real education as Livy ’s “Preface, ” and the spirit of Christ as great a claim as the charm of Chaucer. At least, so thought the founders of Vassar when they established an office whose function was a splendid influence for life through nearly fifty years. When in 1913 the last incumbent resigned, new conditions calling for larger organization and greater division of labor led to a reorganization; but in the wardens, united as a committee with their head warden, the college expressly aims to recognize and continue an influence that has been immeasurable in preserving manners, sanity, loyalty, faith, and large intellectual and social ideals, through all these fifty years. 

So from the beginning Vassar has confronted the whole problem of woman’s life, in itself and as a social force. At a college celebration a while since, one of our educational leaders declared, “Twenty- five years ago the question was, ‘What can the woman’s college do for women? ‘ Now it is, ‘ What can the woman’s college do for the community? ‘ ” I must take exception to this so far as Vassar is concerned. The earliest literature of the college abounds in purpose toward society, not womankind alone.  Today, indeed, the social emphasis is about all one hears, and we forget that essential to it is a strong, well-developed individuality. But constituted as we are, we cannot wholly destroy either individual or social emphasis. A few years ago, for example, the American college world discovered that citizenship was the fit aim of a college training, but no modern writer has said that more forcefully than Aristotle.  Twenty-five years ago, on such an occasion as this, the president of Vassar said that the aim of this college was “the broadening and lifting of the life of womankind, and thereby of the entire race.” Womanhood for school, sick-room, social circle, church, home, journalism, business, all were in view, he declared, because from the beginning the ideal of Vassar was to make of a Vassar student a thorough, well-trained, forceful woman, who should use herself and all she had gained for the service of the world. Perhaps the preaching of that so earnestly in all the earliest years gave those first Vassar women the reputation that followed them everywhere—that they were wise and efficient and knew how to grasp and handle the problems of life. That was, and is, the best evidence that can be given that the old-fashioned college education— liberal, large-visioned—is a great preparation for life’s responsibilities, as it assuredly is an open sesame of abiding joy and spiritual fullness.

Happily the days of 1865 have given way to a far better time. Today Vassar is no problem. Rather, she stands here, grown beyond the imagination of her Founder, and welcomes to her anniversary not only her younger sisters and her forebears, graciously celebrating with her this day of her glory and of theirs, but also from all over the land universities and colleges that regarded her coming with questions many and small faith, but which to-day are one in their rejoicing in her contributions to the  common work of all, for our nation, for our common humanity, and for the Kingdom of God.


Emma Willard (1787-1870) founded Troy Female Seminary, later the Emma Willard School, as a female collegiate preparatory school in Troy, New York, in 1821.

Mary Lyon (1797-1849) founded, first, the Wheaton Female Seminary (1835) and then Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary (1837).  Over time, the seminaries became Wheaton College (MA) and Mount Holyoke College.

LeRoy C. Cooley taught chemistry at Vassar between 1874 and 1907.

Dio (Dioclesian) Lewis (1823-1886) was a physician and educator who, along with Catharine Beecher (1800-1878), promoted the physical training known as calisthenics–particularly for women’s physical education.  Lewis’s work influenced the design and construction of Vassar’s third building, the Calisthenium and Riding Academy (1867).

As early as 1872, Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard (1809-1889), president (1864-1888) of Columbia College, later Columbia University, had advocated for the admission of women to the college.  In 1882, he published “The Higher Education of Women,” excerpts from his annual reports to the Columbia trustees between 1879 and 1881.  When, in the year of his death, a women’s college was established at Columbia, it bore his name.



James Monroe Taylor, “Vassar’s Contribution to Educational Theory and Practice,” The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Opening of Vassar College, Constance Mayfield Rourke, ed., Poughkeepsie, NY, 1916

CJ 2009