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Science & The Rise of the American University–The Patriarch Conclusion

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

James Dwight Dana, 1857

James Dwight Dana, 1857

Continued from “Spreading the Word about Science”:

The line dividing science and theology was, however, still practically nonexistent, and in this somewhat delicate context, James Dwight Dana was undoubtedly the most important of Silliman’s disciples. He was both a deeply religious man and the greatest American geologist of the nineteenth century, and much as Silliman had done for Timothy Dwight, he made it possible to expand the role of science without seeming overly threatening to religion or the humanities. Dana also explicitly took up Silliman’s mission of using the sciences to build Yale into a university.

In 1856, Dana gave a speech to Yale alumni lamenting those “who still look with distrustful eyes on science.” They seem, he said, “to see a monster swelling up before them which they cannot define, and hope may yet fade away as a dissolving mist.” That specter was twofold: the shadow cast by geology on the Genesis account of the Earth’s history, and the idea of evolution, which was already in the air. (Among other developments, a former student of Silliman’s named Thomas Staughton Savage, a missionary, had recently brought home from Africa the bones of an unknown primate with a disturbing resemblance to humans—the gorilla.) But Dana was deeply committed to a biblical view of creation, and he assured his listeners of the evidence provided by geology “that God’s hand, omnipotent and bearing a profusion of bounties, has again and again been outstretched over the earth; that no senseless development principle evolved the beasts of the field out of monads”—that is, unicellular organisms—“and men out of monkeys, but that all can alike claim parentage in the Infinite Author.” (Silliman shared this belief. In one of his last lectures he had declared, “Young men, those people may think as they please but for my part I shall never believe or teach that I am descended from a tadpole!”)

Having dismissed the evolutionary bugaboo, Dana went on to argue for the expansion of scientific study on the Yale campus, with new laboratories, lecture halls, and above all a museum, “a spacious one.” This museum, Dana said, “should lecture to the eye, and thoroughly in all the sections represented, so that no one could walk through the halls without profit. It should be a place where the public passing in and out, should gather something of the spirit, and much of the knowledge, of the institution.”

Then rising to his conclusion, he called on the alumni to help build “the first university in the leading nation of the globe.… Why not have here, in this land of genial influences, beneath these noble elms… why not have here, THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY,—where nature’s laws shall be taught in all their fullness, and intellectual culture reach its highest limit!”

By coincidence—or perhaps Dana would say “miraculously”—the means of making the first part of this vision a reality arrived in New Haven just days after Dana’s speech. On August 3, 1856, the aspiring freshman O. C. Marsh took the exam for admission to Yale. By good fortune for all, he aced it. Ten years later, with money from his uncle George Peabody, a leading merchant banker, Marsh and Dana together would found the Peabody Museum.

The second part of the vision, creation of a great American university, would take a little longer. Though some people in the humanities continued to regard it with suspicion, the Sheffield Scientific School was able to expand its faculty and become a greater presence on campus. The New Haven railroad magnate Joseph E. Sheffield had not attended Yale, but no doubt in part because his son-in-law John Addison Porter ’42 taught chemistry there, he provided continuing support for the school that was now named for him. Yale was also one of the first schools to take advantage of the Morrill Act of 1862, a national land-grant program promoting technical and scientific education.

Yale would not officially call itself a university until 1887, after another Timothy Dwight, Class of 1849 and the grandson of the Timothy Dwight who had hired Silliman, became its president. Even as late as 1885, the Nation could still describe Yale as “an institution practically governed by a few clergymen of a single denomination in a single state.” But the change was well under way. By the early 1860s, with the Peabody and Sheffield gifts adding to the Morrill Act money, Yale scientists knew it. Mineralogist George J. Brush was exultant: “You can form no idea how every one seems [to] have waked up to the fact that Yale is to be a great university.”

Dana agreed: “The time of her renaissance has come!!”



One Response to “Science & The Rise of the American University–The Patriarch Conclusion”

  1. […] « Science & The Rise of the American University–The Patriarch Conclusion […]

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