Posted by: Democratic Thinker | June 11, 2010

Webster’s American Education—§ 7

American Thought

Noah Webster, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, publishes an essay in his American Magazine outlining his reasons and methods for revising the educational system in the new republic.


NEW YORK, 1788.


§ 7.  Local Situation of Colleges and Academies.

WITH respect to literary institutions of the first rank, it appears to me that their local situations are an object of importance. It is a subject of controversy, whether a large city or a country village is the most eligible situation for a college or university. But the arguments in favor of the latter, appear to me decisive. Large cities are always scenes of dissipation and amusement, which have a tendency to corrupt the hearts of youth and divert their minds from their literary pursuits. Reason teaches this doctrine, and experience has uniformly confirmed the truth of it.

Strict discipline is essential to the prosperity of a public seminary of science; and this is established with more facility, and supported with more uniformity, in a small village, where there are no great objects of curiosity to interrupt the studies of youth or to call their attention from the orders of the society.

That the morals of young men, as well as their application to science, depend much on retirement, will be generally acknowleged; but it will be said also, that the company in large towns will improve their manners. The question then is, which shall be sacrificed; the advantage of an uncorrupted heart and an improved head; or of polished manners. But this question supposes that the virtues of the heart and the polish. of the gentleman are incompatible with each other; which is by no means true. The gentleman and the scholar are often united in the same person. But both are not formed by the same means. The improvement of the head requires close application to books; the refinement of manners rather attends some degree of dissipation, or at least a relaxation of the mind. To preserve the purity of the heart, it is sometimes necessary, and always useful, to place a youth beyond the reach of bad examples; whereas a general knowlege of the world, of all kinds of company, is requisite to teach a universal propriety of behavior.

But youth is the time to form both the head and the heart. The understanding is indeed ever enlarging; but the seeds of knowlege should be planted in the mind, while it is young and susceptible; and if the mind is not kept untainted in youth, there is little probability that the moral character of the man will be unblemished. A genteel address, on the other hand, may be acquired at any time of life, and must be acquired, if ever, by mingling with good company. But were the cultivation of the understanding and of the heart, inconsistent with genteel manners, still no rational person could hesitate which to prefer. The goodness of a heart is of infinitely more consequence to society, than an elegance of manners; nor will any superficial accomplishments repair the want of principle in the mind. It is always better to be vulgarly right, than politely wrong.

But if the amusements, dissipation and vicious examples in populous cities render them improper places for feats of learning; the monkish mode of sequestering boys from other society, and confining them to the apartments of a college, appears to me another fault. The human mind is like a rich field, which, without constant care, will ever be covered with a luxuriant growth of weeds. It is extremely dangerous to suffer young men to pass the most critical period of life, when the passions are strong, the judgement weak, and the heart susceptible and unsuspecting, in a situation where there is not the least restraint upon their inclinations. My own observations lead me to draw the veil of silence over the ill effects of this practice. But it is to be wished that youth might always be kept under the inspection of age and superior wisdom; that literary institutions might be so situated, that the students might live in decent families, be subject, in some measure, to their discipline, and ever under the control of those whom they respect.

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