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Cotton Mather on the “Collegiate Way of Living”

Many writers on higher education have extolled the virtues of “a collegiate way of living.” This website takes its name from that popular phrase, which originated with the Massachusetts scholar, writer, and Puritan divine, Cotton Mather (1663–1728). One of the books that makes up Mather’s history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana (London, 1702), is devoted to the founding of Harvard College in 1636. Mather tells the story thus:

§. 2. A General Court held at Boston, Sept. 8. 1630. advanced a Small Sum (and it was then a Day of Small Things) namely, Four Hundred Pounds, by way of Essay towards the Building of something to begin a Colledge; and New-Town being the Kiriath Sepher appointed for the Seat of it, the Name of the Town was for the sake of somewhat now founding here, which might hereafter grow into an University, changed into Cambridge. ’Tis true, the University of Upsal in Sueden, hath ordinarily about seven or eight Hundred Students belonging to it, which do none of them live Collegiately, but board all of them here and there at Private Houses; nevertheless the Government of New-England, was for having their Students brought up in a more Collegiate Way of Living. But that which laid the most significant Stone in the Foundation, was the Last Will of Mr. John Harvard, a Reverend, and Excellent Minister of the Gospel, who dying at Charlestown, of a Consumption, quickly after his Arrival here, bequeathed the Sum of Seven Hundred, seventy nine Pounds, seventeen Shillings, and two Pence, towards the Pious Work of building a Colledge, which was now set a foot. A Committee then being chosen, to prosecute an Affair, so happily commenced, it soon found Encouragement from several other Benefactors: The other Colonies sent some small Help to the Undertaking, and several particular Gentlemen did more, than whole Colonies to support and forward it: But because the Memorable Mr. John Harvard, led the Way by a Generosity exceeding the most of them, that followed His Name was justly Æternized, by its having the Name of Harvard-Colledge imposed upon it.

Supplemental note · February 2009: At least one other eighteenth-century writer is now known to have taken note of Mather’s observations on the collegiate way of living: the English non-conformist clergyman Edmund Calamy, D.D. (1671–1732).

Mather’s turn of phrase was picked up by the historian Samuel Eliot Morison in his Founding of Harvard College, written in 1936 for the University’s tercentenary celebration:

As to the means and methods by which this high purpose {the establishment of a college} was to be carried out, the founders were quite clear. Nothing mean, poor, or second-rate would satisfy them, or please God. No prudent considerations of economy must limit their ambition; they would aim high from the start. Emmanuel Downing, writing from England, thought that it would be enough at first to hire some minister to read a weekly lecture on ‘logick, greke or hebrew,’ and let the students shift for themselves—‘you need not stay till you haue Colledges to lodge schollars.’ There was ample precedent for this in the great universities of the Netherlands. Neighboring ministers like Cotton, Wilson, Mather, Eliot, Symmes, and Knowles, all university graduates and many with teaching experience, could easily have spared the time to lecture once or twice a week on the Arts and Sciences. But, as Cotton Mather observed, ‘the Government of New-England was for having their Students brought up in a more Collegiate Way of Living.’ To the English mind, university learning apart from college life was not worth having; and the humblest resident tutor was accounted a more suitable teacher than the most eminent community lecturer. Book learning alone might be got by lectures and reading; but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted to young men. Hence President Dunster trained his own tutors, and devoted some of his best efforts to completing the college building which had been begun as soon as the College was established.

Dunster found this building, the future ‘Old College,’ which had been framed in Eaton’s administration, in charge of a committee of the Overseers composed of Hugh Peter, Samuel Shepard, and Joseph Cooke, ‘who prudently declined the troble and left it to the two first.’ By October, 1641, when both Peter and Shepard left for England, ‘leaving the work in the Carpenters and masons hands without guide or further director,’ this building was framed, boarded, and roofed; but only the hall floor was laid, no partitions had been raised, nor furniture provided. In the meantime the students, having overflowed the old Peyntree house, were ‘dispersed in the town and miserably distracted in their times of concourse.’ And also, in the meantime, New England had entered the most severe economic depression in her history, one which threatened to quench the very life of the Bay Colony.

The idea of the collegiate way was further taken up and examined by the great historian Frederick Rudolph in his masterful volume The American College and University: A History. In a chapter titled “The Collegiate Way” he wrote:

William Tecumseh Sherman, who would be remembered for marching through Georgia, began his career in the South as president of a military college that became Louisiana State University. Reporting on the opening of the institution in 1860 he remarked: “The dullest boys have the most affectionate mothers and the most vicious boys here come recommended with all the virtues of saints.... Of course I promised to be a father to them all.” A Princeton alumnus, searching in 1914 for some way to define the Princeton spirit, decided that he could best convey his meaning by describing Princeton as a place “where each man ... may enter dozens of rooms whose doors are never locked or their tobacco jars empty.” In despair, the personnel counselors of a large urban university reported to their administrative superiors in 1938:

Our students are markedly lacking in social skills, the ability to meet people and to get along with them. They frequently feel ill at ease in a social group and cannot engage in conversation in other than argumentative fashion.

Our students are constantly being frustrated by financial difficulties, by their social awkwardness and by their lack of practical and social experience....

All these remarks have in common one of the oldest traditions of the American college, a tradition so fundamental, so all-encompassing, that to call it merely a tradition is to undervalue it. For what is involved here is nothing less than a way of life, the collegiate way.

The collegiate way is the notion that a curriculum, a library, a faculty, and students are not enough to make college. It is an adherence to the residential scheme of things. It is respectful of quiet rural settings, dependent on dormitories, committed to dining halls, permeated by paternalism. It is what every American college has had or consciously rejected or lost or sought to recapture. It is William Tecumseh Sherman promising to be a father to an entire student body; it is comfort and full tobacco jars in a Princeton dormitory; in an urban university it is counselors helping the socially inept to overcome their weaknesses.

Most recently Mark Ryan, for many years dean of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale University and later dean of the colleges at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, has brought together many of his own graceful essays in A Collegiate Way of Living: Residential Colleges and a Yale Education, the best book now available on residential college life:

Ethics, community, citizenship, instruction, cocurricular programming and peer learning: these interrelated aims are ancient. Most can be traced back not only to the beginning of American higher education, but in one form or another even to the liberal arts ideals of classical antiquity. They are by no means dependent on residence. But along the way, residence has been seen as a means of embracing them. The ideals and experience of that rich history can help to guide our own vision today, as American universities make new excursions down the Collegiate Way.


© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014