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article number 640
article date 02-28-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our New Growth of Knowledge, Late 1800’s
by Arthur Schlesinger

From the 1941 book, Political and Social Growth of the American People, 1865-1940.

The Progress of Institutions for Knowledge

IF THE CITY begot grave problems of social maladjustment, it also served as the dynamo of an active cultural life. As Josiah Strong wrote in 1887, “The city is the great center of influence, both good and bad. It contains that which is fairest and foulest in our civilization.”

The concentration of taxable wealth rendered possible an ampler financial support than rural communities could afford for schools, libraries and the like, while benefactions of the well-to-do supplemented governmental efforts. Moreover, the presence of a dense population provided the necessary patronage for the increasing array of cultural agencies.

As a result, the urban communities contained the best schools, the best churches, the best newspapers and virtually all the bookstores, circulating libraries, art galleries, museums, theaters, concert halls and opera houses.

In such an environment gifted individuals turned naturally to creative work in letters and the arts. Fortunately, they could always find others of kindred interests and, in an atmosphere of mutual encouragement and stimulating criticism, ripen, their powers to the fullest. At the same time, the proximity of publishers, art dealers and wealthy patrons afforded an opportunity to sell the products of their talent.

It is not surprising that the great cultural advances came out of the city or that its influence penetrated to the farthest countryside.

Never before had private riches contributed so greatly toward elevating the general level of education and taste. From 1871 to the close of the century no less than a third of a billion dollars was given for such purposes half of it going to colleges and universities. Critics of the economic order cynically attributed this generosity to a love of ostentation, an eagerness for public approbation or, as Dr. Gladden would have said, a desire to drug an uneasy conscience.

That there was also developing a sense of "richesse oblige" Andrew Carnegie made clear in an article in the ’North American Review’ in 1889, in which he asserted that a successful capitalist’s career should consist of two periods, first, that of acquiring wealth and, second, that of distributing it for the public good.

Whatever motives stirred the princely givers, the urban dwellers, who reaped most of the benefit, profited greatly in their cultural life.

The postwar years witnessed an educational renaissance like that of the 1830’s and 1840’s. In the North, where tax-supported elementary schools were already the rule, expansion and development occurred in every part of the educational system.

Among the innovations was the kindergarten, a device for persuading youngsters through play activities to take the first steps in learning. Though Mrs. Carl Schurz, a pupil of Froebel, had conducted a private kindergarten for German children at her home in Watertown, Wisconsin, as early as 1855, the plan did not become attached to the regular school system until St. Louis set the example in 1873. By 1900 there were nearly three thousand public kindergartens in the nation.

At the upper educational levels methods of instruction showed constant improvement partly through the introduction of better textbooks, and even more because an increasing number of commonwealths accepted the responsibility of teacher-training by establishing tax-supported normal schools. At the same time the North made school attendance compulsory, thus registering its conviction that education was not merely an opportunity for the individual child but a civic obligation.

Meanwhile, free public high schools multiplied, growing from about five hundred in 1870 to six thousand in 1900. As home economics, manual training and other new subjects suited to the times crept into the course of study, the typical secondary school lengthened its term from three to four years.

In this fashion twelve years of schooling came to be established as the standard period of preparation for college.

Urban America recorded the greatest gains. The thinly populated country districts trailed behind the towns and cities and, by the same token, the South lagged behind the North. Rural schools, even in the East, generally remained ungraded, the terms short, and the teachers ill trained and wretchedly paid.

As a section predominantly rural, Dixie was further handicapped by postwar poverty and by the heavy expense of maintaining separate schools for the two races, a burden borne chiefly by the whites. Moreover, having been little affected by the educational awakening of Horace Mann’s time, the people had to build their system from the ground up.

Despite such obstacles, most of the Southern states made adequate provision for elementary instruction before the century ended. The South at last formed a part of the national educational order. The principle of obligatory attendance was not applied, however, and the real development of high schools had to await the twentieth century.

In the nation as a whole, the school enrollment rose from about seven million in 1870 to fifteen and a half in 1900, a rate of increase one fifth greater than that of the population.


Although the lion’s share of the benefit fell to urban dwellers, yet nearly everywhere children who received any education at all were getting more than their parents had obtained. This fact is disclosed by the decline of illiteracy in the three decades from twenty per cent to less than eleven. The record would have been far brighter but for the thronging in of millions of immigrants.

Further evidence of improvement appears in the fact that the total amount of schooling received by the average person in his whole lifetime increased from about three and a third years in 1870 to a little more than five at the century’s close.

On a positive basis, however, this showing left much to be desired. Public education still faced gigantic labors in order to perform its proper role in a democratic society.

* * *

Though the older generation stood outside the orbit of the school system, it nevertheless discovered its own means of offsetting the deficiencies of youthful training.

Of these informal agencies of education none evinced so strikingly the popular zeal for knowledge as the Chautauqua movement. Beginning in the summer of 1874 on the wooded shores of Lake Chautauqua, New York, great annual gatherings listened to prominent authorities lecture on literary, scientific and political subjects, and a large number of those who attended were inspired to undertake a four-year plan of home reading and study.

Many of their friends also took advantage of the opportunity, and by 1892 a total of a hundred thousand were enrolled in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.

Meanwhile, many parts of the country began to blossom with local Chautauquas, modest copies of the original, meeting usually under a tent for a week or two during the hot season. In every community they served as a stimulus to local intellectual activity.

In a different fashion the spread of public libraries served the same purpose. Though circulating libraries for the use of subscribers had existed since Benjamin Franklin’s time, the legislatures of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine in the mid-nineteenth century were the first to empower local communities to set up free tax-supported Libraries. In the last year of the Civil War other commonwealths began to follow until the entire Union had fallen into line.

Soon free libraries became a normal provision of municipalities. The number of such institutions possessing a thousand or more volumes increased from two thousand in 1875 to nearly fifty-four hundred in 1900.

Conspicuous among the private philanthropists who aided the cause was the ironmaster Carnegie, who in 1881 began the practice of presenting library buildings to towns that provided sites and pledged adequate maintenance through taxation. For this purpose he gave away ten million dollars by the end of 1900 and fifty million more before his death in 1919.

Professional leadership in the movement fell to the American Library Association, formed in 1876, which promoted the adoption of progressive methods of service to the public and helped make American libraries the most efficient in the world.

"Meanwhile, many parts of the country began to blossom with local Chautauquas . . ."

The Progress of the Press

The majority of people, however, kept abreast the changing world by reading newspapers and magazines. American journalism entered a new era. The war had accustomed newspaper owners to lavish outlays of money and had aroused in the public an appetite for exciting news.

In the ensuing years the fast tempo and high tension of city life reënforced the popular demand for a lively, colorful treatment of the day’s happenings. As a result, editors began to fill their columns with items selected not because of their intrinsic importance but because of their human interest or sensational qualities.

Charles A. Dana on becoming editor of the ’New York Sun’ in 1868 set the new pattern, but his efforts were surpassed by Joseph Pulitzer, a journalist of Hungarian birth. who took over the ’St. Louis Post-Dispatch’ in 1878 and five years later purchased the ’New York World.’

Pulitzer frankly directed his appeal to the increasing number of wage-earners—the least literate section of the population—shrewdly tailoring the form and content of his paper to their mental capacity and tastes.

Most of the elements of present-day journalism developed under Pulitzer’s hand:
• flaring headlines,
• political cartoons,
• thrilling “stories” of scandal and crime,
• separate departments for sports,
• amusements and the interests of women, and, last but not least,
• the bulky Sunday edition, divided into many sections for the convenience of the family group and featuring pictures, special articles and colored comics.

Within a few years the ’World’ became the most profitable and most widely imitated paper in the land.

Pulitzer’s example was responsible for bringing into the arena a young Californian, William Randolph Hearst, who acquired the ’New York Morning Journal’ in 1895 and quickly bested Pulitzer at his own game.

The battle between these two masters of the craft—involving in part the publication rights of “The Yellow Kid,” a daily colored cartoon—gave rise to the term yellow journalism, by which their brand of sensationalism has ever since been known.

Yet the influence of the yellow press was not wholly bad. Such newspapers often attacked flagrant political and social abuses in their communities and waged battles for their removal.

James Bryce held the opinion that in the war against political corruption “the newspapers of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago have been among the most effective battalions.”

It should also be remembered that journals of the new type reached untold numbers who in earlier times had read nothing at all.

A different trend was indicated by the transformation of many of the great metropolitan dailies into mammoth business enterprises. Only rarely was a paper the external embodiment of a dominant personality as in Horace Greeley’s time. The heavier cost of operation caused these undertakings to pass into the hands of newspaper corporations and to be conducted with a main eye to profit.

With the enormous growth of retail stores and nation-wide merchandising, revenue from such sources exceeded the receipts from sales, and newspapers tended increasingly to become advertising sheet with a secondary attention to news.

New-York Daily Tribune, 1898. ". . . newspapers tended increasingly to become advertising sheet with a secondary attention to news." EDITOR’S NOTE: "Secondary attention to news" may be a bit of an exaggeration. A review of the first 25 pages of this newspaper reveals much more news than advertising.

Gradually the control of policy shifted from the editorial sanctum to the office of the business manager, with a corresponding loss to the independence of the press. In William Dean Howells’s ’A Modern Instance’ (1881) a newspaper owner loudly asserts, “The press is a great normal engine,” but quickly adds, “It ought to be run in the interest of the engineer.”

The growing dependence of the average American upon his daily paper is shown by the increase of such journals from less than six hundred in 1870 to nearly twenty-five hundred in 1900, and by the leap in their total daily sales from two and a half million to more than fifteen.

To meet the huge jumps in circulation, new mechanical devices and more efficient processes were introduced, such as larger and faster presses and cheaper methods of making print paper. In 1885 the setting of type was converted into a machine process when Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype, a mechanical marvel by means of which a skilled operator could cast from molten lead solid lines of type ready for printing.

To the aid of the reporter came the typewriter, devised in 1868 chiefly by Christopher L. Sholes of Milwaukee and later improved, and also the first practicable fountain pen, invented in 1884 by Lewis E. Waterman.

At the same time newspapers, in the interest of economy and efficiency, began to cooperate in gathering and distributing news. While the original Associated Press dated from before 1860, in the years after the war numerous competing news associations sprang up and contested the field with one another.

In the last decade of the century the Western Associated Press, headed by Melville E. Stone of Chicago, gained the position of dominance, and in 1900 it was reorganized as the present-day Associated Press.

Though less widely read than newspapers, magazines also came to occupy a larger place in American life, with New York City as the chief publication center. From 1860 to 1900 the number of monthlies grew from two hundred and eighty to over eighteen hundred. Never before had they reached so high a plane of general excellence, or represented so well the diversified interests of the public.

Periodicals such as the ’Atlantic,’ dating from 1857, the ’Century’ (reorganized under that name in 1881) and ’Scribner’s Magazine’ (1887) welcomed to their pages the new generation of authors and provided them with their principal means of income. Among the journals appealing to special audiences were St. Nicholas (1873) for children, Outing (1882) for sport lovers, the Ladies’ Home Journal (1883) for women, and the Dial (1880) in the field of literary criticism.

It was particularly fortunate that, in a period of the waning independence of the newspaper press, certain weekly magazines were at hand to prick complacency and perform the function of fearless public criticism. Of the free-lance editors perhaps the most significant was the Irish American, Edwin L. Godkin, who directed the ’Nation’ from 1865 to 1899 and deeply influenced the thinking of the educated minority.

In the columns of ’Harper’s Weekly’ the German-born Thomas Nast, whose cartoons had helped to expose the Tweed Ring and other frauds, laid the foundations of modern American political caricature by devising the familiar figures of the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey and the Tammany tiger.

The humorous possibilities of the American scene were more fully exploited by ’Puck,’ ’Judge’ and ’Life,’ three comic illustrated weeklies founded between 1877 and 1883.

The nineties brought the culminating development: the advent of a group of monthlies—’McClure’s’, ’Munsey’s’ and others—which, without sacrificing good standards, sold for ten or fifteen cents a copy instead of the traditional twenty-five or thirty-five.

Cheaper manufacturing processes, large-scale production and greater reliance on advertising revenues made these new ventures possible. The result was a vast expansion of the number of magazine readers.

POLITICAL CARTOON: Copperhead (anti-war) newspapers kicking E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War during Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson’s administrations.

The Progress of Knowledge

Not only did the general level of information and culture improve, but an ever increasing proportion of American youth attended the colleges and universities and a growing number of the graduates made notable contributions to knowledge.

Between 1860 and 1900 over two hundred and sixty new institutions of higher learning were founded. Many of them, such as Vanderbilt (1873), Johns Hopkins (1876), Leland Stanford (1885), Clark (1889), the University of Chicago (1892) and the Armour Institute of Technology (1893), were the creation of private philanthropists, while others stemmed from denominational zeal.

Under spur of the Morrill act of 1862 twenty more state universities opened before 1900, mostly in the Middle and Far West. Everywhere the cause of higher education was quickened.

The need of the expanding industries and railways for technologists and the interest in social and economic problems created by the increasing complexity of American life, turned the attention of educators to new fields of instruction, and outmoded the limited curriculum of earlier days.

To give depth and direction to the modern trends in education there came to the fore a remarkable group of university presidents, including Andrew D. White of Cornell, James McCosh of Princeton, Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, James B. Angell of Michigan, Noah Porter of Yale, Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins and William Rainey Harper of Chicago.

Under the leadership of men of this caliber the traditional college curriculum, besides being enriched with many new courses, was extended upward to include training for research and the granting of higher degrees.

Since the 1860’s increasing numbers of American college graduates had been frequenting German university centers, where they drank deep of the learning of some of the world’s greatest scholars and scientists.

In the 1880’s, when the exodus to German universities reached flood tide, over two thousand were so engaged. Imbibing the Teutonic ideal of painstaking specialization, these eager young pilgrims returned home and, as President Eliot said, set about, each in his particular field, “to pierce, with his own little search-light, if only by a hand’s-breadth, the mysterious gloom which surrounds on every side the area of ascertained truth.”

Johns Hopkins University, established primarily to carry on graduate work, numbered among its faculty scarcely a professor who had not had German training. Under its tonic influence other institutions rapidly expanded their advanced instruction, the total number of nonprofessional graduate students increasing from about four hundred in 1875 to nearly fifty-seven hundred in 1900.

By the latter date a dozen universities offered as rich opportunities for specialized training as could be found anywhere in the world. It is worth noting that, in a supposedly materialistic age, a larger percentage of young Americans than ever before consecrated themselves to careers in which the financial rewards were meager.

The zest for extending the bounds of knowledge, reminded James Bryce of “the scholars of the Renaissance flinging themselves into the study of rediscovered philology.” For the first time, American research workers began to hold their own with the scientists and scholars of the Old World.

In order to keep in touch with fellow investigators, specialists in the different fields banded together in great nation-wide associations like the American Chemical Society (1876), the Modern Language Association (1883) and the American Economic Association (1885).

The general government, too, turned actively to the promotion of research, not only by means of the agricultural experiment stations, but also through such agencies as the federal Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology, both established in 1879.

United Stated Geological Survey examines wastes in the Potomac River, Late 1890s.

In nearly every line of investigation the evolutionary hypothesis because of its emphasis on continuity, growth and interrelationships, cleared the way for new and significant findings. Though some of the older scientists like Louis Agassiz at Harvard sided with leading theologians against the theory, far more typical was the course of two of his colleagues: Asa Gray, who eagerly lent it the great weight of his reputation as a botanist, and John Fiske, who, reaching a wider audience through his popular lectures and writings, taught that the evolutionary process explained man’s social as well as his physical development.*

* Fiske formulated his views most completely in ’Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy’ (1874). Though deeply indebted to the contemporary English social philosopher Herbert Spencer, he differed from his master in insisting that evolution implied the working out of a divine plan for the betterment of mankind.

While the Darwinian concept proved most important in the biological sciences, it also exerted a fructifying influence on such branches of study as economics, history, philosophy and philology. G. Stanley Hall, himself a contributor to the new subject of experimental psychology, called it “the greatest intellectual stimulus of the modern age.”

The advance of knowledge was the joint product of the minute investigations of myriad workers, but certain names stand out as of special note. Among such men in the natural sciences were Albert A. Michelson, who in 1879 began his epoch-making experiments in measuring the velocity of light.

Othniel C. Marsh and Edward D. Cope’s excavations of vast fossil beds of prehistoric beasts in the American West enriched the world’s knowledge of paleontology.

Simon Newcomb, was famed for his re-computation of the elements of the solar system. In the opinion of a fellow scientist, “The sun and moon and planets have been weighed as exactly as sugar and tea at the grocer’s and their paths measured as precisely as silks and woolens at the draper’s.”

Greater than any of these, however, was J. Willard Gibbs, who laid the foundations for a new branch of research, physical chemistry, and is generally accounted the foremost scientist America has yet produced.

In the social sciences as well, towering figures appeared, such as:
• Francis A. Walker and Richard T. Ely in economics;
• Lester F. Ward in sociology;
• Lewis H. Morgan in anthropology;
• John W. Burgess and Woodrow Wilson in political science; and
• John Bach McMaster, James Ford Rhodes, Henry Adams and Henry C. Lea in history.

In 1893 Frederick J. Turner, a member of this last group, founded a new school of historical interpretation by pointing out the profound influence that the frontier, then rapidly vanishing, had exerted upon American development from the earliest days of settlement.

In psychology William James was a dominant factor, as he also was in philosophy, where he developed the theory of method known as pragmatism.

These men and their kind were as truly discoverers, explorers, pioneers, in the intellectual realm as were their forebears who had hewn a path through the physical wilderness of forest and mountain.

In their disinterested pursuit of truth, however, they sometimes offended the long-held opinions of the society about them. Professors in denominational colleges who taught the doctrine of evolution were apt to occupy uneasy seats, while even in the bigger universities scholars who dared to condemn the ethics and practices of Big Business ran the danger of dismissal.

In 1894, when critics tried to oust Professor Ely from the University of Wisconsin for alleged radical views, the board of regents responded by declaring:

“We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. . .

". . . In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.”

Although many institutions did not attain this ideal, it was only through freedom of inquiry that American scholars and scientists were able to contribute so notably to the world’s intellectual enlightenment.

Thomas Nast cartoon regarding Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, "Mr. Bergh to the Rescue."

The Defrauded Gorilla: "That Man wants to claim my Pedigree. He says he is one of my Descendants."

Mr. Bergh: "Now, Mr. Darwin, how could you insult him so?"
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