Davidson College: conservative or progressive?

The founding of Davidson College through the lens of the Concord Presbytery

The Synod of the Carolinas, itself newly instated, founded the Concord Presbytery in 1795. The Concord Presbytery’s jurisdiction included all of the state of North Carolina west of the Yadkin River[1]. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the Presbyterian Church made education a top concern. Church leaders supported educational pursuits across class lines, and measured literacy by a person’s ability “to repeat the Shorter Catechism.[2]

On March 12, 1835, two years before the school’s founding date, the Presbytery’s meeting minutes mention the school soon to be known as Davidson for the first time. These minutes state several reasons for pursuing the establishment of a college, as well as the Presbytery members’ hoped-for outcomes of the project. From the Concord Presbytery’s discussions, a picture of Davidson emerges that blends conservative values and an entrepreneurial spirit. While Davidson’s initial academic curriculum was “solidly traditional[3]” and their student population even more so, the school also incorporated manual labor into the student experience as an innovative way to cut costs and, theoretically at least, unite students’ minds and bodies.

Presbytery leaders state accessibility as a clear goal of their proposed college; the minutes extol the “importance of a more general diffusion of useful knowledge” and envision their college as providing an education “accessible to all classes of the community.” This theme merits note both for its aspirations and its exclusions. While noble of the Presbytery to seek diversity in socioeconomic status, their understanding of who landed in the “accessible” pool was limited to white males.  Females are explicitly excluded when the Presbytery minutes state the “importance of securing the means of Education to young men.” African-American men are implicitly excluded; one must look to the manifestation of the Presbytery’s vision, early experiences at Davidson College, to illuminate the experience of African-American men specifically. During the first few years, the only African-Americans on Davidson’s campus were local enslaved persons employed by the College[4]. Robert Hall Morrison himself owned a man and woman who continued to work for him through his tenure as the first president of Davidson College[5]. Thus, Presbytery leaders’ conception of “a more general diffusion” halted at class levels.

Davidson’s visionaries worked within the traditional American understanding of who mattered in the population. However, in terms of pedagogy, the Concord Presbytery founded Davidson College in line with a progressive movement spreading across the country: the manual labor school movement. Manual labor schools integrated physical labor, like gardening, into classical curriculum. The manual labor school movement gained traction in the late 1820s, with most new schools popping up between 1825 and 1835[6]. Early 19th century American public discourse became preoccupied with the idea that a sedentary lifestyle or too much intellectualism caused a multitude of physical ills[7]. Thus followed the rise of the public gymnasium and a new focus on intentional daily exercise[8].

Many educators expressed the need for students’ to offset mental activity with physical. Their reasoning was twofold: 1) an attempt to promote physical health, and 2) a belief that both physical and mental exercise was necessary for developing personal virtue[9]. With their combined curriculum, manual labor schools promised to more deeply instill morality in their pupils. Additionally, proponents saw manual labor schools as a solution to the frivolous exercise promoted by gymnasiums; manual labor school pupils would engage in productive labor, building up community infrastructure[10].

Leaders of the Concord Presbytery were impressed with the manual labor school’s pedagogical design. The minutes declare the need to “[train] up youth to virtuous and industrious habits with well cultivated minds” and specifically mention the “Manual labor system” as the best means to do so. The March minutes end with the Presbytery appointing a committee “correspond with the different manual labor schools in our country” to see information about the best design for a manual labor school. Davidson College was founded with aim of uniting the body and mind to cultivate strongly-rooted Presbyterian morality in young men.

In the end, the manual labor responsibilities of Davidson students were short-lived. On top of students’ unhappiness with the arrangement, the school ended up losing money because of their generous room-and-board compensation packages for student labor[11]. By 1841, the school retrenched to a completely traditional curriculum—no sweat required. Davidson’s conservative elements ultimately won out, but the Presbytery minutes tell the story of founders who were willing to implement the cutting edge in conventional wisdom.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Beaty, Mary. 1988. A History of Davidson College. Davidson, N.C.: Briarpatch Press.

Blodgett, Jan. 2015. “Always Part of the Fabric: A Supplement, 1837-1865.” Accessed March 22. http://sites.davidson.edu/archives/digital-collections/always-part-of-fabric-supplement-3.

Craig, D. I, and James I Vance. 1907. A History of the Development of the Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, and of the Synodical Home Missions, Together with Evangelistic Addresses by James I. Vance and Others. Richmond, Va.: Whittet & Shepperson, Printers.

Rice, Stephen P. 2004. Minding the Machine Languages of Class in Early Industrial America. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

 

[1] Craig, D. I, and James I Vance. 1907. A History of the Development of the Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, and of the Synodical Home Missions, Together with Evangelistic Addresses by James I. Vance and Others. Richmond, Va.: Whittet & Shepperson, Printers, 14.

[2] Ibid, 18.

[3] Beaty, Mary. 1988. A History of Davidson College. Davidson, N.C.: Briarpatch Press, 20.

[4] Blodgett, Jan. 2015. “Always Part of the Fabric: A Supplement, 1837-1865.” Accessed March 22. http://sites.davidson.edu/archives/digital-collections/always-part-of-fabric-supplement-3.

[5] Ibid

[6] Rice, Stephen P. 2004. Minding the Machine Languages of Class in Early Industrial America. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 70.

[7] Ibid, 73.

[8] Ibid, 74.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 76.

[11] Beaty, Mary. 1988. A History of Davidson College. Davidson, N.C.: Briarpatch Press, 21.

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