The New Dartmouth: From Sacred to Secular

In today’s secular academy, the belief that faith and reason are inherently opposed pervades student life. This perspective is only about 150 years old, however, and Dartmouth College’s roots lie firmly in Christianity. The school was initially founded to provide students with a strong education, with the intent to prepare them to enter the world as wise leaders in the young nation and as faithful doers of God’s will. Up through the 19th century, around one fourth of Dartmouth’s graduates were missionaries.[i] In the early university, Christianity was not a hindrance to reason, but the force that incubated and elevated it to prominence.

About a century after the founding of Dartmouth College, global academia entered into the modernist period, and the school became embroiled in a global conflict over what the role of Christianity should be in the academy. Starting in Europe, schools began to secularize. Between 1877 and 1910, the students, faculty, and administration of Dartmouth struggled with the question of what place Christian faith should have in the life of the College going forward. The dispute over secularization was a complex tangle of factors that resists classification as either wholly good or bad. A Christian perspective might tend to consider the school’s secularization a mistake, but secularization was actually a crucial step in “modernizing” the college to keep it from stagnating and collapsing. In contrast, a non-Christian worldview might assume secularization was purely beneficial, allowing the College to move into a new era that recognized a more egalitarian respect for all perspectives. This view, however, overlooks both the elimination of intentionally structured moral education and the increased fragmentation of the departments, the latter of which detracted from the perceived meaning and value of the liberal arts. Regardless of the worldview one ascribes to, consideration of the full range of motivations for, and the ensuing effects of, the secularization of Dartmouth is required to fully understand its significance in Dartmouth’s history.

The impetus for the secularization of American colleges came from a popular European belief that an education freed from theology would constitute a more rounded and objective search for truth. This trend started in Germany, where academics argued that instituting greater “academic freedom” by breaking from the limitations of purely Christian roots would lead to more rigorous scholarship, focusing universities on acquiring and passing on knowledge. As this idea spread across Germany and neighboring countries, European schools of higher education were transformed from small colleges to powerful research universities.[ii] Seeing this new system as an opportunity for a greater education, more than nine thousand American students enrolled in German universities in the 19th century.[iii] American scholars cried out for a similar break from the traditional Christian roots of American colleges in favor of secular research institutions that could compete with these European schools in preparing American students for a variety of career paths.[iv] Concomitantly, a growing diversity of religious and cultural voices in the student bodies at American colleges wanted a more pluralistic approach to higher education. Increasingly, it seemed that the Christian framework many of the American universities had been founded on was unable to meet the needs of modern higher education. The new vision for the secular university was that students “would hope to contribute to progress by knowing more and knowing it more exactly, not by holding fast to values and a sense of the totality of things.”[v]

As American society increasingly privileged the structure of the secular university, Dartmouth became embroiled in a debate over whether to similarly abandon its Christian roots. During the tenure of President Asa Dodge Smith, Dartmouth “suffered the same decline all the Colleges felt after the Civil War.” The College struggled to maintain vitality in its academics, student life, and, most noticeably, religious life.[vi] Nevertheless, when President Bartlett took over in 1877, he immediately declared that the College’s stance in the secularization debate would remain solidly on the side of maintaining the Christian calling that Wheelock had entrusted to his presidential successors, saying that “the college is a confessedly Christian college as in the days of her origin.”[vii] In many ways, Bartlett’s dedication to Wheelock’s vision for Dartmouth represents an admirable commitment to the mission and values of the College her founders laid out. Yet his refusal to have the College keep pace with the cultural pulse of the nation led to an unsatisfactory student experience, as “students objected to compulsory chapel services, demanded the replacement of a relentlessly dull pastor, and complained that the biblical exercises were deadening.”[viii] Significantly, the Christian reputation of the school also gave rise to conflict over the curriculum. While Bartlett insisted upon a “symmetrical” course of study, which is “for the most part established by some other person than the student taking it,” the wider interest in the elective system continued to take hold.[ix] Overall, Bartlett’s noble determination to adhere to the Christian tenets of the college seemed to be impinging on Dartmouth’s ability to uphold its reputation as an academically powerful institution.

It was Bartlett’s successor as president, William Jewett Tucker, who ushered in a new era of secularized education at Dartmouth College. Tucker is widely remembered as one of the most significant and transformative presidents in Dartmouth’s history, introducing many aspects of Dartmouth that we consider iconic today.[x] Having previously clashed with Andover Theological Seminary over his modernist views, Tucker’s dedication to a new kind of Christianity was already firmly established when he became Dartmouth’s 8th president. Indeed, he stepped into the Presidency himself from his role on Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees during Bartlett’s era, having frequently clashed with Bartlett’s conservative stance.[xi] Part of Tucker’s attempts to bring Dartmouth into the new culture of the 20th century included relinquishing the Christian structure that had limited the curriculum and faculty recruitment of Dartmouth’s past, making the College a more appealing institution for future students.[xii] This increased flexibility allowed Tucker to “modernize” other aspects of the school, from enrollment to curriculum to student and alumni interactions. When Tucker began his presidency in 1877, there were 315 students, only 12% of whom came from outside of New England. By the time he left fifteen years later, enrollment stood at 1,136 students from thirty-two states. Similarly, both the faculty and course offerings more than tripled, while the income and expenditures of the school quintupled.[xiii]

Dartmouth’s transition from a traditionally Christian to a secular institution was not wholly positive, though. Secularization led to splintered departments and a decline in prescribed religious or moral education of any kind. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Dartmouth’s curriculum had heavily emphasized the classics and theology. Students had also been required to graduate with a substantial background in logic, mathematics, rhetoric, natural philosophy, and literature. In fact, when Bartlett became President of the College, the curriculum required three years of Greek and Latin, in addition to a year of physics/astronomy, chemistry, and rhetoric, and at least some background in botany, political economy, constitutional and international law, geography, and literature. In the midst of this breadth of knowledge, students were given some freedom to choose their own electives in subjects of particular interest to them.[xiv] As noted, however, universities began to change worldwide in the late 19th century and into the turn of the 20th. Students were permitted more control over their schedules, decreasing the required classical courses to make room for subjects of students’ choice.[xiv]

The experience at Dartmouth was similar to that at many colleges and universities. Indeed, this increased freedom in course selection was a significant step toward the system we have today, which allows students to design their studies around their passions. This largely appealed to students but also decreased the sense of interconnectedness among different subjects. Before secularization, the senior Moral Philosophy course, which served as the capstone of the majority of university curriculums, including Dartmouth’s, clearly conveyed the relationships between various subjects and the ways each contributed to an understanding of the world and our place within it. Institutions perceived the course as identifying “the unity of God’s truth, and hence…the unity of the curriculum.”[xvi] This sense of unity undergirded the entirety of the undergraduate course of study, and “when knowledge seemed in principle tied together – in the study of a single unified divine creation – a professor scarcely needed to explain how particular bits of learning were connected in order to convince himself and his students that somehow they all did.”[xvii]

After the secularization of universities all around the world, however, “a jumble of new undergraduate curricula hived off from the old unitary course of study.”[xviii] Dartmouth herself designated 28 departments where previously faculty and administration alike had resisted identifying subjects separately.[xix] Even though today Dartmouth and the majority of America’s institutions of higher learning continue to champion the liberal arts, students specialize, exposed at most to two or three fields in depth, and otherwise experience only a class or two in some departments or none at all. Over time, “the tide flowing toward the elective system pulled [students] apart from one another. Students shared less and less of a common education.”[xx] As a result, students have become increasingly isolated in their study as their education has become more focused on providing the necessary knowledge for a particular field of interest, rather than a search for truth through an understanding of the many different ways of approaching it.

The combination of this lack of common education and the increasingly vocational focus of the curriculum rendered colleges and universities lost with regard to their larger purpose. While at many schools of higher education “the undergraduate’s experience had taken a sharp turn for the better…at the same time, faculty members in the colleges moving into this brighter future had good reason to worry about the larger meaning of their curriculum.”[xxi] Students’ course of study became targeted towards the specific skills and knowledge they would need to be successful in their future jobs, leaving some professors feeling that their purpose was no longer tied to seeking deeper truth and imparting it to future generations for the betterment of society. The continued dedication to the idea of the “liberal arts” attempted to balance the technical utility of science courses with the values and meaningful inclinations of the humanities.[xxii] This can be successful to a degree, and certainly at Dartmouth today students continue to take courses across disciplines. But there is no longer a universal desire for a liberal arts education that teaches students how to identify points of unity in truth and to discover deeper meaning in knowledge, so that this more holistic understanding can be applied to global problems. Instead, secularization has shifted the focus of a liberal arts education to a narrower goal: to identify truth in specific subjects so that they may be applied to problems related to those fields. To the extent that liberal arts are still emphasized today, it is so that students have multiple skill sets and areas of expertise that might allow them to be flexible and dynamic in the job market.

In addition to setting aside the search for unified truth as an integral part of the purpose of the university, prescribed moral education at Dartmouth and many other schools was largely abandoned. With the discernment of what is “right” and “good” left to students’ individual experiences, universities provided no tools with which to think well about morality, which itself then became relative. The concern was not that secularization would lead to a complete rejection of morality, but more that “without truth to speak for or purposes to defend, the new university would incline toward utility, and jeopardize its initiative and independence in order to answer client needs.”[xxiii] Across higher education there has been some recognition of this phenomenon and attempts to rectify it, which “has been a response, in part, to the perceived relativism of values clarification.”[xxiv] For example, in 1996 Boston University introduced a Character Education Manifesto, which describes the goal of moral education as “the development of character of virtue, not correct views of ‘ideologically charged issues,’” and thus imagines character education as “[re-engaging] the hearts, minds, and hands of [students] in forming their own characters, helping them to know the good, love the good, and do the good.”[xxv]

At present, Dartmouth, like many schools, offers some courses on ethics, though they are primarily hosted in the departments of philosophy or religious studies. In addition, the ever-increasing freedom of the elective system allows students to complete their undergraduate degree without taking those courses. Even Dartmouth’s distributive requirements or the core classes of other universities can often be filled by many classes, not all of which have a specifically ethical component. To be fully effective, “character education and liberal education cannot be isolated in single courses but should be integrated into the curriculum as a whole.”[xxvi] Often, hesitations to do so come from the fact that “‘morality’ has become synonymous either with what is ‘moralistic’ (and hence narrow and intolerant) or what is religious.”[xxvii] But moral education is different from socialization, which is the “uncritical initiation of students into a tradition, a way of thinking and acting.”[xxviii] Instead, moral education should provide students with the tools to think well about what is right and good. In a world where we face moral decisions every day, from what food or clothing to buy to how to interact with the individuals around us and with our culture, providing students with the right frameworks for thinking about what is good prepares them to apply those guidelines to unique situations to determine the best path.

Developing a comprehensive understanding of the factors in and results of the decision to secularize Dartmouth College permits an appreciation of both the Christian and secular parts of our history. Secularization at Dartmouth was a hotly debated process that pitted a deep commitment to tradition, values, and the founders’ desires against the need to prepare students for the modern job market and to help the college compete in a system that increasingly viewed a faith-based perspective as less academic. To see secularization as purely positive undervalues the Christian roots of the school and the benefits derived from thinking intentionally about ethics and morality through some lens in a variety of contexts. But to see secularization solely as a sacrifice of our values and betrayal of the traditions we were founded on overlooks the ways secularization served Dartmouth’s growth. Understanding both sides of the debate surrounding secularization offers both the promise of granting historical perspective and potential aid in contemplating the future of Dartmouth going forward. Realizing all we gained and lost through secularization could help us imagine possibilities for maintaining the benefits of “modernization” and of a recognition of the diversity of worldviews that secularization brought, while restoring some of the focus on the significance and value of instilling intentional moral, if not specifically Christian, education to the mission and commitment of the College. For example, is there benefit to be gained from striving for a restoration of the integrated cohesion of different subjects that existed under the presidents from Wheelock to Bartlett? Is there benefit to restoring moral education as an important aim of a broader Dartmouth education going forward? If so, can an understanding of what Christianity specifically offered historically in terms of moral education at Dartmouth help inform attempts to create a new framework for moral education in the 21st century and beyond? Regardless of the answers to these questions, we can be most confident in the decisions we make about our future if we ground it in a comprehensive understanding of our history and place today.



i. James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 21.
ii. Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), 369.
iii. Hofstadter and Metzger, 367.
iv. Stephanie Litizzette Mixon, Larry Lyon, and Michael D. Beaty, “Secularization and National Universities: the Effect of Religious Identity on American Reputation,” The Journal of Higher Education 74 no. 4 (July/August 2004): 401.
v. Hofstadter and Metzger, 318.
vi. Burtchaell, 21.
vii. Samuel C. Bartlett, “Inaugural Address” (speech given at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, June 1877).
viii. Burtchaell, 23.
ix. Leon Burr Richardson, History of Dartmouth College, Volume II (Dartmouth College, 1932), 629.
x. Burtchaell, 26.
xi. Richardson, 609.
xii. For further reading on the writings and impact of William Jewett Tucker, see “A Radical Unity: Reflections on the Writings of William Jewett Tucker” in Volume 9, Issue 1 of the Dartmouth Apologia.
xiii. Burtchaell, 33.
xiv. “Course Catalogues, 1822-1909” (Dartmouth College Archives, Rauner Library, Hanover, New Hampshire).
xv. George M. Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield, The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 76-77.
xvi. Marsden and Longfield, 75.
xvii. Marsden and Longfield, 76.
xviii. Marsden and Longfield, 76.
xix. Burtchaell, 33.
xx. Marsden and Longfield, 77.
xxi. Marsden and Longfield, 77.
xxii. Marsden and Longfield, 74.
xxiii. Hofstadter and Metzger, 318.
xxiv. Warren A Nord and Charles C. Haynes, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum (ASCD, 1998), 183.
xxv. Character Education Manifesto (Boston University, MA. Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, February 1996).
xxvi. Nord and Haynes, 186.
xxvii. Nord and Haynes, 191-192.
xxviii. Nord and Haynes, 184.


Sara Holston ’17 is from Wayne, Pennsylvania. She is an English major.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,