In my last post, I looked at the opening paragraph of the University of Georgia’s 1785 charter and how it relates to some common threads running through the early republic. Today, I want to take a moment and look at a section from Thomas R. Dew‘s “An Address Delivered before the Students on William and Mary at the Opening of he College, on Monday, October 10th, 1836.” In his speech to the students at William and Mary, Dew discusses a wide range of issues, even commenting on the fact that the students are sons of slaveholders and have a responsibility to uphold those ideals. This is an important aspect of the speech that needs discussion, but it is not what I want to focus on today. Instead, I want to zero in on two paragraphs where Dew responds to people who claim that colleges should focus on those skills (STEM in this case) that lead to vocations after graduation. This debate continues today, and I think it is interesting to see that the argument existed during the early years of American higher education.


Dew spends two lengthy paragraphs addressing the assumption “that moral and political studies need not be prosecuted at college.” To these moral and political studies, I would add all of the liberal arts. The opinion of those who feel “that the physical and mathematical sciences are the most most important subjects” is that the other subjects “may be comprehended without the assistance of a teacher,” specifically after the graduate enters “the great theatre of life.” For Dew, this assertion is “erroneous.”

Dew argues that what a student learns in the liberal arts “are of universal application” that connect everyone. Dew proceeds to provide an anecdote to highlight his argument. He talks about the fact that everyone, no matter if they focus on the conduct of their neighbors or show concern for “the movements of empires and penetrate the secret designs of statesmen,” concern themselves with universal subjects of the moral and political nature. Would someone, Dew posits, care if a neighbor believes “that the earth is the centre of our system”? The person may see the individual who believes such a thing as ignorant, but. according to Dew, the belief would not create a “wound.”

However, when “opinions clash upon the subjects of morals and politics,” the differences escalate and become important. These clashes center around important discussions that effect the lives of everyone around us. While the flat Earth theory is wrong, it does not necessarily encroach upon the ways we interact with one another. It is a fact that can be proved incorrect with scientific evidence. As such, while we may argue about it, the consequences of that argument do not, ultimately, have an effect on the day to day lives of individuals. On the other hand, if someone believes that those who kneel in protest of the national anthem should be punished in some way shape or form, then the disagreement becomes something that could ultimately affect the lives of others. This is where the discussions of “morals and politics” arise.

Dew concludes the first paragraph by highlighting the ways that the liberal arts address a universal, human audience. He states, “The fact is, morals, politics and religion are the great concerns of human nature. They spring from the relations of universal existence throughout the human family–relations from whose influence none of us can possibly escape.” These courses dig into human existence in ways that the physics and math cannot. They call upon students to encounter disparate views than the ones that may bring with them into the courses. In the next paragraph, Dew drives this point home as he notes that college is the opportune time for students to learn about morals and politics.


College presents the key opportunity for students to expand their knowledge in the universal subjects of morals and politics because their beliefs in these issues, while based on what their parents have conveyed, are still in a malleable form. Dew proclaims,

You have come up here, gentlemen, with minds and feelings not yet hackneyed in the beaten walks of a business life. You are now enlisted in no more party warfare. Your hopes have not yet been dampened by disappointment. . . . All your affections and sympathies are warm and generous. Your hearts and heads have not been besieged by cold, inveterate selfishness, or perverted by unreasonable and noxious prejudices. You have not as yet set up no false idols in the temple of the mind.

Traditional students come to college, now, at around seventeen or eighteen years old. They have influences from the K-12 education and their environment; however, they are also at a stage where they are open to discussions of “morals and politics” that occur within the liberal arts. While they may not agree with the positions of some of their professors, they still have the opportunity to arrive at college and think through the issues that do not necessarily have clear cut answers like those in STEM courses. This, according to Dew, and I would add myself, is important.

Dew continues by driving home the point that college presents the key moment for students to enter upon this journey because one they enter into the “busy theatre of the world” they will become more aligned with “private interests and party prejudices” that will begin to “clod [their] minds and pervert [their] judgments.” Essentially, the students will have reasons to uphold the beliefs they have formed in this world. Even if they think that their position is morally corrupt, they may be too entrenched in the system of belief to disavow it because it benefits them. Their research into these universal topics, according to Dew, “will no longer be conducted with a single eye to truth and justice, but the demon of party will too probably exert an irresistible control over the little republics of the mind and heart.”

Dew concludes this section by pointing out that those who study morals and politics at an early age look for truth in the world and seek to counter party prejudices. (Considering the issue of slavery in this speech, this needs to be considered differently within the context of Dew oration. However, for the overall purpose of this post, I am taking Dew’s assertions at ace value.)He states that those who study these subjects at an early age are “taught to worship at the shrine of truth, while the ardent feeling of devoted patriotism banishes from the mind all narrow considerations of selfishness and shields it against the intolerable prejudices of party spirit.” The liberal arts call upon students to question the world around them and to examine the world from a perspective of universal humanity.

Even though the context of Dew’s speech has a political context that goes against the morals he espouses because it is pro-slavery, the core of what he argues is important to understanding the role of the liberal arts.  These subjects force students to confront, in various ways, the injustices of society. They call upon students to see the world from perspectives that differ from their own. They call upon students to challenge the party line if need be. All teaching, no matter what subject, is political. Every liberal arts course will not seek to expose the truth; we know that. However, at their core, these courses strive to do just that.

What are your thoughts? As usual,  let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

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