When Did the United States First Establish Higher Education?

August 14, 2013 in Trivia

John Hopkins Historian Bill Leslie

Historian Bill Leslie is seen at the Evergreen Museum & Library with John Calvin French’s 1946 book about the university. Leslie will spend five years researching and writing about Johns Hopkins, where he has worked since 1981. Source: Max Levine.

America’s first college was Harvard, established in 1636 and following the general model of Oxford and Cambridge. William and Mary followed in 1693.

Pennsylvania holds the distinction of establishing the first university in the United States. In 1779, the state legislature of Pennsylvania conferred a corporate charter upon the College of Philadelphia with the name University of the State of Pennsylvania. No other American institution of higher learning had been named “University” before then. In 1991 a new charter donning the institution University of Pennsylvania.

Penn does not claim to be the first American college. In its claim to “first university” distinction, Penn’s Archives Director Mark Frazier Lloyd penned the distinction on the university’s website:

“In the Anglo-American model, a college, by definition, is a faculty whose subject specialization is in a single academic field. This is usually arts and sciences (often referred to as “liberal arts”), but may also be one of the professions: law, medicine, theology, etc.

“A university, by contrast, is the co-existence, under a single institutional umbrella, of more than one faculty.”

Although the nation’s institutions of higher learning early on reflected English and colonial roots, later trends are more interesting as higher education became Americanized with practicality and drew from broader influences.

A notably American contribution to innovation in higher education came with the opening of JohnsHopkinsUniversity in 1876, considered to be the nation’s first “research university”. This direction drew from the influence of German higher education.

When Hopkins opened, its first president, Daniel Coit Gilman asked, “What are we aiming at?”

Gilman went on to amplify JHU’s mission:  “The encouragement of research … and the advancement of individual scholars, who by their excellence will advance the sciences they pursue, and the society where they dwell.”

In brief, Gilman was known for the purposeful words, “Knowledge for the world.”

This year Bill Leslie, longtime professor in the JHUKriegerSchool’s History of Science and Technology Department has been tasked with writing the definitive history of the university. This five-year project just recently announced is sure to produce an interesting and revealing look at America’s unique and evolving contribution to higher education.