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Student Life and Learning
James L. Leloudis
Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


The University of North Carolina's antebellum curriculum rested on authority and received wisdom. Students followed a prescribed course dominated by instruction in Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Although the curriculum also provided for the study of constitutional law, moral philosophy, and literature, those subjects received only cursory attention, primarily as a capstone in the senior year. Science teaching was similarly abbreviated, and more often didactic than experimental. As one student explained, he and his classmates valued the study of natural philosophy less for its practical uses than as a means of discerning God's plan for humanity in the divine order of creation. "Science," he observed, "leads [the mind] to the great storehouses of Nature, discloses her arcana, and exhibits man as he is—a poor worm in the dust."1
Faculty taught their students to think of knowledge as a set of fixed and final truths rather than as methods of investigation and discovery. Kemp Plummer Battle , a graduate of 1849 and later president of the University, remembered that in his day "much attention was paid to pure Mathematics, less to its application." His teachers defended that approach on grounds that it offered admission to the mind of God. Mathematics revealed "the laws by which the works of an all wise Creator are governed," and in doing so led students to a more perfect conception of "the vastness of [God's] plans, the inexhaustableness of His resources, the unlimitedness of His power, the infiniteness of His wisdom." A similar rule governed the classics. The faculty offered no instruction in Latin or Greek composition. Nor did they give much notice to the capacity of literature to illuminate the historical workings of society and mind. Instead, the professors demanded "a minute acquaintance with the meanings and derivations of words, the cases and gender of nouns, the tenses of verbs, and the rules of grammar and prosody." Kemp Battle and his classmates mastered the dead languages in order to translate the wisdom of the ancients, not that they might give voice to their own thoughts.2
Although professors occasionally lectured to their students, they much preferred the recitation as a means of imparting knowledge. Members of each class—freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors—gathered for instruction three times a day. The students sat on straight-backed benches and rose in turn to participate in an oral quiz designed to gauge their command of the day's assignment. Lyman Bagg offered a description of such exercises at Yale that students in Chapel Hill would have easily recognized. Imagine the scene as one student was "asked to read or scan a short passage, another to translate it, a third to answer questions as to its construction." "The reciter," Bagg explained, "[was] expected simply to answer the questions which are put to him, but not to ask any of his instructor . . . Sometimes, when a wrong translation [was] made or a wrong answer given, the instructor correct[ed] it forthwith, but more frequently he make[d] no sign, though if the failure [was] almost complete he [might] call upon another to go over the ground again."3
That approach to learning made little use of reading outside the classroom. As a result, the college library came to serve more of a decorative than an instructional purpose. By 1836, the University's holdings amounted to nearly 2,000 volumes, but under the administration of President Swain , new purchases all but ceased, even as books became cheaper and more plentiful. The Reverend Fordyce Hubbard , Professor of Latin and one-time curator of the collection, recalled that during his tenure "the College Library was never open to students . . . and almost never . . . used by members of the Faculty." To talk of a college library was, in fact, misleading. Before the Civil War, the University never gathered all of its books in one location. Most of them remained scattered across the campus, "carefully guarded under lock and key" in the rooms of the various professors.4
Neither faculty nor students placed much stock in scholarship for its own sake. As at other antebellum colleges, most of the professors were clergymen who possessed no specialized training in the subjects they taught. The University's trustees evaluated instructors primarily on their moral character and recruited faculty through family and church connections. Although academic competence was by no means ignored, it did not rank as a first consideration. Together, those factors worked to direct faculty loyalties inward toward local concerns, attenuating any sense of membership in a broader scholarly community or of commitment to the intensive cultivation of a specific discipline. Indeed, for most professors, it would have seemed incomprehensible to suggest that the moral and intellectual purposes of their labor were somehow distinct and separable.
The faculty judged their students by similar standards. Kemp Battle recalled the rigors of college life at a time when he and his classmates were required to "attend prayers long before sunrise" and assemble for Sunday worship "even in bitter cold without fires." While the president sat on the rostrum with the officiating minister, other members of the faculty located themselves "so as to enclose the 'student body' with a cordon of watchers." Outside the chapel, the faculty maintained their surveillance of undergraduate life. Tutors occupied a room in each of the dormitories so that they might enforce the nightly curfew and "repress all disorder." For added effect, senior professors patrolled the dormitories in weekly shifts. Any student found in violation of college rules was punished with demerit marks, and in the case of serious infractions, was called before the faculty "for such censure as they felt inclined to give." Demerits weighed equally with classroom performance in the decision to advance a young man to the next class or to grant him a diploma.5
Like their mentors, students prized intelligence, but not as the sole measure of prestige. While they may have treasured the fruits of classical learning, they held the etiquette of the classroom itself in rather low regard. Many cheated with impunity, especially during commencement week when final examinations often took written form. Student lore told of answers hidden in plugs of tobacco or delivered through classroom windows wrapped around heavy stones. But "working the telegraph" was perhaps the most ingenious scheme. During the dead of night students would "cut a hole in the floor of the recitation room . . . beneath the benches," then once the exam was underway they would "lower the questions by a string, and haul up the answers worked out by a number of good scholars beneath."6
Cheating flourished, in part, because the cramped routines of the recitation hall failed to provide college men with a satisfactory field for honor and distinction. Antebellum students read the classics less as literature than as handbooks of virtuous manhood. "Our object in coming to college," explained William Lafayette Scott, "is to . . . acquire pungency and sprightliness from reading the keen sarcasm of Juvenal and the courtly wit of Horace—to polish and enrich our styles by poring over the tragic beauty of Sophocles and the stately and splendid numbers of Homer . . . in short, to prepare our[selves] for the great and masterly struggles of mind with mind in the court, in the pulpit, and in the council chamber." But few students believed that the habits of manhood could be acquired through study alone. In fact, most were convinced that a single-minded obsession with textbooks would make them into nothing more than dictionary rats and would leave them impotent "on the great battlefield of life." For lessons in "manly dignity," they turned away from their professors to a "separate world" of their own making.7
The Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, founded soon after the University's opening in 1795, dominated student life outside the classroom. Each society maintained lavish quarters filled with fine furniture, portraits of distinguished alumni, and extensive collections of newspapers, journals, and books addressing the leading issues of the day. Those chambers were one area professors and tutors did not rule. The Di-Phi operated as self-governing bodies; they granted their own diplomas and enforced rigorous codes of conduct through secret trials. "Fear of incurring their censure," one alumnus recalled, "was far greater than that of offending the Faculty."8
College men gathered within the society halls to pursue an informal curriculum of composition, declamation, and debate. Students who rarely wrote for their professors prepared essays for correction by their peers, so that they might sharpen their talent for "perspicacious & elegant expression." By performing the speeches of history's great orators, they mastered the "graces that can thrill a crowd with a glance . . . a smile or a gesture." And in public disputation, they forged their learning into the "weapons of intellectual warfare." The stakes were high in each of those exercises. As young men vied for the respect and admiration of their classmates, they were often tempted to hoot and jeer their rivals, or even to conspire against the success of an adversary. Presidents of the Di-Phi labored tirelessly to restrain that behavior by asserting the weight of a nobler fraternal ideal. Each society, they reminded their friends, was constituted as a "band of Brothers," dedicated to providing its members a refuge from the "prying gaze of . . . snarling critics." There, protected by "holy ties of intimacy," even the weakest debater could don the "toga virilis." "Without subjection to shame or dishonor," Angus McNeill explained, "you may fearlessly assail your antagonist, and though after repeated attacks, you may be at length overcome and forced to yield, you will have caused him to exert every energy of which he was master to sustain the [battle]." Win or lose, such encounters were "emphatically a nursery of genius and eloquence."9
Students depended on the societies to cultivate the personal style and "polish of manners" that won little recognition in the classroom, but which they considered essential to manly character. Chapel Hill was a tiny village where hogs wandered mud-choked streets and cows grazed on campus lawns; yet, when the societies were in session, the place took on an air of self-conscious refinement. The principals in the weekly debates "studied their subjects well," often more thoroughly than their lessons, while official critics filled the society minute books with sharp commentary that revealed how seriously students approached the contests. College men valued the lessons of the society halls because they would stake their fortunes on verbal persuasiveness and outward bearing. As lawyers, ministers, and politicians, their claims to authority would depend less on the possession of expert knowledge than on the ability to evoke the common truths of their society. Mastery of the word, as one student explained, was the "foundation for future eminence." On those grounds, college men often claimed for the Di-Phi a place of public honor no less than that of the faculty. "[E]very one must admit," insisted Alfred Foster , "that the two Societies in this Institution are her strongest props. Without them, she could not exist, or, if exist at all, it would be the existence of a weakly cripple deprived of a part of her limbs."10
All of student life, however, was not as high-minded as the society proceedings. Violence, too, figured prominently in this male world. College men armed themselves with pistols and knives and were quick to draw their weapons at the slightest affront to personal honor. The faculty and the courts regularly convicted them for "quarreling and fighting in their rooms." Students harassed country boys who wandered onto campus, and in the 1830s, formed the "Ugly Club," whose members routinely "gave gross insults to sundry citizens of the village, threatened violence to members of the Faculty and 'committed trespasses of peculiarly low and disgusting character on private property.'" But perhaps freshmen suffered most. Upperclassmen stole their property, kept them up all night before their recitations, and forced them to endure rituals of humiliation, not the least of which in a slaveholding society was the habit of blacking the "newies'" faces. But few freshmen complained. Having survived the ordeal, they considered themselves more manly than before.11
Students quickly learned that in college they could enjoy pleasures denied them at home. They stashed bottles of corn whiskey in their rooms and took delight in a "glorious drunk"; they gambled in defiance of college rules and went carousing in nearby towns long after curfew. Such rowdiness easily spilled into the recitation halls, where college men made a sport of tormenting the faculty. They piled blackboards into bonfires, pitched stones through the tutors' windows, doused professors with water—"clean or foul," jammed the locks on classroom doors with pistol shot, and hoisted unsuspecting pigs into the recitation halls. Occasionally such "tricks" got out of hand, posing a threat to life and limb. In one instance, students placed a charge of gunpowder beneath their professor's desk. "When all were assembled the explosion came with unexpected violence," blasting the startled instructor "into the middle of the room."12
Disorder in the classroom arose partly from a "spirit of childish fun," but it also served a serious purpose. By "devilling" the faculty, college men cemented their loyalty to one another and sorted out who among them was suited to leadership. Students refused to judge one another's worth on the basis of academic standards alone. They placed a premium on courage and daring as well. By those measures even the worst scholar could prove himself a man among men. Alfred Moore Waddell, a student in the 1850s, explained: "He may not have been an 'honor' man while here—he may not have tried to be—he may even have neglected his studies, and sometimes have engaged in the riots and rebellions which occurred; but he realized that . . . even these riots and rebellions, like the Athenian mobs, produced men, and leaders." To Waddell's way of thinking, this aspect of student life accounted for "the long list of statesmen" who reflected honor upon the University "by their lives and public services."13

Endnotes:

1.Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1907 and 1912), I:98, 255-57, 462-64, 552-54, and address of Thomas J. Robinson, July 21, 1848, folder 24, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records #40152, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The account that follows is adapted from James Leloudis, Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), chapter 2.

2. Kemp P. Battle, "Recollections of the University of North Carolina of 1844," University Magazine 13 (March-April 1896), p. 296, and senior oration of James Kelly, March 10, 1860, folder 14, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records.

3. Address of Marshall Polk, 1824, folder 24, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records; Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:554-55, 661, 782; Battle, "Recollections of the University of North Carolina of 1844," pp. 296, 308-9; and Bagg, Four Years at Yale, pp. 552-53, quoted in Laurence R. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 37-38.

4. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:408, and George T. Winston, "The First Faculty: Its Work and Its Opportunity," University Record 1 (New Series, Number 2), p. 23. For an overview of the library's early history, see Fisk P. Brewer, The Library of the University of North Carolina (N.p.: n.p., n.d), available at the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The failure to consolidate the University's books in a single collection became a source of great confusion. Elisha Mitchell , Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology, died from a fall in 1857 while confirming the height of the North Carolina mountain that now bears his name. When his personal library was offered for public sale the next year, the University purchased more than 1,800 volumes, only to discover that it was paying for many of them a second time. A survey of Mitchell's catalog indicated that most of the books had been purchased with student fees during the 1820s, but had never been marked as University property. See Michael R. McVaugh, "Elisha Mitchell's Books and the University of North Carolina Library," The Bookmark 55 (1987): 27-54. The University's modern library was created in 1886 by the merger of the collections of the student-run Dialectic and Philanthropic debating societies and the college's more meager holdings.

5. Battle, "Recollections of the University of North Carolina of 1844," pp. 308-11, and Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:190-93, 304-9. On Sunday afternoons, students also stood for an examination "on the general principles of religion and morality." To help the junior class through that exercise, Professor Elisha Mitchell , an ordained Presbyterian minister, prepared a pamphlet that outlined the geography, history, and economy of Palestine together with key dates in the development of Christianity, from God's call to Abraham in 1921 B.C. to the beginning of the Reformation nearly 3,500 years later. See Robert D.W. Connor, comp., A Documentary History of the University of North Carolina, 1776-1799 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), I:376; Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:462; and Mitchell, Statistics, Facts, and Dates, for the Sunday Recitations of the Junior Class in the University (Raleigh: Raleigh Register, 1843).

6. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:563-64.

7. Presidential address of William Lafayette Scott, July 22, 1853, folder 25; address of William Hill, October 25, 1843, folder 10; speech of W. F. Foster, Junior Debate, 1858, "Are the Ancient Languages worthy of the place which they now hold in the course of education?," folder 7; presidential address of W. F. Foster, n.d. (ca. 1859), folder 7; address of Iveson L. Brookes, September 1818, folder 2; and address of Samuel F. Phillips, January 1841, folder 23, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records.

8. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:72-85, 565-69, and Alfred Moore Waddell, The Ante-Bellum University. Oration Delivered at the Celebration of the Centennial of the University of North Carolina, June 5th, 1895 (Wilmington: Jackson and Bell, 1895), p. 13. For the societies' efforts to police their members' behavior, see Series 1, Minutes, Dialectic Society Records, and Series 1, Minutes, Philanthropic Society Records #40166, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Other than the minute books, few Philanthropic Society materials from the antebellum era have survived. The Dialectic Society Records are more complete. For general histories of the societies, see "The Dialectic Literary Society," and "The Philanthropic Literary Society," University Magazine 16 (New Series, December 1898): 85-89, 100-3. The University's colors come from the ribbons that adorned the society diplomas—light blue for the Di, and white for the Phi.

9. Address of William Hooper, June 20, 1835, folder 7; inaugural address of A. Haywood Merritt, October 18, 1855, folder 17; valedictory address of Jno. W. Cameron, n.d. (ca. 1848), folder 3; presidential address of Sion Rogers, Wake Co., n.d. (ca. 1846), folder 24; address of William W. Avery, n.d. (ca. 1837), folder 1; valedictory address of A.C. McNeill, June 26, 1839, folder 21 (misfiled as Neill); and address of A.C. McNeill, September 20, 1838, folder 20, series, 2.1, Dialectic Society Records.

10. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:566; address of Augustus Foster, October 1834, folder 7; Address of Owen H. Whitfield, n.d. (ca. 1846), folder 30; and address of Alfred G. Foster, January 1844, folder 7, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records. On student concern for debating style and proper decorum, see Series 1, Minutes, Series 3.7, Correctors' Records, Dialectic Society Records, and Series 1, Minutes, Philanthropic Society Records. For other comparisons of the relative value of the college course and the society exercises, see address of W. C. Hooper, September 26, 1811, folder 11; address of D. M. Barrenger, November 1825, folder 2; composition of J. G. Shepherd, n.d. (ca. 1841), folder 25; inaugural address of Washington C. Kerr, July 1849, folder 14; inaugural address of A. A. Lawrence, 1851, folder 15; and inaugural address of Coleman Sessions, September 20, 1855, folder 25, series 2.1, Dialectic Society Records.

11. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:275, 267, 453, 576, and Battle, "Recollections of the University of North Carolina of 1844," pp. 308-9.

12. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:262, 275, 278, 290, 305, 307, 465, 532, 545, 577-78. For other examples of "faculty baiting," see Albert Coates and Gladys Hall Coates, The Story of Student Government in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill: Professor Emeritus Fund, 1985), pp. 10-31. For a revealing account of student life outside the classroom, see the James Lawrence Dusenberry Diary #2561, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

13. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, I:305; Battle, "Recollections of the University of North Carolina of 1844," p. 309; and Waddell, Ante-Bellum University, p. 12.