Historical echoes, part 1

Fri 24 Apr 2009 12:10 PM

A few weeks ago, I posted about back issues of the department bulletin which I discovered while moving furniture into a department storeroom. In them, William Leue wrote a series of articles on the history of the SUNY Albany Philosophy Department. The articles are of interest to me personally, as a philosopher at UAlbany, because I feel an irrational connection with this place and its philosophers. Of course, the events described have no more direct effect on my life than ones that occurred to other philosophers at other institutions. The final installments, discussing student revolution, may be of more general interest - but in offering it here I will begin at the beginning.

I had the department's work study type up the whole series, and I am now making a cursory effort to correct errors in transcription. Other than transforming Leue's underlining into italic emphasis, I've confined my comments and changes to square brackets.

This first installment is from Phib v 1 (1972-1973), n 8, pp 29-30.


A few years ago W. E. Hocking wrote a history of the Harvard Department of Philosophy. It was full of great names and moderately long traditions - Palmer, Royce, James, Santayana, Munsterberg, Peirce, Lewis, Sheffer, Quine. Still I was struck by the comparative recency of the department's floruit - not much to relate before the 1890s -, and the smallness of the group until much more recently - both James and Royce were taken on temporarily because someone was away, and each had great difficulty in getting a permanent appointment.

At first glance our history looks very different. Like our strange physical setting here in "Tomorrowland," we seem suddenly to have appeared out of nothingness as an odd but pretentious presence on the academic cultural scene. But then, when one digs in a bit, one comes across shreds of pumpkin, hinting at humble origins beneath the magical transformation.

One theme of these brief notes is to argue that, though we obviously came upon the scene sometime later than did the Harvard group, our roots in American cultural process and our claim to allegiance to broad humanistic values are as genuine as are those of the Harvard Department, and we have perfectly good credentials of lineage for the entry into the "club." Whether or not we can keep up our dues and special assessment payments is quite another matter.

A close look at the introductory sections of the university's general catalogue will show that legitimate ancestors of our present institution go back almost a century-and-a-half, and so we can claim some sort of a-sexual identity, perhaps like the successive plants that grow from a potato tuber, with a school chartered in the first half of the nineteenth century, and so with one that is among the older institutions of higher education in this country.

Now, it is true that for the greater part of its long life this institution was devoted exclusively to the education of teachers, a past which we share with a great many currently large and ambitious "multiversities". For anyone mot "hung-up" on the odd and unreal traditions of a leisure-class culture that never really was in the American scene, these humble and practical origins should be readily and proudly acknowledged, and it should be noted that they are not so different from the original missions of older institutions which devoted themselves to preparing clergymen to lead their flocks, or which tried to Christianize and educate the heathen Indian.

Even as a "teachers college" we had our intellectual distinctions however. First, for the greater part of its history, this institution was unique among teachers' colleges in that it devoted itself exclusively to the preparation of teachers for the secondary schools (it had no elementary level education program); and secondly, it had very special notion of what constituted the center of the education of teachers for the high schools - it sought to give them, first and foremost a "liberal education." For many years the catalogue of the New York State College for Teachers at Albany carried a statement to the effect that it offered "liberal education" and defined this concept to mean,

(1) a subject matter content that challenges a wide range of human interests, and (2) a technique in teaching that content that ... promotes tolerance, discredits superstition and prejudice, and inspires courage to accept truth in every form. The professional program [teacher preparation] supplements and extends the liberal arts program...
This intention was more than just a pious hope. The College had, by the mid-twentieth century, built up competent faculties, with a good many distinguished people scattered among them, in such areas as the natural sciences, the social sciences, and some of the humanities. Having first-hand experience with at least one standard-model teachers' college before I came here, and knowing what drab and uninspiring places they can be, I can testify to the general atmosphere of enlightenment and intellectual excitement which prevailed here even before we were suddenly transmuted into a "University Center."

W.H.L. [William Leue] in consultation with R.F.C. [Robert Creegan?]

[Leue ends with a parenthetical describing this as "the first of a set of two discussions of the history of our department." There were ultimately six installments in the series.]