Thursday, July 16, 2009

Founding of Dickinson College

Dickinson College has a fascinating account of its founding on its website. Its founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, was deeply committed to liberty and founded the college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then the western frontier, to express libertarian values. How much America has lost intellectually, spiritually and morally since that time.

>"The business of education has acquired a new complexion by the independence of our country."

- Benjamin Rush

The Birth of a New College

>Revolution was in the air when Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia physician, prepared the charter for Dickinson College in 1783. A grammar school founded in Carlisle in 1773 served as the foundation of the new college. In the decade prior to laying the groundwork for Dickinson, Rush had marched alongside the American army, signed the Declaration of Independence, served as a physician to the Philadelphia community, and maintained his eminent position among the progressive political and intellectual minds of the budding nation. He was a revolutionary in the midst of a revolution.

At his core, Rush believed in freedom-freedom of thought and freedom of action. And he believed fully in America's potential for unprecedented achievement. But Rush also believed that the American Revolution did not end when the muskets stopped sounding; that, he felt, was only the beginning. Now that America had fought for its liberties, Americans needed to maintain a nation worthy of those liberties. Rush knew that America could only live up to its own expectations if it was a country built of an educated citizenry. So seven years after he met with other members of the Constitutional Congress to add his signature to the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush signed the charter of a new college on what was then the American frontier. On September 9, 1783, a struggling grammar school in Carlisle was transformed into Dickinson College. Less than a week earlier, the Treaty of Paris had officially ended the Revolution and guaranteed international recognition of the United States of America. Dickinson was the first college charted in these new United States.

Tuta libertas. Those were the words that John Dickinson used describe the new college. Tuta libertas--"A bulwark of liberty." To further his educational enterprise, Rush had asked that Dickinson--known widely as the "Penman of the Revolution" and the governor of Pennsylvania--lend his support and his name to the college that was being established in the western frontier of his state. Dickinson was easily convinced, and together he and Rush set about the task of devising a seal for the college. The image they created--featuring a liberty cap, a telescope, and an open Bible--remains the official college seal today. It represents a mission that has been ingrained in Dickinson College for nearly 225 years: to offer students a useful and progressive education in the arts and sciences, an education grounded in a strong sense of civic duty to become citizen-leaders.

In many ways, Benjamin Rush-the man who set this enduring mission in place- was a man before his time. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery, a vocal proponent of equal education for women, a supporter of the rights of the mentally challenged, and a generous provider of health care to the indigent in Philadelphia. His voice was strong and distinctive, and he believed that the students at Dickinson College could, like him, develop their own voices and positions on issues of the day. They could be leaders and shapers in the new nation.
The Shape of the Story

As the site for this endeavor, Rush chose Carlisle, a town founded in 1751 as the seat of Pennsylvania's Cumberland County. Though a center of government, Carlisle was also a frontier town, located about 25 miles west of the Susquehanna River-at the time, an outpost of westward expansion (unlike today, when Carlisle sits at a central transportation crossroad, with Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia just two hours away). It's safe to assume that this combination of activity and uncertainty would have attracted a man with Rush's educational sensibilities.

From the first, Carlisle was seen as a sort of laboratory for learning-a place, for instance, where Dickinson students could venture from campus to the nearby county courthouse to watch the new American judicial system in action. But it was also a place where, a few decades later, science students could study ecology by actually examining the wilderness of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. (Dickinson was the first college to introduce field studies into its science curriculum.) These sorts of firsthand experiences, Rush believed, would foster the minds that would lead the next generations of Americans. Time has not diminished Rush's ambitions. Today, this engagement with the wider world continues to guide Dickinson--through internships, field studies, workshop science, and one of the most extensive global education programs in the nation.

In 1784, at the first official meeting of the college's trustees in Carlisle, a Scottish minister and educator named Charles Nisbet was elected the first principal, or president, of Dickinson College. Nisbet had been a supporter of the American Revolution and was well known among America's intellectual circles as an impressive man of learning. Sometimes called a "walking library," Nisbet established high standards of education and scholarship for Dickinson students. Because of these unbending expectations, the college can list among its earliest graduates a U.S. President, a pair of college presidents, two justices of the Supreme Court, a governor, a founding father of the Smithsonian Institution, and at least two abolitionists.

Read the whole thing here.

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