©2011 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Andrew Dickson White
1st President of Cornell University, 1866-1885
Analyst: Todd Jones

edited 8/18/11

I. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worth learning? What are the goals of education?

Andrew White valued education that went beyond the traditional curriculum of Latin, Greek, mathematics, moral philosophy, and Christian evidences. He had experienced this type of curriculum as an undergraduate at Yale. White thought that an education such as this centered on moral discipline of the mind and made knowledge subordinate (Bishop, 1962). White's time as a history professor at the University of Michigan in the 1850s exposed him to education of a practical nature. Henry Tappan, Michigan's President, had established departments of physics and civil engineering. Modern literature was also taught at Michigan. White's goals were to combine a liberal classical curriculum with practical and technical knowledge. Ezra Cornell, the University's benefactor, wanted the University to prepare students to advance the country's and the students' material wealth. He wanted a university where "...any person can find instruction in any study" (Rudolph, 1962, p. 266). The mission, as White saw it, was to train people as leaders in industry and agriculture, and in a broader sense, to prepare all students for a useful role in society (Rudolph, 1962).

II. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

Knowledge is engaging in active learning. White said in higher education there was "too much reciting by rote and too little intercourse between teacher and taught" (Bishop, p.33). Exposure only to a classical curriculum did not prepare students for an increasingly sophisticated and technical society. To not provide students with this exposure was a mistake. It was important that students learned about the contemporary world and what the world was thinking. The imposition of a fixed course of study was fatal to the spirit of a university. Studies which were droned over did not foster student discipline (Bishop, 1962). The rigid education of his Yale undergraduate study served as the lie if one was going to prepare to be useful to society. Knowledge taught at the University was to be non-sectarian. White and Cornell wanted instruction to be separate from religious dogma and belief. Requiring students to learn religious values did not promote reverence. White said that a good denominational college "can become nothing more" (Bishop, 1962, p.192). The education at a denominational college was too limited and too safe.

III. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Humans desire to know practical applications of the professions. Students seek and benefit from communication with teachers, and students benefit from suggestions and remarks from teachers. The freedom of choice is important. Humans are free to choose their destiny and therefore free to choose a course of study. They should study what appeals to them and choose from a wide variety of courses to suit different tastes (Bishop, 1962). White and Cornell thought that human potential was limited by limited opportunities for admission to higher education. Cornell University was designed for "poor boys and girls"- as the University Charter said, the "industrial classes" (Bishop, 1962, p. 68). The University was open to men and women regardless of financial status or race. Cornell was the first coeducational college in the East.

IV. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

The appreciation of knowledge is not just a linguistic exercise. White wanted learning to satisfy the wants of the hour, the chief interest of the country (George William Curtis as cited in Bishop, 1962). Ezra Cornell wanted students to investigate science and master practical questions of life (Bishop, 1962). Learning should satisfy the material and moral aspirations of the middle class. All courses of study were equally prestigious. This allowed technical and scientific areas ( for example, engineering, agriculture, architecture) to be considered as professions (Rudolph, 1962). White believed that history and literature should serve as the foundation for students who study technical and science education. Skills and knowledge are acquired through laboratory experiments and field work in science and technical subjects. Classics and more contemporary liberal arts are taught through discussion and analysis by teacher and student. White wanted his faculty to teach academic subjects "unwarped to suit present abuses in politics in religion" (Bishop, 1962, p. 104). The non-sectarian philosophy helped students to acquire their own truth and value systems. The acts of discovering truth and imparting it are formed together (Bishop, 1962).

V. Theory of Transmission: Who should teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

White recruited brilliant young men to teach at Cornell (Bishop, 1962). He wanted teachers who agreed with his philosophy of using contemporary works in liberal arts and science. He recruited faculty from Europe and from other colleges in the United States. European universities taught the type of practical education White wanted Cornell to emulate. People who shared White's values--his idealism, his faith in social mobility, and his dislike of religious dogma and orthodoxy--came to Cornell to teach (Bishop, p. 120). White hired mostly resident faculty who lived with the students, but he also hired non-resident faculty members to give lectures. He wanted students to experience the greatest minds, even if for a short time. "The great visitors brought light and inspiration to the isolated little country college" (Bishop, 1962, p. 105). Faculty were encouraged to try new methods of teaching forbidden elsewhere (Bishop, 1962). White thought also that teachers should be the friends and companions of students.

As mentioned above, White valued students' freedom of choice. He believed that if students were well advised they would be competent to choose the work they desire and need (Bishop, 1962). Bishop (1962) says that White implemented the elective system before Charles Eliot at Harvard, the man given the most credit for establishing the system. Though the elective system was in place at Cornell's beginning, all students were required to take part in military drill and take courses in physiology and agriculture. As a Land Grant College, Cornell was required to provide education in agriculture and the mechanic arts. Academic subjects were organized in two groups: a general course which included science, literature and the arts, and a special course which consisted of agriculture, architecture, chemistry, physics, civil engineering, mechanic arts, and natural history. In time, each subject area would be organized as an individual school within the University. Four degrees were awarded in science, philosophy (modern languages, mathematics, and science), arts (Latin and Greek), and elective or optional (full freedom of choice). Students were also permitted to take courses without pursuing a degree. As the individual schools developed more degrees, undergraduate and graduate, were added. Notable among Cornell's accomplishments are the first chair of American history in the United States and the first four-year degree in architecture (Bishop, 1962, pp. 155-156).

VI. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the education process?

The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 provided public lands for states to establish agriculture and mechanic arts colleges to prepare Americans for the growing technological and agricultural challenges faced by the nation. White believed the traditional colleges sectarian and traditional curricula was out of touch with America's middle class. In preparing the bylaws for the new university, White said that higher education had lost its hold upon the leaders of society and had become distrusted by a majority of the people at large. This led to young men neglecting the opportunity to pursue higher education (Bishop, 1962). His belief met with approval. Cornell's third freshman class of 250 was the largest in the history of American higher education (Rudolph, 1962). Citizens of New York and of the United States benefited from White's dedication to the new curriculum that was both liberal and practical. The success of Cornell provided the United States with a model for all Land Grant institutions. And its success brought federal and state government support for the Land Grant idea (Rudolph, 1962). The University used a combination of private funds (Ezra Cornell gave $500,000 toward the establishment of the University) and New York's share of the federal land grants.

VII. Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated?

The Cornell charter says that the University seeks to promote the liberal education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life" (cited in Bishop, 1962, p.68). Both Ezra Cornell and White thought that poor and middle class intelligent boys should have access to practical education (Bishop, 1962). The education of women and minorities was on White's mind as well. "Girls should have the same opportunity to become wise and useful to society as boys," he said in his inaugural address. He also showed concern for the greater societal good by saying that if a great university admitted women and "colored persons" it would mean that weaker colleges would have to adopt that practice. Cornell did not admit women or minorities from the start. The first three women were admitted in 1871 and 16 were admitted in 1872. The first women graduated in 1873 (Bishop, 1962).

VIII. Theory of consensus: Why do people disagree? How is Consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

As mentioned above, White recruited faculty who shared his perspectives on who and what should be educated. Although there must have been disagreements on curricular and other matters from within the university, the brief research for this writing shows that most disagreement about the curriculum came from outside the University. The Yale Report of 1828 written by President Jeremiah Day espoused the development of mental faculties through study of the classical curriculum. And after the establishment of Cornell, Yale President Noah Porter defended the classical curriculum in an 1870 book and in his 1871 inaugural address. The ancient languages were essential elements of a course of study, study of contemporary modern languages and literature was not equal to the classical curriculum, and the choicest youth of leisure would continue their literary studies (Rudolph, 1977). It is clear by the state of United States education to this date that White's commitment to the mix of liberal and practical education takes precedence.


Biographies of Cornell presidents. (1999). Cornell University internet page.

Bishop, M. (1962). A history of Cornell. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Rudolph, F. (1962). The American college and university: A history. New York: Knopf.

Rudolph, F. (1977). Curriculum: A history of the American undergraduate course of study since 1636. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.