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The Best Investment Cornell Can Make: In Its History

East Hill tends to cycle through semesters with a certain amount of ahistorical repetition due to the constant flow of memory-less undergraduates through their four years at Cornell. While students are perennially aglow with their discoveries of new knowledge, young love, and the glee of unchaperoned fun, faculty and staff can tritely tell you that they've seen it all before. And they will see it all again.

But something novel and truly remarkable is apace on campus this spring, as the University is offering undergraduates (and others!) an opportunity to formally learn more about Cornell's history, the shape of the Cornell experience over time, and their place within it. A one credit course, taught by faithful alumni Thomas Balcerski '05 and Corey Ryan Earle '07, is offering students a detailed foray into the story behind the founding of Cornell and all the myriad developments that have since affected the University's unique academic, physical, cultural, and political climate. Here's the course description for American Studies 2001: The First American University:

Was Cornell “the first American university”? Educational historian Frederick Rudolph called it that, referring to its unique role as a coeducational, nonsectarian, land-grant institution, with a broad curriculum and diverse student body. In this course, we will read some notable historians in order to explore the history of Cornell, taking as our focus the pledge of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White to found a university where “any person can find instruction in any study.” Throughout, we will ask to what extent has this motto succeeded at Cornell and in higher education more generally. Course topics will also include stories and vignettes related to the faculty, student body, evolution of the campus, traditions, and legends. Stories of Cornell’s founders, faculty, and alumni will provide background on names that adorn buildings and memorials throughout campus.

What's striking is that this course is being offered for the first time in 2011. It's a bit damning for an institution as unique, dynamic, and challenging as Cornell to not be actively trying to cultivate a sense of place and purpose by educating its community members about its compelling history and influential role in our enduring American experiment. And in trying to educate students to be engaged 21st century citizens while also trying to develop a loyal and supportive alumni base that will serve as ambassadors for Cornell and her mission, I can't think of anything that the administration and faculty can do that would be more effective to that end. And that's why in many ways the best investment Cornell can make in these trying times is to develop a sense of history and context among current students.

The move is already starting to pay off: Over 100 students are enrolled in the course this semester. And there will doubtless be thousands more educated if Earle, a staff member, is allowed to teach the course in perpetuity.

To be fair, there have been some other courses at Cornell that have dealt with the University. Ron Ehrenberg teaches a course on the Economic Analysis of the University that prominently features examples from Cornell's budget which has long been popular with aspiring muckrackers at The Sun. And I know Carol Kammen used to offer a freshmen writing seminar that encouraged students to read and write about the student experience at Cornell. But this is the first formal treatment of the University's history and role in American higher education I have seen offered.

Of course, I do have a couple of suggestions as to how to improve Corey and Tom's syllabus, but I'll leave that for another day. Until then, here's a fun video on Cornell history from one of the lecturers of the class:

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on February 18, 2011 (#)

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