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By Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos. University of Virginia Press. 216 pages. $24.95
Thursday, September 5, 2013
The University. The University of Virginia may be the only educational institution in the country that is so widely known as “The University” — a sobriquet that has existed since the late 19th century.
It is hard to imagine that a university with a $5 billion endowment that has produced so many successful graduates almost didn’t survive its first 20 years.
In “Rot, Riot and Rebellion,” Rex Bowman, a former Roanoke Times reporter, and Carlos Santos provide an account of the struggle to found the university and the 20-year-long struggle to prevent its foundering.
The founding of The University is one of three accomplishments for which Thomas Jefferson wished to be remembered. He successfully overcame opposition from the low-country planters who controlled political power in Virginia and the supporters of his own alma mater, William & Mary, to get The University chartered in 1816. The first students matriculated in 1825.
Jefferson’s vision for his “academical village” was predicated on a secular curriculum, avoiding the religious affiliation that earmarked the existing American colleges and universities. The vision was for students and professors to develop a collegial relationship in this “village.”
The prevailing method of instruction was for faculty to read from books while students took notes. Jefferson wanted discussion rather than rote learning. He also expected the young gentlemen who were to attend his university to be able to take responsibility for their own behavior and act as honorable men.
Fortunately, Jefferson lived only long enough to see his first class of students finish their first year of studies. Also fortunately, Jefferson’s young friend Joseph Cabell — the state senator who engineered obtaining permission to build a college in Charlottesville — would in 1846 succeed in making changes that would help The University develop into the school as we know it today.
In the two decades following the opening of classes at the University of Virginia, the young gentlemen whose “honor” Jefferson hoped would allow them to govern themselves seemed more interested in drinking, fighting, harassing the faculty, engaging prostitutes and incurring large debts at local taverns.
As one student noted, “Here nothing is more common than to see students so drunk as to be unable to walk.”
In its early years, the university so well known for its student-run Honor Court was filled with the indolent sons of wealthy Virginia planters, for whom “honor” was an excuse for fighting or, worse, dueling.
In this book, we are introduced to many of the miscreant students who defined The University in the second quarter of the 19th century. We also meet the faculty whose dedication to Jefferson’s ideals kept the school operating in spite of a constant struggle to maintain sufficient funding from the commonwealth.
When the General Assembly began an investigation into student misbehavior in 1846 (soon after a professor died of a gunshot wound inflicted by a student), the board of visitors, the faculty and alumni mounted a campaign to save The University.
The letter from seven alumni to the General Assembly appealed to Virginians’ sense of heritage that may seem to some as apt today as it was then:
“Let not the well matured work of JEFFERSON, and MADISON, and MONROE, and CABELL, and JOHNSON, be pulled to pieces in a moment, at the thoughtless bidding of irresponsible anonymous writers and reckless reformers.
“When will Virginians learn to cherish their own institutions, to extend a like generous confidence to their constituted authorities, and to come up to their aid and support in all their difficulties ?”
The campaign was successful, and Cabell, with the support of the board of visitors, and the alumni began to restructure a university that would become a leader in America’s academic community, setting a new standard for secular education at the university level.
As its reputation was being rescued, The University became a model for fostering scholarship in a secular rather than a religious atmosphere, just as Jefferson had hoped. Older schools that followed the UVa model included Harvard, Yale and William & Mary.
The story of the first two decades of The University as told by Bowman and Santos is an important contribution to Virginia history. It is an illustrative tale of how one person’s vision can lead to the creation of something valuable, especially after the vision is re-aligned to fit reality.
The book is written in the crisp, clear prose which has marked the writing careers of Bowman and Santos. The story of the dark side of UVa is told with the objectivity expected of seasoned journalists and adds to the rich history of one of the country’s most revered universities.
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