Ohio State is now known as a preeminent American public research university with a broad range of academic disciplines and colleges, but its foundation could have been much more limited. Thanks to the efforts and vision of University founders like Joseph Sullivant, OSU was established with a forward-facing curriculum that helped it produce successful graduates and develop the wide array of degree programs.
Originally created with a focus on agriculture and engineering, OSU was established as Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College. During its formative process, the direction of the university’s curriculum was hotly debated. The government, the agricultural industry, and other existing universities all vied for leverage during this process. Despite these pressures, the university decided on a holistic education devised by Board of Trustees member, Joseph Sullivant. In a speech delivered to the Board of Trustees in 1871 on the focus of the curriculum, Sullivant laid out his ideals for a school that would not only fulfill the needs of the agricultural industry in the United States, but would also provide a well-rounded education for all students who attended. The manuscript Sullivant wrote of his speech gives us his reasoning for proposing a curriculum that would allow for both academic study and practical training.
Education until that point tended to fall into two extremes, as Sullivant saw it. Classicists, as he called them, believed in education only for intellectual sake, with a disregard for any applicability to real life. On the opposite extreme were those focused on education only insofar as it provides functionality which can convert to material prosperity. Sullivant saw both of these extremes as detrimental to the progress of society, and argued for a more balanced education for students of the future OSU: broader than purely functional studies, while also taking into account applicability to real life. Study of the natural sciences (the sciences of classification, as Sullivant calls them) provides mental training applicable to other areas of learning. Education and mental training allow people of all occupations to
gain successful practices beyond simple trial and error. A good, practical education “will most fully develop and train all the faculties and secure the ability to perceive, to reason to judge and to act with promptness and decision,” Sullivant argues in his speech. This view of the benefits of a broad, liberal education is quite modern, and can still be seen as the standard in our colleges and universities today.
To accomplish these goals, Sullivant propsed an initial curriculum consisting of six departments at the University: Agriculture, Mechanical Arts, Mathematics and Physics, General and Applied Chemistry, Geology, Mining, and Metallurgy, and Zoology and Natural Science. Ohio State’s focus has obviously expanded greatly since those early days, but looking at these departments shows how broad the initial vision was when considering its original purpose of farming and mechanical engineering. That broad vision, focused on both intellectual training and practical applicability, helped OSU develop into one of the nation’s leading research and liberal arts universities. By instilling in the University from the very beginnings the values of broad education crossing disciplines, Joseph Sullivant helped to ensure the future of American higher education through his proposed curriculum.
Written by Matt McShane