Ohio History Journal

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Student Societies in Nineteenth Century

Ohio: Misconceptions and Realities




Student societies flourished in American colleges in the first half of the

nineteenth century. Historians of higher education have viewed this

development as a student attempt to bring about substantive change in the

curriculum and extracurricular life.1 This idea follows logically from the

fact that these societies grew in a period of numerous reform movements,

movements dedicated to deliberate attempts to remake American society.

The nineteenth century was a time of great change that saw the expansion

of frontiers and with it the extension of democracy and such supporting

institutions as the midwestern colleges, of which Ohio had a large number.2

This period witnessed reform movements in almost all phases of American

life which had an effect upon the developing western colleges and upon the

student societies that were encouraged to exist within their structure. The

role of these societies has not been studied in depth; but historians of higher

education, such as Frederick Rudolph, John Brubacher, George Schmidt,

and Richard Hofstadter, tend to place twentieth century value systems

upon nineteenth century men and view these student societies as an

instrument of change in a reform era. The colleges of nineteenth century

America, however, were conservative institutions with the role of

preserving the values of society for oncoming generations, and hence, the

colleges and often their students came reluctantly to the various reform

causes. The Ohio colleges were no exception to this rule.

The student societies were formed with literary and moral self-

improvement as their goal and, as such, were an integral part of that well-

established institution, the nineteenth century college. As a means of

granting students control of a small segment of their college lives, the




Rita S. Saslaw is an Assistant Professor of Education at The University of Akron.


1. Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History (New York,

1962), 144.

2. Donald G. Tewksbury, The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the

Civil War: With Particular Reference to Religious Influences Bearing Upon the College

Movement (New York, 1932).