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  • How John Milton Was Lodged in the Curricula of U.S. Colleges after the Civil War
  • Dayton Haskin


How is it possible to like Milton?" Colin Burrow has memorably asked. Writers on "Milton in America" (where "America" refers only to the United States) have sometimes attempted to speak to this question, if only by implication. Some have traced the long tradition in New England of valuing Milton's emphasis on equality and freedom. Some have urged that his political prose embodies the concept of liberty that is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.1 Writers who give extrinsic reasons for looking into Milton's writing offer a less bold intervention, however, than that made by the Mexican poet Mario Murgia, who, sensing a continuing potential in Milton's prose to challenge the exercise of tyrannical power, has translated Areopagitica (2009) and The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (2011) into Spanish. Burrow, for his part, writing in the cool element of British prose, has at least gestured toward an answer that allows that reading Milton is valuable in its own right. Frankly acknowledging that there is much not to like [End Page 223] about Milton, he has nonetheless offered a dazzling meditation on Milton's "singularity" that encourages admiration.2

A telling if unspoken presupposition in Burrow's question gives it its edge. Ever since English literature was put into service as an academic subject, the likeliest forum in which new readers first encounter Milton's writing has been the school. After the Civil War in the United States, courses on English literature began to be offered for credit toward a bachelor's degree, and because Milton was regarded as one of the twin pillars of that literature, instructors felt obligated to reckon with him. Yet rarely did they assign students to read his major poetry. At the newly founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology (est. 1861), the professor of English explained why in the emerging "New Education," which excluded Latin and Greek, the study of older literature in the vernacular was unnecessary: "The times of Shakspeare [sic] and Elizabeth, or of Milton and the Commonwealth, are grown very remote from us in this nineteenth century."3

"The New Education" was the title of a provocative essay published in the country's leading journal of opinion. Written by MIT's professor of practical chemistry, the essay evaluated the growth of scientific and technological schools. It turned out to have far-reaching implications for the undergraduate curriculum in colleges of every sort. Within months of its appearance in the Atlantic Monthly early in 1869, the overseers of Harvard appointed its author, Charles W. Eliot, president of the nation's oldest college. Eliot's essay makes no mention of Milton. Yet it bears on our present subject because it proposes as a peculiarly "American" prerogative the exercise of freedom in breaking from the European past in the conduct of education.

Eliot had spent two years in Europe studying the curricula, methods of instruction, and physical arrangements of Old World institutions. He urged his fellow citizens to insist that higher education begin to offer new academic disciplines. It was one thing, however, to jettison tradition in a school of technology. It would be another in a traditional liberal arts college, where the languages and literatures of classical civilization, with mathematics, had long [End Page 224] made up nearly the whole undergraduate curriculum. Although Harvard eventually set a decisive precedent when it ceased to require knowledge of Latin and Greek, Eliot discreetly downplayed the hostility to the classics he had seen at MIT. Instead, he sought to create conditions in which students were obliged to exercise their freedom. Eventually almost every course offered in the college was a free "elective."

Gradually, the idea became commonplace that a liberal education might be obtained as readily via the study of chemistry as through the humanities. From this point of view, Paradise Lost seemed the very epitome of what modern students had been freed from. It was implicated with foreign classical literature by genre, by a density of Latinate syntax and vocabulary, and by intertextual relations. Its subject matter was a biblical story known to every child. A...


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