Sunday, January 23, 2011

Remember Those Old College Catalogues?

TheRotundaWhen I was a boy in the 1960s, I remember being enthralled by the huge bookcase of college catalogues at my local public library.  I can even now recall the large University of Michigan catalogue, complete with detailed information on every division.  Of course, there was a rich array of these paperbound books, ranging from somber to colorful.

My son is a first-year student at the University of Virginia, and I recently learned that the school no longer prints a catalogue.  As with most universities, much information is available online, and a  CD or video can take the the place of the stodgy old catalogue.  It is not surprising as the move away from printed publications saves time, money and paper while appealing to a tech-savvy generation.

But those old books were great sources of information about colleges, and they still give us a glimpse into student life of years ago.  While this may seem esoteric, looking at old catalogues provides for fascinating reading.

The University of Virginia’s 1919-1920 catalogue, identified as a “Record,” is one example.  The 259-page paperbound book is  extensive.  In addition to general university information, there is important detail on the each of the colleges and schools.  There were 838 undergraduates, about 56 percent of  the overall student body.  Today, the university has more than 14,000 undergraduates.

The undergraduate curriculum had a classical flavor.  There were nine Greek (School of Greek) and six Latin (School of Latin) courses.  There also were eight German (School of Germanic Languages) but only five history courses.

Not surprisingly, costs were very inexpensive by today’s standards.  The total package for an undergraduate, in-state residential student averaged $410 for the academic year; the out-of-state resident averaged $575, according to the catalogue.  An in-state resident will pay about $21,000 today.

The publication also includes the law school weekly schedule, day-by-day, period-by-period for the 1920-1921 academic year.  Interestingly, there were only three periods that ran, overall, from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. 

All registered students are identified by class year and hometown.  The most recent graduates also are listed.  These students could be admitted by either receiving a high school diploma or by examination.  A list of “accredited” Virginia schools is provided.

Among countless other early catalogues is that of Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University from 1906-1907.   The institution had 729 students, divided into four divisions:   The College of Liberal Arts, The Academy for Young Men, The Institute for Young Women, and the School of Music for Both Sexes.  This latter  institute had eight majors, including Mandolin, Guitar, Banjo. 

First-year students were admitted by examination.  The catalog specifies which topics, sub-topics and books would be tested.  Among these are Daniel Webster’s First Bunker Hill Oration of 1825, a speech largely forgotten today.

The  titles of the 70 undergraduate theses for 1906 are included, and they cover such topics as “The City as a Social Fact” and “Medical Inspection of Immigrants.”

These are some examples of how such catalogues—everyday items from the past—can provide a fascinating portal into a different era.  Historical insights certainly come from studying great battles, events and personalities but also by reading these seemingly obsolete publications.

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