Baylor University: From Old Wine to New: Changes in the Latin Requirement of Baylor Universities Curriculum, from 1900 to 1920

by Jessica Robinson

A special thank you is given to the staff at the Carroll Library Texas Collections, for the help they provided in my archival research. Specifically, I would like to thank Amanda Norton and those who put in extra hours at the front desk to see this project off the ground. You were expressly helpful in this process!

Table 1: Percentages of Students in Each Discipline, 1900-1920*

Table 1: Percentages of Students in Each Discipline, 1900-1920
Year Chair of Latin Department Total Population Latin % of Student Body French % of Student Body German % of Student Body
1900 Greer 752 students 52 6.9% 36 4.7% 32 4.25%
1905 Daniel 1130 students 138 12.2% 28 2.47% 66 5.84%
1910* Downer 655 students 87 13.28% 55 8.39% 141 21.52%
1914* Downer 617 students 163 26.41% 87 14.1% 223 36.14%
1915 Downer 1686 students 202 11.98% 120 7.1% 167 9.9%
1916 Downer 1378 students 191 13.86% 117 8.49% 148 10.74%
1917 Allen 1704 students 291 17.07% 151 8.86% 217 12.73%
1918 Allen 1471 students 209 14.2% 256 17.4% 98 6.66%
1919** Downer 1023 students 67 6.55% 479 46.82% 46 4.5%
1920 Pool 1310 students 81 6.18% 412 31.45% 24 1.8%
*Note: These numbers were derived from charts in the Baylor Bulletins, from their respective years. Call numbers for these sources are provided on the reference page for your convenience.
**Note: Dr. Briscoe joined the faculty as the chair of the French department during this year.

Baylor University: From Old Wine to New: Changes in the Latin Requirement of Baylor University’s Curriculum, from 1900 to 1920

            Perhaps no other department on the campus of Baylor University saw more changes than the Latin department, during the earliest part of the twentieth century. Within the history of American Higher Education, the turn of the century marked an era of prosperity and college building. In essence, the great American universities were founded during this time and a certain “college system” was created. While some may assume that this era signified a resurgence of academic focus within the classroom, this is not the case. In fact, this “college system” pushed students outside the classroom and helped students to fully enjoy what we call today the “college experience”. John Thelin (2011), when referring to the changes in curriculum during this century, notes, “another limitation of the dominant ‘college system’ was that its autonomy from college officialdom (including faculty) caused it to underestimate the significance of changes in the curriculum” (p. 193). Though some students sustained great interest in their academic pursuits, in all reality, the “college system” provided an outlet for students to demonstrate a keen indifference to academic study. To this end, Thelin (2011) writes “[these were] not the priorities of the dominant college culture” (p. 163). Despite this cultural trend, faculty members were making innovative changes to the curriculum across all universities—curriculum aimed at becoming much more “vocational” than purely academic in nature. This “college system”, as defined by Thelin (2011) as a code of ethics governing the college campus put into place by the students, kept those very same students from noticing these innovations and preoccupied them with more alluring prospects. In all reality, this “system” also planted seeds of doing education differently, causing students’ focuses to shift from learning for learning’s sake to a larger focus on a more vocational or career focused education.

A change from a classical education to a more varied “specialty of interest” education dominated the movement described above. Winterer (1998), in her article “The Humanist Revolution in America”, writes, “Within the new universities, the study of the classical languages declined precipitously. Not only was their hegemony challenged by the rise of new disciplines, but fewer students chose to study them: immersion in the classics became elective rather than required” (p. 111). Though she was writing about the early nineteenth century, the effects of these changes were still making their way into university curriculua across the nation, nearly fifty years later.

This paper will explore the changes in the curriculum of the Latin department throughout the early nineteenth century at Baylor University. More specifically, I will focus on the eventual removal of the subject of Latin as a core requirement, and trace the various arguments “for” and “against” this removal, examining the arguments of Latin department chair, Professor J. W. Downer, and French department chair, Professor W. M. Briscoe. These two professors became opponents within this debate, acting as figureheads for the two larger notions of what it means to be an educated person. Before beginning this task, I will set the preliminary context by tracing the larger changes in the method of education at Baylor during this time.

Setting the Context: Curricular Changes throughout the Early Twentieth Century

            In the Baylor Bulletin of 1900, supporting Latin professor, Dr. Greer wrote, “The object of the instruction… is to lead the student progressively to a thorough understanding of the structure of the [Latin] language and an appreciative acquaintance with the various departments of literature” (p. 14). At the beginning of this period, Baylor is committing to having its students gain a working knowledge of this language for the larger purposes of understanding classical literature. In the Baylor Lariat, alumnus Jeff R. Ray, writes, “the Baylor curriculum in the early 80’s, doubtless [existed], but not much attention was paid to it by either the students or the faculty. What the curriculum required I do not know, but in the actual practice, we went in strong for the classics and put the soft pedal on the scientific studies” (June, 1918, p. 3 of 6). At this point in time, faculty and students at Baylor held the classics in high regard by focusing their attention on the mastery of these subjects, providing little time for the study of other subjects, even to the extent of paying little attention to the overall curriculum.

In 1905, the Bulletin states that a student is required to take “eleven courses in Latin and Greek, but not less than five in either subject” (p. 31). This same bulletin also encourages students to pursue active involvement in the Literary Societies on campus, as it reads, “All these societies are in a flourishing condition and form a most important part of the intellectual and social life of Baylor University” (Baylor Bulletin, 1905, p. 150). The larger structure of the curriculum was focused upon a mastery of the classics. Active engagement outside the classroom in the form of student participation in Literary Societies was also highly encouraged.

However, just ten years later, the Lariat of 1910 describes major changes in the curriculum for the purpose of “meet[ing] the demands of students and to set our courses of study on the same basis with that of the Northern universities” (February, 1910, p. 1 of 4). The larger curriculum has changed from one of having a set of “core” classical requirements to a system that allowed a student to take three different courses of study (“majors”). The curriculum itself left room for electives of the students’ choosing as well. With this system, the student had the option to take three “majors” that did not include Latin, and was able to choose to take a three different “majors” that highlighted the classics. Thus, it is probable that a student at this point in time could have elected to remove himself from the study of the classics all together.

The admissions requirement for Latin had also undergone changes during the first decade of the twentieth century. The 1905 edition of the Baylor Bulletin states that a student must take at least 4 classes of Latin to gain admittance to Baylor University (p. 57). The 1910 requirement reads, “If a student offers two units of Latin for entrance and takes the next year’s Latin in the Baylor Academy, he will absolve the Latin entrance requirement and be credited with one major toward graduation” (Baylor Bulletin, 1910, p. 19). The requirement to study Latin was waning in its strictness—it was becoming less and less of a priority within Baylor’s institutional culture as a whole.

The issue of the study of the classical languages within the overall curriculum once again raises its head nearing the end of the following decade, especially from 1916 and onward. The Baylor Bulletin (1917) notes, “students are urged not to fail to take Latin for college entrance, as it has its own reward and has the approval of the ages” (p. 31). In the 1919 Bulletin, the name of the Latin and Greek department has become the department of “Ancient Languages” (p. 55). In the March edition of the Lariat of 1920, reads, “At present, no Latin is required for graduation” (p. 1 of 4). Thus, within twenty years, this requirement that began as a core requirement within the curriculum shifted to one that was completely “elective” and even seen as outdated or ancient, as the name of the department insinuates. As noted from the very evidence within the curriculum descriptions themselves, this method of study was being disregarded in order to grow a more “elective” or “vocational” perspective of education that had captured the spotlight.

The Debate Itself: J.W. Downer v. W.M. Briscoe

            Though Latin was removed as a core requirement from the curriculum (as is evidenced from the Baylor Bulletins and the Lariats of the time), the remainder of this paper will investigate the reasons behind this change at Baylor University. This will occur in two stages, firstly by examining the factors leading to this change, and then tracing the “two sides” of this debate by comparing the arguments of professors Downer and Briscoe.

Cover of Dr. Downer’s Publication, “A Plea for Latin”

In 1916, Latin Department chair, J.W. Downer, wrote a treatise entitled “A Plea for Latin”, as was published in the Baylor Bulletin of that same year.  In this paper, noted by the Lariat as “having received the most cordial commendation all over the country” (p. 4 of 4), Downer (1916) makes the case that the core of the issue resulted from a disparity between high school entrance requirements and college expectations. He writes,

students [in high schools] hear on every side that Latin is of no practical value, is a dead language, and is a waste of time, is hard, and takes too much time without any benefit of it… there is [also] a lack of proper knowledge of Latin on the part of the great majority of teachers in our secondary schools. (p. 31)

Although, Dr. Downer may have been the first faculty to succinctly put these sentiments on paper, he was surely not the only educator who held these opinions. High school educators and students were also placing pressure to remove Latin from the curriculum on Dr. Brooks. For example, S. B. Foster, a high school English teacher wrote a note to Baylor University President Samuel L. Brooks, saying, “I am writing to ask you if such students will not be entitled to take two credits of Latin” (p. 1). In this letter, she is referring to a miscommunication regarding the number of schoolbooks needing to be mastered by students in these schools. Lolita Lansford, a high schooler in the Waco area, writes to President Brooks, “Could you please provide a written statement denoting your opinion of the value of the study of Latin, and how exactly it is valuable, especially on ‘the habits of exactness’?” (p. 2). High school students were not receiving a healthy understanding of Latin as preparation to their university careers. Thus, a gap was being created, as students would graduate from high school without a sufficient knowledge of the basic grammatical functions of Latin and be expected to translate sections of the classics and the New Testament in their introductory classes. Most students complained about the rigor of this study and did not fare well in these courses. This disconnect provided even more fuel for the decision to move the study of Latin from a requirement to an elective, as it not only affected current university students, but high school students in the larger Waco area as well.

A Letter from Lolita Lansford to President Brooks, Page 2 of 3

Secondarily, in the Lariat of 1918, an article entitled, “The Most Radical Changes in Baylor’s Curriculum”, states, “this is only another evidence of Baylor’s willingness to fall into step with anything necessary to the demands of progress” (p. 3)[1]. These changes “enable a graduate of an affiliated high school to use any work in a foreign language as an entrance credit in Baylor.” (p. 3). Baylor is described as “glad to welcome these improvements to the curriculum” (p. 3). This change is being made without remorse and is beginning to take full effect within the larger curriculum.

This change is occurring, Downer was still clinging to the hopes of keeping Latin within the curriculum and was staunchly defending the reasons for its placement. In a“Plea to keep Latin as a Permanent Fixture of the Curriculum” (Baylor Bulletin, 1916), Downer employs the following arguments in support of the Latin requirement:

  • “The ideal for every student when he leaves school is to have a mastery of the English language. Latin helps a student do just that.” (p. 6).
  • “Hardly second in its value is the mental development acquired by the mastery of it, or even by partial mastery of the subject” (p. 10).
  • “… On the basis of its relation to English and of its value as a mental developer” (p. 11)
  • “…The Latin class is not the place to learn history… let each man stick to his bush and let better results flow” (p. 12).
  • “The knowledge of Latin is of great benefit to professors, lawyers, and scientists” (p. 12).

Downer argued for the interdisciplinary nature of this pursuit along with the way it affects one’s understanding and mastery of the English language, as well as one’s pursuit of the discipline itself. This pursuit, according to Downer, truly helps students develop as scholars and as educated persons. The rigor of this discipline, then, fashions one into a Christian gentleman and accomplishes the true purpose of education.

However, this view of education is not held by all the members of the university. Batsell Baxter, a student in 1918, writes, in the Baylor Lariat, “it is evident that there is a change wrought in the tendencies of the colleges… there is an increased tendency to get away from the [classics] requirement the Greek requirement is already gone, and weight has been added to more ‘vocational’ subjects” (p. 1 of 4). In response to Downer’s push to keep Latin in the curriculum, Professor Briscoe, the incoming chair of the French Department, retorts, “[I] sees no occasion for studying a language which is already dead” (Lariat, 1918, pg. 1 of 4). Briscoe produced a list of supporting arguments for the removal of the Latin requirement from the curriculum, including:

  • “I see no occasion for studying a language which is already dead, with peoples that spoke it dead, and students taking it on the verge of during at the thoughts of approaching exams” (p. 1 of 4).
  • “In countries all over the world there are, ‘get rich quick’ positions awaiting all Americans who speak these languageshigh salaries are offered by large universities to efficient teachers of French, German, and Spanish” (p. 1 of 4).
  • “Nowadays culture and pleasure demands a speaking knowledge of French and Spanish” (p. 1 of 4).
  • “In order to gain admittance to the literati circles, one must have read masterpieces of foreign countries in the original” (p. 1 of 4).
  • “Truly, the practical uses of modern language majors are many” (p. 1 of 4).

Despite these difficult remarks, Downer replies that there is some use “anyhow” (Lariat, 1918, p. 1 of 4) for the study of Latin, due to the fact that it has an “unparalleled cultural value. It (1) prepares the student for some vocation, (2), gives him a trained mind, and (3), teaches him the correct use of English” (Lariat, 1918, p. 1 of 4). Despite his repeated arguments, Latin was removed as a core requirement from the curriculum in the later part of 1918. This department was also quickly losing popularity across the campus[2]. In the light of this, the next section of this paper will trace the effects that this change had on the larger student body and determine what this meant for the idea of the “student culture” in total.

Other Factors: The Trends of the Students of Baylor University

            As this debate raged, alumnus Jeff R. Raywrote in the Lariat, “Baylor students of that day lived among the classics, worshipped their heroes and became like them. New methods have come in. Perhaps they are better. Perhaps not. The old wine still tastes good to me” (1918, p. 3 of 6). Before the onset of the twentieth century, most students had an exposure to the classics and related to these figures as friends, colleagues, and even as role models after whom they tried to fashion their lives. However, this was not the case nearly forty years later. The educational trend had moved to one of studying a more “modern” set of subjects, with the focus upon helping a student to attain his or her desired vocation. The rigor of memorization of minor grammatical tables and nuances had ceased to capture the students’ attention. Rather, students wanted to become scholars of entire languages in order that they could gain employment after their college education, perhaps in other countries around the world”. Thus, the idea of a “Christian gentleman” was being widened by efforts to help students become “Christian gentlemen scholars”.

Despite Downer’s ardent pursuits, the culture was shifting away from these classical requirements. In an edition of the Lariat in 1918, a student responded to Downer’s sermon in chapel by comically explaining, “Dr. Downer got and held out attention and almost persuaded us to forsake the overstocked fields of French and Spanish to come back to the fertile green fields of Latin” (p. 4 of 4). A general trend of students moving to a study of the modern languages had already occurred, as is evidenced by the Briscoe-Downer debates. The table on the second page of this document (Table 1: Percentages of Students per Department) illustrates the  sharp peak in the percentage of students studying the modern languages at the advent of Professor Briscoe’s teaching. It would seem that students found this study more suited to their interests during this time, especially as the study of more modern languages seemed easier and more suitable for their needs.

An article, in the same issue of Lariat of 1918 notes that Dr. Downer would be giving “a lecture every two weeks on some phase of the life of the Romans. They will be made interesting and very helpful. These lectures will take the place of the Latin club which has been held heretofore” (p. 4 of 4). This sentiment directly contradicts Downer’s original argument that the study of Latin is for the mastery of the function of language itself, instead of the understanding of Roman history, as is recorded in his pamphlet A Plea for Latin to Stay in the Curriculum (1916). Downer’s article continues by explaining that some students are worried that these courses will not be offered sufficiently to major in this subject. The author[3] assures the student population that courses will be offered, “suit[ing] the convenience of the greatest number of students” (p. 4 of 4). In the Lariat of December of 1919, Dr. Gooch (yet another supporting Latin faculty member) writes, “Dr. Downer’s purpose is to show the student body that his subject is a live on, not dead as is commonly supposed” (p. 1 of 4). The Baylor Bulletin of 1920 states, “Latin will soon recover from its set back… and on its merit will demand a fair place in the curriculum of every high school, college, and university” (p. 1 of 4). Despite these encouraging words, the administration was reluctant to enter into a full study of this subject due to the decline in interest within this field. Table 1, illustrates these declining percentages, especially nearing the end of the time period in study.

[1] Please note that there is not an author specifically referenced in this article.

[2] Please see the table, above, for detailed statistics on this subject.

[3] Again, there is not an author specifically noted in this article.

A Letter to President Brooks from the Chairman of the Entrance Requirements to University for Secondary Students in the Texas Area

Latin was ushered to the sidelines of the educational sphere, a few students and other members of the Baylor community held strong desires to keep Latin as a core requirement of the curriculum. In another edition of the Lariat in 1920, an unnamed student writes a letter to the editor explaining, “I intend to be a lawyer, and will need four year of Latin, but if I am under the instruction of an un trained Latin teacher for the first year of my education, I would not get the fundamentals and it would greatly handicap my career” (p. 1 of 4). The Chairman of the Committee of Entrance Requirements for the state of Texas (1919), in a letter to Samuel L. Brooks, entreaties that “we are faced with inconsistencies in the study of Latin at industrial arts colleges”, including a push to keep Latin in the curriculum in order to even out the different requirements. Yet another letter was sent by Brooks (1917) to all educational committees of all cities in Texas[3] to make certain that high school students were being prepared rigorously in order to provide the most fluid transition from secondary study of Latin to post-secondary study (p. 1 of 1). Thus, while the major trend was fighting against this study, President Brooks of Baylor University was doing everything possible to keep Latin as a piece of the curriculum, or still an option as a course of study, even though it was and still is a dying discipline.

Conclusion: What it Means to Be an Educated Person

Behind this debate lies a change in the end result of a college education lies behind this debate, specifically centering on the way the academic curriculum aids in a student’s development. One side argued that a rich mastery of the classics would aid in one’s formation to a “Christian Gentleman” (meaning that the college journey would produce a respectable, Christian, and moral member of society), while the other argued that an education must be tied to one’s interests and passions, especially in the student’s becoming a “gentleman scholar”. In the Baylor Bulletin of 1905, Downer writes, “the study of Latin is one of the essentials to education and culture” (p. 3 of 4). The pursuit of character in order to become a Christian gentleman (via the study of Latin) was highly valued by Dr. Downer and his associates while Dr. Briscoe valued the development of a gentleman scholar. By the end of 1920, the Lariat notes, “there are at present 49 students in the Latin department” (May, p. 4 of 4). Table 1: Percentages of Students in Each Discipline, 1900-1920, on the second pages of this document provides context for this figure. In 1918, 209 students were actively pursuing this discipline, and declined dramatically (to 67 students) in 1919 with the arrival of Dr. Briscoe. Even though the Latin department still held some popularity, it certainly waned over these twenty years, with only 81 students participating in this department at the conclusion of the academic year in 1920.

The “heroes” that were spoken of by Jeff R. Ray became the desires of an increasingly vocational style of education that could gain the student access to a career, and to help the student become more “cultured”, as Briscoe’s arguments insinuated. The new heroes became the modern languages and the myths of the “get rich quick” schemes that had begun to develop with the onset of the early twentieth century. Students preferred to enroll in courses that would specifically and quickly benefit their futures, affording them richer prospects following graduation. A study of the classics, in comparison to this more modern affair, seemed dead, dry, and dull. Thus, the trend of education had moved from one of rigorous mastery of the classics (especially in terms of grammar) to one that focused on the broadening understanding of students’ interests and passions in a specific manner that would aid them in their future vocations following graduation. A new wine had been fermenting, and now was the time for its release.

[1] Please note that there is not an author specifically referenced in this article.

[2] Again, there is not an author specifically noted in this article.

[3] These would be considered our present day schoolboards.

Reference Page

Baxter, Batsell. (1918). “Eudcational Tendencies are Changing.” The Baylor Lariat, 16. Aug. 1 of 4.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1900). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1900, v. 31).  Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1905). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1905, v. 35).  Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1910). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1910, v. 35). Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1914). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1914, v. 39). Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1915). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1914, v. 40). Waco, TX: Baylor  University 

The Baylor Bulletin. (1916). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1916, v. 41). Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1917). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1917, v. 42). Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1918). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1918, v. 43). Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1919). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1919, v. 44). Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Bulletin. (1920). The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Texas LD 346 B858x 1920, v. 45). Waco, TX: Baylor  University.

The Baylor Lariat. (1910), Feb. 1 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1918), Jan. 3 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1918), Mar. 4 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1918), Sept. 4 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1919), Jan. 1 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1919), Dec. 1 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1920), Jan. 1 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1920), Mar. 1 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1920), Apr. 1 of 4.

The Baylor Lariat. (1920), May. 1 of 4.

Brooks, S. B. (1917). “A letter to Presdient Samuel L. Brooks”. The Brooks Papers, Academic Correspondence. Box 2C69, Folder 196.

Brooks, S. B. (1917). “A letter to Presdient Samuel L. Brooks”. The Brooks Papers, Academic Correspondence. Box 2C69, Folder 196.

Chairman of the Committee of Entrance Requirements. (1919). “Letter to Samuel L. Brooks”. Dallas, Texas. 1 of 1.

Lansford, Lolita. (1919). “A letter to President Samuel L. Brooks.” The Brooks Papers, Academic Correspondence. Box 2C69, Folder 196.

Ray, J. R. (1918). “Baylor curriculum in the early 80’s”. The Baylor Lariat, 29, 3 of 6.

Thelin, J. R. (2011). A history of American higher education. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Winterer, C. (1998). The humanist revolution in America, 1820-1860: Classical antiquity in the colleges. History of Higher Education Annual, 18, 111-129.

One thought on “Baylor University: From Old Wine to New: Changes in the Latin Requirement of Baylor Universities Curriculum, from 1900 to 1920

  1. This was a very interesting article. And though it was written about Latin and the decline of Latin at Baylor I did take note of the almost complete demise of German during 1919 in 1920 it was also mentioned in the article that pointed to this one.

    I would like to thank you for your research that shows an interesting light on the changing academic climate of the day. I’m sure that it affected not only Baylor but the rest of the country and undoubtedly the world at the same time.


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