FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (2/04)
Provost Darrel Colson's Founders' Day Address, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004, in Brown Memorial Chapel
Note: Dr. Darrel Colson, provost and dean of Centenary College, delivered the Founders' Day address at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, in Centenary's Brown Memorial Chapel. The following is the text of that address.
Chaos and Order, Transience and Permanence
When asked to speak at Founders’ Day, I did the logical thing; I went back to our foundations to see what I could learn of our Founders. To get at those foundations, I started sampling the various histories of the College, including William Hamilton Nelson’s A Burning Torch and a Flaming Fire and some early chapters from the unfinished book our own dear friend, Dr. Lee Morgan, has under way right now. To both of them I owe acknowledgement, and to Lee I owe my thanks. Not stopping there, though, I went on to read some of the early documents of the College, documents kept in our archives by Chris Brown, to whom I also owe thanks. What I’ve seen, what I’ve learned and want to share with you is a story of a College characterized from the very beginning by stark contrast, by a tension between chaos and order, a chaos that constantly threatened its life and an order that somehow prevailed, enabling it to survive for these past 179 years. That contrast will lead us to another—a contrast between transience and permanence that punctuates the first.
The story begins, of course, with the College of Louisiana; this almost all of us know. But what we don’t often note is that the College of Louisiana was conceived in the throws of financial disaster. Louisiana had founded the College of Orleans in New Orleans in 1805, but despite constant monetary infusions from successive legislatures, first territorial, then state, that institution finally failed in 1825, whereupon the state decided to try funding schools farther to the north.
One of these newly founded schools was the College of Louisiana, whose first Board of Trustees met and commenced a flurry of activity, setting tuition and fees, salaries, starting classes—even before they had a campus. The courthouse in East Feliciana Parish provided the site. The records of the day indicate frantic activity on the part of this first Board: they sought to purchase land and build permanent structures, they hired faculty and searched for a President, and they tried earnestly to raise the money necessary to achieve these goals. Interestingly, the bulk of the money was to come from a lottery.
The struggle to raise enough money led to the first President’s resignation, a failed effort to hire another, and then another failed search. The Board did find a President in a clever sort of way: they hired a Professor of Mathematics, then rewrote the organizational chart to designate the Professor of Mathematics as President ex officio in the event of a vacancy in the President’s position.
Indeed, during the short 20-year life of the College, there were four Presidents, several periods with acting Presidents, and long periods with no President at all. The Board was constantly confronted with problems. In 1837, the legislature rescinded its grants of lotteries; in 1840, the College’s Treasurer slipped out of town, $8,500 of the College’s money disappearing with him; and, in 1841, the Board fell to self-destructive bickering. One argument involved the book on moral philosophy that President Lacey was using in his classes. A trustee charged that it contained “doctrines inimical to Southern interests and institutions” (Nelson 92). I think we can figure out what that debate was about.
In sum, as the State was reconsidering its support for Colleges such as our ancestor at Jackson, the College’s statistics did not inspire confidence: only 46 students, only one Professor and a President, and a huge deficit resulting partly from embezzlement. The Board surrendered the College’s charter to the State, whereupon the legislature put the College up for sale and stipulated that the buyer must use the buildings for educational purposes.
There was a buyer, our other ancestor. In 1839, the Mississippi Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church had established Centenary College to honor the 100th anniversary of John Wesley’s work organizing Methodist societies in England. Given that the College’s name derives from the centennial of this event, the date of founding was important—so important, in fact, that the College was founded without a site, without a Board, without a Faculty or students—indeed, without anything.
There ensued, again, frantic activity with hopes high, but the College never quite got off the ground. The first person chosen as President never responded to the job offer. The agents hired to collect pledges to the cause of the College never succeeded, one of them being robbed of $615 as he was traveling the highways of Mississippi. Money was extremely tight, and the Board had not much more than hired its faculty and administrators than it had to reduce their salaries; it had not much more that completed its first buildings in Brandon Springs, Mississippi, than it began to deal with a leaky roof and a faulty water supply. When the campus at Jackson hit the auction block, the Board of Centenary College bought it and moved lock, stock, and barrel.
I’ve abbreviated this historical narrative, but I think that you can see even from my truncated version that the early period in the life of this College—or of these Colleges—was marked by frantic—even feverish—activity by two groups of well-intentioned people desperately trying to bring education to the American frontier. The move of the College from one town to another emphasizes the chaos out of which the College was formed. And, as we all know, a similar move would be made in 60 years when the College would travel to Shreveport.
And yet, I’ve only described the chaotic side of this contrast. When I delve into the Colleges’ documents, I see an order, a stability that belies what the historians tell us of the temporal affairs of these institutions. Those affairs, by the way, continued to be messy even after the move and the merger: Elected Presidents refused to serve; faculty continued to turn over at a rapid rate; money to pay salaries and bills was still hard to come by; and the College actually shut down completely in October 1861 because the student body marched off to war.
Nevertheless, when one reads the earliest documents describing what the College was about, that chaotic hubbub recedes into the background as mere clutter.
In our archives is a pamphlet, “Laws for the Government of the College of Louisiana, adopted by the Board of Trustees, July 17, 1839.” Its first chapter is “Of the Officers of the College,” and it lists the “officers” as a President, a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Science, a Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, a Professor of Ancient Languages, a Professor of Modern Languages, and two tutors.
There is neatness here, a precision that I feel the minute I begin to read. These people knew what they were about, and they did not seem distracted by worldly affairs. Let me share a bit from the Chapter entitled “Of the Classes, Of Admission into College, and of the Course of Study,” which again conveys a kind of steadfastness at odds with the temporal affairs of the College.
Article 5: The Freshman class shall study Virgil, Sallust, Horace, the Anabasis of Xenophon and Graeca Majora commenced—Arithmetic revised and Algebra commenced, and such French and Spanish authors as the Faculty may direct.
Article 6: The Sophomore Class shall study Algebra and Geometry, Grecian and Roman Antiquities, Livy, Tacitus, Graeca Majora and Homer’s Iliad, and such French and Spanish authors as the Faculty may direct.
Article 7: The Junior Class shall study Plane and Spherical Trigonometry, Mensuration, Surveying, Navigation, Analytical Geometry, and the Differential and Integral Calculus; Chemistry and Natural History, Rhetoric, Composition, Criticism, Ancient and Modern History, Mental Philosophy and Logic, and be exercised in the Modern Languages as the Faculty shall direct.
Article 8: The Senior Class shall study Chemistry and Natural History, Moral Philosophy, Natural Philosophy, including Optics, Astronomy, Mechanics and Engineering; Evidences of Christianity, Law of Nations, Constitutional Law and Political Economy; and shall be exercised in the Modern Languages, as in the Junior Class.
Our predecessors as “officers” of the College put the rest us here to shame, I fear. I know that they only had a few students; and I know that nowadays each of us is more specialized than they were, and therefore has to know much more about his or her specialty; but—even so, a President, four Professors, and a couple of Tutors covered all of this ground. They were a serious-minded lot, impressively learned and versatile.
Here is an interesting Chapter, one that actually has my mental wheels turning, considering the possibilities:
Article 1: Every Saturday morning shall be exclusively devoted to public speaking. Those who are to speak are to be designated by the Faculty, on Saturday, and at least one week preceding that on which they are to speak. No student shall be excused from taking his part in this exercise, unless prevented by some natural impediment. Every member of the Faculty is required to be present at these exercises; and it shall be the duty of each and all, as may be arranged amongst themselves, to point out to the speakers such errors as the latter may commit.
So, not only were these Faculty hardy during the week, they could do it on Saturdays as well. In this Chapter, moreover, one gets the sense that students were just as clever then as they are today. One surmises that some student or other had decided to have a bit of fun with the Saturday speaking assignments, and therefore an Article had been written to prevent such fun. We might call this the JustinTimberlake/Janet Jackson article.
Article 2: Nothing indecent, profane or immoral, shall at any time be delivered on the public stage, under penalty of such censure as the Faculty or Trustees may judge proper; and it shall be the duty of every student, appointed to speak, to show to the President, or to some officer designated by him, the whole of what he proposes to deliver; and he shall not fail to observe such corrections as may be made in the exercise by the President or other officer to whom it shall thus have been submitted.
Let me leave this pamphlet behind and turn to the oldest document we have from the merged institution, the 1852-53 Catalogue of Centenary College of Louisiana.
I’ve worked with College Catalogues now for most of my life, but until I read this one, I had forgotten that a catalogue actually is supposed to catalogue. It begins with the names of the Trustees and the Visitors, then the names of the State Visitors appointed by the Governor, His Excellency, P. O. Hebert, then the Examining Committee, then the names of the President, the five Professors, the two Tutors, and the Principal of the associated “Preparatory Department,” then a list of all the students, beginning with Seniors and ending with those in the Preparatory Department, following which is a list of every member of the Alumni Association, and a final tally:
The list of undergraduates totals 139, 17 Seniors, 18 Juniors, 43 Sophomores, and 61 Freshmen. Also listed are 76 members of the Alumni Association. Only after cataloguing every individual associated with the College does the publication begin to talk about admissions requirements, curricula, policies, and so forth.
This Catalogue reflects an interesting curricular innovation inspired by Judge David Shattuck, the first President of the merged College. No longer did all students pursue the same curriculum. Some, by far the majority, pursued the “Classical Course,” which was very much like that described in the “Laws” of the old Centenary College: Lots of ancient authors—Xenophon, Livy, Homer, Ovid, Cicero, Horace, but also the full gamut of geometry, rhetoric, navigation and surveying, logic, mechanics, chemistry, geology, physiology, mineralogy, astronomy, meteorology, moral philosophy, astronomy, mental philosophy, constitutional law, law of nations, and an intriguing course called “Practical Application of Mechanical Principles, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, Acoustics, Electricity, Magnetism, and Optics.” Can you imagine how busy those students were, not to mention the eight faculty members?
The students in the other curriculum, the “Scientific Course,” did not, oddly enough, do any more science that those in the “Classical Course.” Their curriculum differed only in that they studied Spanish and French rather than Greek and Latin.
The catalogue also tells us that the tuition for the full year was $50.00, the room rent $5.00, the use of the library, $3.00, and the contingency fee, $3.00—see, even then they were charging those mysterious fees that students find quite suspicious.
The prose is quite wonderful throughout. In the section for the Library, we read,
The College Library contains about 3000 well selected volumes, of both ancient and modern literature. The importance of such a library to the reading student, during his Collegiate course, is too obvious to need remark.
Under the heading “Literary Societies,” we read: "There are two Literary Societies connected with the Institution. These are of great utility to young men acquiring a liberal education—improving them in the art of public speaking, making them, in some degree, familiar with the proceedings of deliberative bodies, and cultivating systematic business habits. "
In the closest thing to a purpose or mission statement, under the heading “Practical Instruction,” we read this, a somewhat ambivalent declaration:
"Knowledge without application is unproductive. One great object of the Instructor should be to make the scholar practical as well as theoretical. Much is left for the teacher to supply which is not found in the text books. There is much valuable information which can only be obtained by oral instruction, and a familiar knowledge of the detail of experiment and practice. With this view, all Recitation and Lecture will be rather practical than theoretical, and the Theodolite, Compass, Sextant, Telescope, etc., will be employed by the Professor in actual observations and surveys, thus properly enforcing and illustrating Mathematical and Philosophical principles by practical application.
" The course of study, in the various departments, is thought to be full and thorough. The object of Collegiate instruction is not to complete either a practical or professional education, but to lay the foundation of a character fitted to appear with honor and usefulness in any sphere of life—to bring out and properly balance the powers of the mind, thus fitting the individual for the successful persecution of the learned professions or higher departments of business."
There is in this prose a sober and serious attempt to identify what best serves students and to focus on it single-mindedly. The College of Louisiana may have collapsed; and Centenary College may have avoided collapse only by fleeing to Louisiana; and the new Centenary College of Louisiana may only then have been getting underway beneath a cloud of insecurity; but, for all the uncertainties coloring its past and casting a shadow of doubt on its future, these Catalogue pronouncements exude confidence about the purpose of the College, about the goals it seeks, and the goods it plans to provide. The importance of a library is too obvious to remark; Literary Societies are of great utility to students; and, the object of education is to lay the foundation of character that fits an individual for any future purpose that is both honorable and useful.
There is some fun in this Catalogue, as well. Under “General Information,” we see:
"This College . . . is located in the village of Jackson, about twelve miles from Bayou Sara, in a grove of pine, magnolia, oak and beech, unsurpassed in beauty and magnificence. The location is not only remarkable for its beautiful woodlands, its bland and delightful atmosphere, its pure water, and its unrivalled healthfulness, but for the refinement and morality of the inhabitants. The buildings are large, commodious and substantial, affording ample room for a large number of students.
" The government is mild and parental, but consistent and firm: if a student is found to be incorrigibly vicious or idle, he is at once dismissed. The punishments consist of demerit marks, private reproof, public reproof, and suspension. The rewards consist of merit marks, and public honors on the day of commencement. So that by every incentive—by appeals to all the nobler principles of the nature—by affectionate entreaty and friendly counsel—by the hope of distinction and the fear of disgrace—the Faculty endeavor to maintain order and the purest morality."
Here the confident certainty that characterizes the academic portions of the Catalogue is seeping into perhaps extraneous issues, such as the character of the local population. I guess our predecessors had discovered the necessity of marketing the College. Later in the century, this tendency seems to go over the top, the Catalogues beginning to carry a section entitled “Some Reasons Why You Should Send Your Boy to Centenary.” The list is meant to be taken straight up, but one can imagine Dave Letterman reading this list of seven reasons with an ironic flourish.
1. Because it is a Church school. If you are a Methodist, because it
is your Church school.
Annotated and Noted by Judge J. C. W. Ellis of the Civil District Court, N. O., April 15, 1902. Judge Ellis name appears here as a Sophomore. He graduated in 1855. Served with distinction in Confederate Army. After the war he made a ____ (a word I can't read) as an attorney, made a fine Judge, and at this time is the most popular of the professors in the Tulane Law School. He is perhaps the most distinguished member of one of the very best classes Centenary ever turned out.
Judge Ellis’s annotations are fascinating. Beside many is a plus sign, the key at the top of the page indicating that this marks those who’ve died. Next to many of the names is the abbreviation for the word ‘attorney’ or the letters ‘M.D.’ or the word ‘planter’. Beside many of the names are the letters ‘C.S.A.’, which I infer means Confederate States Army. Beside some of these is a rank: P. Henry Swearingen of Chappel Hill, Texas, was a Colonel; Edward J. Deloney of Clinton, Louisiana, was a Captain; Charles W. Carter of Tensas, Louisiana, was a Chaplain. H. Eugene Weathersby, from Amite County, Mississippi, was killed at Franklinton, Tennessee in 1864. Ironically, Willis W. Davis, class of 1854, was killed in the Battle of Jackson, which was fought largely on the campus of Centenary College in 1863. He died fighting a battle on the campus of his alma mater.
There is a poignancy in the names of these alumni. Although only some were dead when Judge Ellis annotated our copy, all of them are now dead. When I hold this volume and read it, I think of Homer, and of that wonderful passage in the Iliad that recounts the meeting between Diomedes and Glaukus on the field of battle. In that wonderful Homeric way, they converse about the most serious of topics as they prepare to do battle, and Glaukus nicely captures the essence of the moment:
High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask about my birth?
Many generations of mortals, like leaves, have passed through this Campus—or through these Campuses in Jackson, and Brandon Springs, Jackson again, and now in Shreveport. Whether they served on the Board of Trustees, or served as “Officers,” or studied and learned and then graduated, they have passed through and out. There is the transience, which along with the chaos, is not the most important part of the story. The most important part is the order, the stability that remains long after these generations—and indeed our generations—will have left these campuses. Centenary survives, despite the challenges its patrons and its employees and its students have weathered. It endures, and it endures, fittingly enough, because of their efforts to bring order to chaos, and to pass on that order to succeeding generations.
Our predecessors have left us a trust, Centenary College of Louisiana, a challenge to pass it on in better shape than we received it, and the inspiring example of their own surprising successes. Our Founders were impressive people, people whose character was, to use the words from that early College document, “fitted to appear with honor and usefulness” in their respective spheres of life. They issue a clear challenge to us—indeed, a humbling charge—to do the same in our respective spheres—whether we are students, or Professors, or Trustees. We are merely mortals, here today and gone tomorrow, and yet we too have to ensure that Order vanquishes Chaos.
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