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Update: Exploring CSU's past

September 17, 2009

Question:

Cam, I am pretty sure that CSU is the oldest university in the state of Colorado, but I do not know what majors were available then. I guess the real question is what is the oldest department in the university. I think it is agronomy.

Cam’s answer:

More great questions to send me back to CSU’s history book! I talked with James Hansen, esteemed author of CSU's history book, Democracy’s College in the Centennial State, and he told me:

"The oldest university is the University of Denver, established in 1864 as Colorado Seminary, with classes beginning in 1864. Next is CU-Boulder, established in 1861 and opened 1877. We are third."

Dr. Hansen says his source is Michael McGiffert's Higher Learning in Colorado.

Early days

But you asked about early majors and the oldest department. Before answering, I’ll set the stage by saying that academic life at our esteemed institution was vastly different in the 1800s than what our students now experience. Higher education was new and untested in the state – in fact, Elijah Edwards, first president of our school, became frustrated within the first year of his term because he believed some people “…wanted only an agricultural school for farmer’s boys.”

Our ag roots

Although Edwards favored ancient languages and organized a class in Latin, manual labor remained one of the required “courses” for students: spreading manure, building fences, repairing railroad crossings, resodding the grounds, and other practical training that was important for well-rounded citizens to know. (Check out the haystacks near Ammons Hall in the photo above.)

Wow. Anybody out there remember Latin or manure classes? The “sod” part sounds tasty to me!

Serious studies

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking 1800s education. In fact, Democracy’s College notes that, although agricultural science had yet to be developed, “…traditionally trained chemists, physicists, botanists, and zoologists were recruited in the hope that their knowledge might be adapted to the demands of farming and stockraising.”

The bottom line is that discussions on the most effective curricula have been going on ever since the University was formed in 1870 – and I think we’re better for it. Nothing wrong with locking horns over how we can best educate students!

Lowdown on departments

“With regard to CSU departments,” Professor Hansen tells me, “I think that several were established simultaneously. For my Democracy's College book research, I compiled a CSU organization chart, using school catalogs and State Board of Agriculture minutes, that traced the evolution of academic departments and majors.”

Loosely speaking, the first departments included Rhetoric and English Literature; Mathematics; Chemistry; Experimental, which probably was a precursor to the Experiment Station and not an academic department; and Political, Moral, and Intellectual Philosophy.

“My sense is that these ‘departments’ were listed to accommodate available classes and activities and were not functioning administrative entities,” Dr. Hansen says. “By 1881, however, the catalog lists 19 individual departments, one of which is Horticulture.

“This list may reflect some wishful thinking or advertising considerations, but it would be inaccurate to cite any single department as the first.”

First courses

Information is somewhat sparse, too, on specific majors in our University’s early years, but here’s a clue from the history book on some of the first courses:

In 1880, Colorado had a total of 194,327 people, of which 11.8 percent attended schools. The state numbered only 10 high schools or schools with high school departments.

Thus, the first courses offered at the College were arithmetic, English, U.S. History, natural philosophy, horticulture, and farm economy – a curriculum characterized by the necessity to train students in elementary academic skills prior to commencing collegiate-level instruction. 

Here’s to the ag roots of our mighty CSU!
Cam the Ram