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Burgess on Political Sciences at Columbia College. 1882

A brief statement that well describes the System of instruction and research in the political sciences at Columbia by the founder of its School of Political Science at the dawn of formal graduate education in economics (as well as history and public law) in the United States. College through the Junior Year was regarded as equivalent to the Gymnasium training, i.e. pre-University, in the German system. The Senior year of undergraduate education marked the transition to University study. Cf.  the informational brochure for the academic year 1882-83.



John W. Burgess

During the last half decade an awakening of interest in the study of the political sciences has manifested itself throughout the public at large, such as no previous generation since the beginning of our national existence has experienced. The conviction is now already deep and general that, unless a sounder political wisdom and a better political practice be attained, the republican system may become but a form, and republican institutions but a deception. It is then hardly a question any more as to whether we need a higher political education. The common consciousness of the nation is already beyond that point, and is now occupied with the invention of the means and methods of its realization. Of course, chief among these means should stand our institutions of superior learning — our colleges and universities. The nation has a right to expect of and demand from these that the youth whom they undertake to train and develop shall be furnished at least with the elements of the political sciences with their literature and with the methods of a sound political logic. Many of them have long endeavored to accomplish something of this, with varying success, while some of them have recently put forth more than ordinary efforts to meet and fulfill in a higher degree this great public duty. In response to a most kindly and appreciative request from the editor of the “International,” we have undertaken to describe briefly the system of investigation and instruction in this sphere which New York’s oldest institution of learning — Columbia College — has established and is now essaying to perfect.

This system consists of four distinct and well-defined parts, viz.: The Undergraduate Department of History and Political Science, The School of Political Science, The Academy of the Political Sciences, and The Library of the Political Sciences.


I. The Undergraduate Department.

The key-note of our whole system is its historical groundwork and its historical method. It is in and through history that the State has taken its origin and passed through the different phases of its development down to its present form and relations. Therefore it is in and through a sound and comprehensive study of history alone that the foundations can be laid for a true and valuable public law and political science. Theory and speculation in politics must be regulated by historic fact — must be generalized most largely from historic fact; otherwise, they are always in danger of degenerating into the “will-o’-the-wisps” of individual fancy. We begin, therefore, with the study of history, and devote the two years assigned to the department in the undergraduate course to laying the historical groundwork. Here we employ the gymnastic method and seek the accomplishment of the gymnastic purpose, viz., the daily drill by recitation, question and answer from text-books of German, French and English history and of elementary political economy, with the purpose of fixing and classifying in the memory of the student the elements of political geography, the chronology and outward frame of historic events, the biographies of historic characters, and definitions of political and economic terms. The completion of the junior year in the undergraduate curriculum marks the close of gymnastic study and preparation. The senior year in all our colleges of the first rank has become a real university year, both in the character and method of the instruction there given and employed. We therefore draw the line in our system between the Gymnasium and the University at the termination of the junior year, making the senior year of the College in these studies to correspond with the first year in the School of Political Science, and admitting to this School as candidates for its degrees all persons who have completed successfully the work of the first three years in any collegiate institution of the first rank in the United States, or an equivalent course in any foreign college, lyceum or gymnasium, or who can pass successfully examination upon all the studies of the undergraduate curriculum of this institution to the end of the junior year.


II. The School of Political Science.

This is the collective name which we give to the graduate or university courses in history, philosophy, economy, public law, jurisprudence, diplomacy and sociology. The time prescribed for the accomplishment of the work here assigned is three years, and the courses are so distributed over this period as to occupy the first year with the history of the development of the political institutions of continental Europe, the special constitutional history of England and of the United States, the history of the philosophic theories of the State, and the history of economic systems and theories; the second with the comparative constitutional law of the principal States of Europe and the United States and of the Commonwealths of the United States, and with the Roman law and the comparative jurisprudence of the modern codes derived therefrom; and the third with the comparative administrative law of the principal States of Europe and the United States and of the Commonwealths of the United States, the history of diplomacy, public international law, private international law, and economic, statistical and social science.

It will thus be seen that we begin again with the historical groundwork in the School of Political Science; but this time it is the history of institutions, the origin and development of the State through its several phases of political organization down to the modern constitutional form; that we then advance through history to the existing actual and legal relations of the State, and that we seek finally through comprehensive comparison to generalize the ultimate principles of our political philosophy, aiming thus to escape the dangers of a barren empiricism on the one side, and of a baseless speculation on the other. With the change from the Gymnasium to the University, the method of instruction changes as well as the subjects. The text-book, with its assigned lessons and daily drill upon the same, is discarded, as both cramping to the student and narrowing to the professor. We must get here nearer to sources and original material. We must go back of the treatises to the earliest documents, and learn to form from these our opinions, and to make from these our own hand-books. The professor must no longer act merely the part of the drill-master upon a given text, but of the investigator gathering and classifying original evidence upon his subjects, and generalizing therefrom his view and system; and the student must no longer be the mere gymnast, carrying his library under his arm, but he must begin to learn and apply the processes of original study, and to compare authorities upon the points treated or suggested. In a word, the university professor must instruct for the most part by lecture, imparting the results of his own labor and experience, and developing his own view and system, and the university student must verify the statements and fill up the outline by constant and comprehensive reading in a great library which shall contain the principal sources of information upon all the subjects of the different courses of study to which his attention is directed. Individuality of view, independence of judgment, and comprehensive, all-sided knowledge are the ends here sought both for instructor and instructed. Lastly, the degree conferred upon the successful completion of the work assigned in this School is the university degree of Doctor of Philosophy. The examinations leading to the attainment of the same are two-fold. The first, at the close of the first year, does not differ in character from the usual college examination for the degree of Bachelor of Arts. If successfully passed, the candidate is made a Bachelor of Philosophy. The second, at the close of the third year, is, on the other hand, a matter of far more serious import. It consists of three parts: First, a direct oral examination of each candidate upon any or all the courses pursued in the presence of the entire Faculty and by each member of the same; second, two collateral examinations, one upon the Latin language and the other upon either the German or French languages, as the candidate may elect; and, third, the examination of an original dissertation prepared by the candidate upon a subject either assigned to him by the Faculty of the School or selected by himself under their approval at least six months before the date of the examination. The candidate must furnish each member of the Faculty with a copy of his dissertation at least one month before the date of the examination, and, at the time fixed, must appear before the assembled Faculty of the School and defend his facts, his reasoning and his conclusions against the criticisms of each member of the same. If he be fairly successful through all of these ordeals, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy will be conferred upon him. If he attain a high grade of excellence in all, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy cum laude, and, if the highest be reached, then the degree of Doctor of Philosophy magna cum laude, the highest university distinction, will be accorded him.


III. The Academy of the Political Sciences.

This is a voluntary association composed of the President of the University, the Faculties of Law and Political Science, graduates of the School of Political Science and graduates of the School of Law, who have taken at least two years of the instruction in the School of Political Science or an equivalent course in some foreign university. It recruits itself annually from these same sources. Its purpose is the cultivation and development, in finest and most minute detail, of the different branches and topics of the political sciences. This organization is the central point of our whole system. Upon it depends for the most part the perpetuation and increasing usefulness of our work. Not being a transient body of students, who reach only a certain given point before they vanish from our control, but a permanent body of continually growing scholars, this association forms the productive, ever-advancing element in our system. Whatever we may be able to add to the existing stock of political knowledge will proceed from it. Each of its members assumes the obligation to produce at least one original work each year, and read the same before the association at its regular meetings, which production then becomes the property of the Academy, and may be published by it for the benefit of the public, provided a majority of the members deem it worthy of the same. From its labors the Library of the Political Sciences will receive its scientific classification by subjects, a journal of political science will be edited, and, above all, it will be the source of a true educational service, from which the Faculty of the Historical and Political Sciences may be recruited, thus providing for the continuity of our work in an ever-increasing degree of excellence, enabling us to perpetuate our own methods and traditions, to expand without limit our courses, and to diversify indefinitely our instruction without endangering its organic unity — in a word, to found a School of Political Thought in the truest and highest sense. This is the significance of the Academy — this is its office in our system.


IV. The Library of the Political Sciences.

A great library, scientifically classified and adequately served, is an indispensable part of a university. As well expect the architect merely with rule and pencil to rear a great structure as to demand of the scholar the production of literary monuments without this magazine of material. Neither will a collection merely of hand-books, textbooks, treatises and current literature suffice. These are necessary, indeed, as demonstrating how and how far authors have worked up original matter into logical form; the collection which stops there, however, may be a popular library indeed, or even a college library, but it is no university library. The prime purpose of the university library is, on the other hand, the assemblage and classification of original material in all branches of knowledge — such, for instance, in the domain of the political sciences, as the texts of constitutions, the statute books and ordinances of governments, the debates of legislative assemblies, the decisions of judicial bodies upon questions of public law, the papers of diplomatic intercourse, the texts of treaties, the reports of governmental commissions, statistical bureaus, chambers of commerce, boards of industry and agriculture and of the public health, the journals of international congresses, political conventions and academies and associations of political science, contemporary chronicles of historic facts, files of official gazettes, leading newspapers and magazines, etc., etc. It was this consideration which moved the trustees of this institution some four years since to authorize a special effort and a special appropriation of funds for the advancement of our Library of the Political Sciences. By their authority and with their aid exhaustive lists of original material in all the different branches of the political sciences were gathered from the leading publicists of the United States, England, France, Germany, Austria and Italy. A large portion of these works have already been placed within our Library, and we are steadily adding to the collection. It is with this material that we teach our students in the School of Political Science to acquaint themselves, and it is upon this material that the members of the Academy expend their labors, reducing it to scientific order and classification, and making it the basis of original work in the production of papers, monographs and treatises.

This, then, is the system of study in the political sciences at Columbia College which six years of reflection and experience have thus far matured; and, in giving this brief sketch of its main features to publication, those who have been most nearly concerned in its conception and development gladly avail themselves of the opportunity to make their most grateful acknowledgment for the support which they have felt from the sympathy of a generous and appreciative public.


Source: The International Review, Vol. XII, April 1882, pp. 346-351

Image Source: From the Columbia University, Department of History webpage: A Short History of the Department of History.


Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier