“Curriculum Vitae” Traces the Progression of Dartmouth’s Liberal Arts Tradition

A new Dartmouth Library exhibit explores 250 years of the liberal arts at the College.

The Dartmouth Library continues its yearlong series of exhibits exploring themes related to the College’s history with a new exhibit debuting on April 3. The show, “Curriculum Vitae,” follows the evolution of the College’s liberal arts tradition against the backdrop of current trends in higher education. 

Curated by Classics and German Librarian Daniel Abosso and Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian Wendel Cox, the exhibit will be on display in the main corridor of Baker-Berry Library through June 19.

The first of the exhibit’s six panels introduces the definition of the liberal arts as it was defined at the College’s founding in 1769. For much of its first 100 years, Dartmouth’s curriculum remained rooted in the languages and literature of Greece and Rome and included the study of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and philosophy. Rote memorization, recitation, and the translation of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were a significant part of the undergraduate experience.

Tilting Toward the Rise of Specialization 

Scientific and technological innovations, particularly in the 19th century, encouraged the prioritization of practical or professional studies over the liberal arts, believed by some to be esoteric and impractical. 

The College pursued the dueling ideals by adding professional schools in medicine (1797), engineering (1867), and business (1900).  While Dartmouth remained a liberal arts college in the traditional sense, the addition of these schools speaks to the College’s response to shifts in higher education. 

For instance, the exhibit notes the production of the College’s academic calendar in English instead of Latin for the first time, a decision celebrated as “progressive” in an 1871 issue of American Educational Monthly

One notable addition to Hanover’s intellectual landscape occurred in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Morrill Act (1862) allowed for the creation of state-sponsored colleges using proceeds from the sale of federal lands “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” 

A product of this act, the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts, opened in Hanover in 1868. Dartmouth President Asa Smith, followed by President Samuel Bartlett, oversaw the institution’s operation and management. 

This democratization of higher education encouraged the obtainment of technical, professional skills—a priority neither uniformly applauded nor panned at the College. The exhibit alludes to the shaky relationship between the two institutions—one adhering to a traditional liberal arts curriculum, the other specialized, with efficiency and scientific management at its foundation. The agricultural college remained in Hanover and connected to Dartmouth until 1893, at which time it moved to Durham, N.H. It was renamed the University of New Hampshire in 1923.

In discussing highlights from this period in the exhibit, the library’s Wendel Cox points to the inclusion of a photo from 1872 featuring a gross anatomy class at the medical college. In the photo, C.P. Frost, a physician, leads a class as students peer down at a cadaver. “This iconic image of modern medical education has resonance for anyone who has gone to medical school,” says Cox. “Gross anatomy is a class where a lot of contemporary medical schools do a great deal of work to explore the body from a human perspective. It is an example of where the liberal arts are often deployed to examine death, mortality, and our commitments to each other.” 

By the end of the 19th century, introspection and critical thinking skills were increasingly discussed as valuable consequences of a liberal education by its defenders.

The Liberal Arts in the Aftermath of War

The exhibit notes the increased pace of change in the liberal arts in the 20th century, including the outsized influence of World War I and World War II. One panel includes the words of Dartmouth’s Royal Nemiah, a professor of Greek who in 1919 outlined the necessity for a reconsideration of higher education’s goals as veterans returned to campus:

“Now that the war is over, education reconstruction is as important ... as physical and economic reconstruction: Students returning to their books from the battlefield and the training-camp are looking upon things with a more exacting materialism; they have obtained a wider and fuller perspective of the world and of their needs in it; they have learned to conceive the world as a great army, each part helping and explaining the other, in which isolated facts and theories, those having no connection with anything else, have no place.”

Both President Ernest Martin Hopkins (1916-1945) and President John Sloan Dickey (1945-1970), Dartmouth presidents who together served more than half of the century, were ardent supporters of the liberal arts. Two years into his appointment, Dickey presented the first lecture of his “Great Issues” lecture series, a required course for seniors that brought leaders and luminaries to campus.

“What the aims of American education should be were vigorously debated after World War II, when society had come close to the brink of annihilation,” says Abosso. “One of the responses was to safeguard democracy by having students read the Great Books and take civics courses. To read the Great Books, many of them not in English, you could either spend years learning Latin or Greek, or you could read them in translation. The old translations sounded old, too: students would have been reading a translation of the Iliad from the 19th century.”

Abosso and Cox devote space to one alumnus who contributed greatly to the expansion of the potential audience for these classic texts. A former student of Professor Nemiah, Richmond Lattimore ’26 translated several Greek classics, including Homer’s Iliad (1951) and Odyssey (1967). “His precise, clear, and elegant translations eschewed the archaisms that had so often blunted the power of the originals and made them seem even less accessible, writes Abosso in the exhibit’s text.

Lattimore’s achievements are notable because they illustrate his embodiment of “both the old liberal arts education and the more research-oriented education that would dominate American higher education,” says Abosso. Lattimore’s translations leveled the playing field, increasing accessibility of the classics to a larger swath of students and the general reading public alike. 


The Role of the Library Expands

As Cox and Abosso compiled documents and artifacts for the exhibit, they were eager to make connections between the evolution of the liberal arts and the expansion and accessibility of the Dartmouth Library.

We were intent on including something about the library itself in this exhibit,” says Cox. Presented in the library and based almost exclusively on the library’s resources, the exhibit argues that “the conjunction of the liberal arts as reflection, inquiry, and questioning is reliant on the knowledge and information we gather, organize, and to which we afford access in libraries,” he says.

It’s may be surprising, but a list of the College’s earliest literary holdings could be contained on a single sheet of paper, as evidenced by the exhibit’s inclusion of a “Catalogue of Books Belonging to Dartmouth College Library” from 1775. 

Also included in the exhibit—a series of letters from students demanding an improved library experience, published in 1872 and 1873 editions of The Dartmouth. In 1874, the private collections of the College’s social clubs were combined with the Dartmouth Library holdings, and in time additional improvements were made, including the hiring of a full-time librarian and the extension of the library’s hours.

Baker Memorial Library was erected in 1928. By 1950, campus maps placed the library as the focal point of the College. 

Progressing through the 20th century, the exhibit acknowledges the relationship of the liberal arts to technology within the information age. In highlighting the early adoption and integration of computers into the Dartmouth student experience, it notes that, by the mid-1970s, three-quarters of the students had classes with computers and computing as a part of their offerings.  

While still considered the center of campus by many, today’s Dartmouth Library is not limited to a physical space. Much of its collections and resources may be accessed by students and the public through the internet. The library maintains a welcoming social and intellectual environment and a staff of librarians and specialists with expertise accessible to students pursuing their own paths of inquiry. 

In the exhibit’s final panel, Cox writes of the library’s critical role in fostering curiosity, critical thinking skills, and research competencies: “Contemporary college and university libraries are indispensable to critical inquiry, reflection, and our collective pursuit of knowledge. Never just a warehouse of books, they are an embodiment of the liberal arts, facilitating learning, partnering in original inquiry, and serving as a seat of inspiration.”