portrait
James Smithson.

In the early 1800s, America was expanding in many ways. Part of that expansion was the education of Americans both in the classroom and otherwise.

Professional schools for “medicine, law, and divinity” emerged early in America, however, undergraduate education was different. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 462. Undergraduate education shifted from vocational training to a more liberal curriculum, which was meant to “develop the student’s intellectual powers rather than to provide vocational training.” Id.

In institutions like Yale, the “curriculum centered on the classics,” which “inculcated intellectual discipline and provided those who pursued it, the world over, with a common frame of reference.” Id.

Meanwhile, the federal government “played a somewhat larger role in scientific research than in education.” See id. at 468. During President Andrew Jackson’s administration, the U.S. Coast Survey charted the oceanography surrounding America and the government founded the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., where it remains to this day. Id. citing A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, 1985), 29-33, 62-63.

Then, in the 1830s, the an English scientist named James Smithson willed his estate to the federal government to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 468. Finally, in 1846, Congress established the Smithsonian Institution, “with a museum, laboratory, library, and art gallery.” Id. citing William Rhees, ed., The Smithsonian Institution: Documents (Washington, 1901), I.

As the 1800s progressed, America was becoming more developed and beginning to value education and scientific research. As a whole, Americans were branching out and developing a culture that valued education and enlightenment. It reflected the priorities of America as a whole.

What started then as a small ripple in American culture has developed into a massive segment of American life. Americans have come to value a varied education and have come to value the importance of museums and institutions like the Smithsonian Institution. Perhaps this is one instance where American can agree that funding must be continued and increased to support programs that further enlighten future generations of Americans.

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