When you look at the famous Jasper Cropsey painting of the University of Michigan campus in 1855, you cannot help but be struck by how isolated the place was. There are only a few buildings evident. Cows are grazing in a meadow. And we know that Ann Arbor was a small town of some 4,500 people. How, then, did the University set in that place become, within a span of 50 years, one of the most important intellectual centers in the nation? What is the origin of Michigan’s reputation?

By 1880, the University of Michigan was one of a handful of institutions of higher education positioned to rise to the highest levels of intellectual achievement. This was not on the coattails of any group of institutions—because none preceded it. It was a time of intellectual transformation in the nation as a whole—and Michigan, along with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and later Chicago, were positioned to seize a moment.

And they did, through the presence of a handful of faculty members in the College of LSA who were informed by, and contributed to, discussions on how to construct and categorize knowledge. Central to their work were debates over the relevance of science and religion, over how we understand people as moral and social beings, and finally the broader applications of science to that understanding.

Education and “Moral Man”

Up until the late 19th century, especially in the United States, the province of human behavior—of what was called “moral man”—was considered inextricably bound to a moral authority rooted in the Bible. If the world was not flat and not created in seven real days, it still was generally accepted that through religious thought and principles, humans and human relationships would be understood and guided.

Education, then, was the means to prepare the moral man. With few exceptions (Michigan being one), colleges and universities established before the Morrill Act of 1862 were founded on religion. This central role would only be challenged (particularly in the United States) seriously, systematically, and fundamentally, in the late 19th century.

Charles Darwin’s proposition on the origin of species had a profound effect on intellectual life, and consequently on higher education. However, some of his side points grabbed particular attention: the ideas of randomness, that all of biology is composed of organisms, that species adapt and change, and that patterns in natural development are observable. Combined with ideas from the emerging field of social psychology, Darwin’s theories suggested that how we know and how we act is biological, not spiritual. It was bold and distinctly not biblical: Anything organic, including people, could adapt or be adapted to address broader environmental change, or might adapt in response to it.

Henry Philip Tappan came to U-M as president in 1852 to transform it into a rigorous intellectual center. Tappan’s sympathies were very clearly with emerging notions of science. We see that in the people he hired, such as Andrew Dickson White and Alexander Winchell, as well as in his work to establish a campus observatory. While Tappan’s arrival predated Darwin’s book, his actions were important because he boldly moved Michigan toward science and scientific investigation.

Establishing this scientific environment was one thing, but fully realizing its potential was quite another. Enter James B. Angell.

The Angell Influence

As U-M’s third president, Angell embraced new ways of thinking and moved to hire several key scholars who would put Michigan at the very center of the idea of the research university.

Among the appointments was John Dewey, a junior professor of philosophy. Dewey, of course, would emerge as one of the greatest intellectuals in the history of the nation. He came to Michigan in 1884 at the invitation of George Sylvester Morris, who was chair of the Department of Philosophy. Morris wanted to bring to Michigan new perspectives derived from the emerging field of psychology. Dewey, who had trained at Johns Hopkins, was very engaged in these possibilities. He argued that instead of thinking of ourselves exclusively as a creation of a higher power, we are ourselves of our own creation—in how we understand ourselves, how we understand ourselves in relationship to others, and how others perceive us. The individual and the environment are connected, he argued, asking the deeper question: If we shape ourselves, can we be changed by ourselves? He offered a series of new courses in LSA that brought the study of psychology into the offerings of the philosophy department.

Dewey’s work attracted George Herbert Mead to the department. Mead, with a similar intellectual perspective, argued that the emergence of the mind depends upon interaction between the total human organism and its social environment. His focus was on achieving meaningful social reform in the Industrial Age. In 1894, both men moved to the University of Chicago, where they found the complex urban environment more suited to their work.

However, their perspective was not lost at Michigan. Refining Mead’s views further was yet another Angell appointee, social theorist Charles Horton Cooley. Cooley had been a student of Dewey at Michigan and emphasized that the study of social relations required its own discipline (i.e., sociology) with special attention to the implications for social improvement. A fourth hire, Henry Carter Adams, an economist, took these new perspectives on society and adapted them to an understanding of the behavior of the social economy. He argued that just as social interactions could be studied and encouraged to better ends, so too could economic behavior be studied and, where necessary, regulated for the improvement of society as a whole.

Guided by Angell, Michigan was forging a community of transformational thinkers that created one of the most important intellectual environments of the early 20th century. Through Dewey and his ideas of self, society, and education; through Mead and his ideas on the capacity of societies to achieve social transformation; through Cooley and his ideas for the study of social processes; and through Adams and his confidence in ways to reshape capitalist economies, Michigan would lay the groundwork for new conceptions of education, research, and knowledge itself.

The Modern University

Scholars at Michigan, along with those at a handful of other institutions, were posing fundamentally new ideas about human nature and the social order. U-M was among the first institutions to apply ideas and methodologies of science to social issues. This was, and is, social science.

Select faculty members at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Michigan, Wisconsin, and later Cornell, and the newer universities at Berkeley, Stanford, and Chicago transformed the intellectual ambitions of higher education. They developed a new structure of how we approach knowledge and how we address the challenges of a complex society. These universities were among the 14 founders of the Association of American Universities that in 1900 came together to define the modern American research university, a model that is still with us today. 

Francis X. Blouin Jr. is a professor in LSA’s Department of History and in the School of Information. He served as the director of the Bentley Historical Library from 1981 to 2013. A longer treatment of the topic of this article appears in the Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 43.

Illustration by Erin Nelson