“Practical Education”

April 11, 1885

artist unknown

“Practical Education”

Education, College; Journalists/Journalism; Sports and Recreation;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Bill. "How do you spell opshinul, Sam?" (Sam hesitates.) "Come, I thought you had a college education."

Sam. "Did; but it was opshinul whether I took in Greek and Latin, or balls and bats, you know. Look in the directory."

This unsigned Harper's Weekly cartoon addresses several conspicuous trends in late-nineteenth-century America:  the development of sports journalism, baseball, and college sports, along with the rise of curricular electives and the decline of Greek and Latin requirements in higher education.  The cartoon's sportswriters work for a baseball journal (Bat), and the college-educated character (unable to spell "optional") reveals that he concentrated on athletics and opted out of a classical curriculum.

Sports historians disagree on what produced the popularity of athletic games and competitions in the late-nineteenth century, but notable factors include urbanization; the influence of immigrant groups (particularly Germans); the decline of Puritan restrictions on merrymaking; a prevalence of voluntary associations; advances in communications, transportation, and technology; a rising standard of living; concerns about good health and physical fitness; and available leisure time.  

A key component for generating this enthusiasm was the development of sports journalism.  Much of the focus of late-nineteenth-century sports journalism was on baseball (as in this cartoon).  The American sport developed from the English game of rounders, and by 1865 there were 91 teams in the National Association of Base Ball Players.  Half of the clubs were from New York since the sport had been popular primarily in the Northeast during the antebellum years.  

In fact, Southern gentlemen had refused to play the game, considering it undignified (running away, like slaves), too democratic (taking turns at batting and fielding), and too working class (actually, it was mainly played by white-collar workers).  Southern gentlemen preferred to hunt.  The myth of baseball's origins as a uniquely American game and the national pastime began to be circulated in the late 1880s by sporting-goods businessman Albert Spalding and National League president Abraham Mills.  Besides promoting the game, it emphasized national unity and downplayed sectional conflict.

Baseball fever did spread rapidly after the Civil War, even to the South, and gained great popularity.  Under the leadership of Arthur Pue Gorman (a future U.S. senator), the National Association increased to 237 teams (147 in the Midwest) by 1867.  Two years later, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team, and successfully toured the country.  In 1872, a professional association of baseball clubs was established, but it was succeeded in 1876 by the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, which was run more securely on business principles.  By the 1880s (the time of this cartoon), the game was thriving, with more fans, newer parks, better players, and increased revenues.

Baseball was one of the major sports spurring the development of college athletics in the late-nineteenth century.  In 1859, a baseball game between two Massachusetts colleges, Williams and Amherst, inaugurated intercollegiate sports competitions in the Northeast, which spread to other regions after the Civil War.  In the 1870s, intercollegiate associations were formed for baseball, rowing, track and field, football, and other sports.  During that decade, rowing was at the height of its popularity and the dominant sport in the East.  As a college sport, baseball was relatively more popular in the Midwest and postwar South than it was in the Northeast, although the top-ranked Harvard team drew 10,000 spectators to its home games.  Football did not gain its preeminence as a college sport until the twentieth century.

The rise of college sports coincided with the opening of the college curriculum to electives (courses chosen by the student instead of mandated by the college).  Before the Civil War, the college experience was a four-year schedule of fixed courses of a classical education, primarily in Greek, Latin, mathematics, and natural philosophy, intended to discipline students mentally and morally.  Harvard president Charles Eliot led other educational reformers in a push for the elective system, which would offer more practical courses designed to train experts in useful fields.  

The adoption of the elective system meant the decline of requirements like Latin and Greek and the development of new fields, such as political science, history, education, modern languages, and economics.  By the 1880s, physical education classes and gymnasiums were common on most college campuses.  The elective system undermined loyalty to one's graduating class, since courses were now populated by students from various years; yet intercollegiate athletics helped replace that loss with loyalty to the entire college through its sports teams.  By the 1890s, most major colleges and universities were operating under the elective system.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Practical Education”
May 21, 2024

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