Horace Webster and the Mission of CUNY

Bust of Dr. Horace Webster, Greco-Roman style. City College, Shepard Hall, Room 250.

In discussions of CUNY, the school’s mission is often cited as being to serve “the children of the whole people.” These words were spoken by Horace Webster (1794-1871), the first director of the Free Academy, CUNY’s predecessor, at the academy’s opening ceremony in 1849. This phrase is used to demonstrate that CUNY’s mission since its founding has been to serve the entire community of New York City, rich and poor alike.

These words are claimed by almost everyone with an interest in the past, present and future of CUNY, including the university’s administration, its faculty union, and student activists. You can find them in the Graduate Center’s website, CCNY’s mission statement, the official history of Baruch College, CUNY’s 1999-2000 budget request, PSC President Barbara Bowen’s 2007 statement against the budget cuts, a 2006 statement by the CUNY activist group SLAM! (Student Liberation Action Movement), a Facebook page for a CCNY speak-out against budget cuts, and many more.

While this phrase pops up all over the place, the rest of the passage it belongs to is rarely cited. It reads, “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.” This passage reveals several layers of meaning that are typically omitted from accounts of CUNY’s origins.

First, Webster considered it an “experiment” to educated the sons of the working class. He wasn’t sure if it would work. Perhaps, he seems to say, the lower classes would turn out not to be educable. (And, needless to say given that this was an era before the Civil War and the women’s suffrage, civil rights and women’s liberation movements, he wasn’t even going to bother trying to educate the female or non-European children of the whole people.)  The second, related experiment was whether an institution of higher education could be controlled by the people rather than the elite. It’s not clear whether this was because Webster was unsure of the lower classes’ intellectual or political capacities or, perhaps more likely, some combination of the two.

So while Webster was in all likelihood a sincere advocate of reform, the working class did not necessarily have his full confidence. What is to account for this half-hearted enthusiasm? One clue is the identity of Webster’s own alma mater, West Point. He was trained in the authoritarian, top-down style of the military, and was therefore  steeped in the military’s conservative political culture, which places a premium on obedience and deference and whose job is to defend the interests of society’s elite with physical force. While Webster clearly diverged from the military’s elitism far enough to devote his life to the experiment of a higher education open to the lower strata of society, it seems likely that he never fully divorced himself from his military background, a supposition supported by his hesitancy about the mission of his own academy.

Webster’s words show that public higher education has always been in doubt. When it was first tried in New York, its own founding leader was unsure of its chances of success, and ever since then it has constantly been besieged, assaulted and questioned, but also defended, ratified and reaffirmed, from the battle for academic freedom and free speech of the 1930′s to the fight for racial inclusion of the 1960′s and 1970′s, to the current fight to protect it from downsizing and privatization.

Finally, I want to point out the striking revolutionary symbolism that surrounds the major dates of Webster’s biography. Webster was born in 1794, one year after the execution of Louis XIV in the French Revolution, became director of the Free Academy one year after the Revolution of 1848, and died in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune. Webster lived in revolutionary times, and although all these events took place in the Old World rather than the New, their symbolism reminds us, as do Webster’s own words, that democratic gains have always had to be fought for. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

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  1. [...] and for a very specific reason: along with their outstanding professors, CUNY’s mission –“to educate the children of a whole people” – really mattered if I was going to commit five to seven years of my life and career to one [...]

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