Wednesday, September 3, 2014

From the Archives: The First Course Catalogue and the History of Admissions

Mount Holyoke is a college with a long and far-reaching historical legacy, and even today we continue to honor many of our earliest traditions. Yet while we have maintained our core values of diversity, academic excellence, and purposeful engagement, much has changed about Mount Holyoke's format and practices since 1837. Taking a look at the very first course catalogue for the 1837-1838 school year reveals how much the institution has grown.
Cover of the original 1837 catalogue

One notable change is that while today we have President Lynn Pasquerella, in the seminary's first year Mount Holyoke was led by Miss Mary Lyon, who was called a principal and teacher instead of president. The list of Trustees also reveals the familiar names of Deacons Andrew W. Porter and Daniel Safford, for whom two of our residence halls are named.

The seminary had only three class years--Junior, Middle, and Senior--which students were placed into based on their test scores, rather than their age. The founding year started with 116 students, though many of the students would not graduate, since it was typical for women to enroll in a seminary for only a short time. Each year followed the same curriculum, and while they were designed to be followed for a year, students could advance to the next year once they proved their mastery of the subjects.

Admissions requirements
The requirements for entering the seminary's Junior class were being 16 years old and having "an acquaintance with the general principles of English Grammar, a good knowledge of Modern Geography, History of the United States, Watts on the Mind, Colburn's First Lessons, and the whole of Adams's New Arithmetic." The list of subjects each class studies is given in the catalogue, and it is noted that the list will likely expand in coming years, so "preparations to enter the Junior class should be full and thorough."

When students first arrived to the seminary, it was not actually guaranteed that they would be admitted. First, they took a series of exams to demonstrate their academic preparedness. An emphasis is placed on the importance of being present at the seminary as much as possible; students were generally required to stay the whole year, and were asked not to miss any weeks of class during their Senior year.

Students were required to complete assigned domestic chores, as part of Mary Lyon's method of keeping the cost of attending the seminary low: $20 a term, not including fuel and lights. But the catalogue emphasizes that the institution would not teach domestic skills to the students, and instead make use of those skills students had already learned from their mothers.

The Seminary's original 116 students all came from the East Coast, except for Mary E. Hayes from Ohio, with the majority from Massachusetts and Connecticut. While this group of students was not very diverse, Mary Lyon founded the Seminary with the intention of providing a rigorous liberal arts education for middle class women who could not afford to attend more expensive institutions.

Today, Mount Holyoke looks very different from Mary Lyon's time. We now have four class years instead of three, the tuition is slightly higher than $20 per semester, and there are hundreds of different classes in a variety of subjects to choose from. Admissions applications are no longer sent directly to the President. Mary Lyon might not have envisioned this future for us. But in our 177th year, Mount Holyoke has grown into a diverse, inclusive, and academically premiere college for all women.

See the full 1837 course catalog at the Alumnae Quarterly!

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Megan Haaga, Class of 2015, is a student assistant in the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

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