Few American institutions of higher learning as old as Norwich University still closely adhere to the educational principles of its founders.
Norwich is one of the exceptions and in a very substantial sense the institution today is the lengthened shadow of its founder, Captain Alden Partridge. The educational philosophy of Alden Partridge continues to guide Norwich University as it approaches its 200th anniversary and serves as a touchstone by which the university can be measured and appraised.
Captain Alden Partridge (1785–1854) probably did more than any other individual to promote military education in civilian institutions in the United States prior to the Civil War. Partridge originated a novel system of education which combined civilian and military studies in order to produce enlightened and useful citizen-soldiers. Like John Milton, Alden Partridge saw the ideal education as a liberal one which prepares youth for the responsibilities of peace and war. The fundamental promise of Partridge’s thinking was that education must prepare youth “to discharge, in the best possible manner, the duties they owe to themselves, to their fellow-men, and to their country.”
For more than four decades the remarkably energetic Partridge labored relentlessly to promote what he called the “American System of Education.” He first attempted to introduce his ideas at the United States Military Academy, but the frustration he met with there prompted him to establish the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at Norwich, Vermont, in 1819. The Vermont institution served as a model for several private military academies and colleges founded by Partridge, or his students, at locations throughout the United States prior to Partridge’s death in 1854.
In organizing his plan of education, Partridge was guided in part by the US Constitution. The defense of the nation is vested in the great mass of citizens who form “an impregnable bunker around the Constitution and liberties of the country.” The militia had to be trained in at least the elements of military science and tactics. “Hence arises the necessity—of an extended system of military education and of a general diffusion of military knowledge.” Partridge was emphatic in pointing out that he was not recommending a system of education for youth that was “purely military.” The military was to be only an “appendage” to civil education.
Among the deficiencies Partridge saw in traditional “liberal education” was that it was too restrictive and not liberal enough. The standard curriculum was not sufficiently practical and was not designed to prepare youth for the duties of an American citizen. The existing system of education was deficient because it did not give adequate attention to such matters as the operations of government or to the important sources of national wealth—”agriculture, commerce, and manufacturers.”
Alden Partridge’s American System of Education linked military science and training with a “civil” curriculum so broad and innovative that it won national attention at the time it was implemented. It was a bold and radical response to the educational requirements of a democratic republic. Partridge sought to transform the traditional curriculum by making it more practical, scientific, and truly liberal. He expanded the classical curriculum to include modern languages and history, as well as political economy and engineering. Indeed, Partridge’s institution was the first in the United States to offer instruction in civil engineering. Partridge also played a pioneering role in physical education and was one of the first educators to offer instruction in agriculture. He was also in the vanguard of academicians who adopted field training as a regular and important extension of theory learned in the classroom. The guiding philosophy behind Partridge’s curricular innovation contributed heavily to the concepts advanced in the College Land Grant Act of 1862, submitted to congress by Vermont Senator Justin Morrill, as well as to the legislation that created the Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1916.
Alden Partridge can be credited as one of the first Americans to use outdoor experience as an integral part of the process of education, thus anticipating the later acceptance of field trips and “outward bound” programs as legitimate educational activities. Field excursions provided excellent opportunities to combine exercise, recreation, and improvement. Arduous hikes, according to Partridge’s design for education, were physically challenging and promoted self-reliance. Students involved in excursions became accustomed to “fatigue and privation.” Furthermore, they learned “to take care of themselves,” a process Partridge considered essential to the proper development and education of youth.
Excursions also supplemented classroom instruction with “practical and everyday knowledge of the world, which can never be derived from books.” Trips into the field provided valuable educational experiences in such areas as botany, mineralogy, surveying, engineering, military science, and history. Students visited and examined factories, navy yards, arsenals, railroads, bridges, canals, and historic sites. Alden Partridge became convinced from considerable experience, “as well as from the nature of the case,” that his students derived “more real advantage” and improvement from excursions than from any other activities.
Events in the recent history of Norwich University illustrate how the growth and evolution of the institution have remained consistent with the educational principles of Alden Partridge. The merger with Vermont College in 1972 enabled Norwich to expand its academic base, extend its offering to women, and add a non-military lifestyle. Vermont College was founded in 1834 as Newbury Seminary and is notable as one of the first American institutions to offer higher education to women. Indeed, Alden Partridge was a strong advocate of female education and attempted at about the same time to establish a female division for his school at Norwich, Vermont. For more than a century after the two schools relocated to central Vermont, Norwich University and Vermont College were neighbors. Merger of the two institutions was discussed for several decades before it came about, in part because of a shared mission of leadership and service. In 1974, two years after the merger with Vermont College, women were first admitted into the Norwich University Corps of Cadets.
Also consonant with Alden Partridge’s thinking was the acquisition of four adult-centered programs from Goddard College in 1981. Alden Partridge recognized the need for a curricular flexibility that would provide students with elective opportunities and allow them to pursue an educational program at their own pace, a pedagogical attitude that explains why students ranging from adolescents to veterans of the War of 1812 could be found at his institution in the 1820’s. The programs acquired from Goddard College broadened the curriculum and enriched the educational environment by enabling Norwich to open its offering to nontraditional learners, introduce new residency patterns, diversify culturally and geographically, and significantly increase the enrollment of minority students. These programs share the University’s focus on experiential education.
Partridge’s philosophy continues to give direction to the Norwich curriculum with its special emphasis on preparing students to become useful and active citizens. In many academic programs, experiential learning is given a prominent role in order to encourage students to make connections between classroom theory and the surrounding world. The creation, in 1987, of the nation’s first Peace Corps Preparatory Program, the expansion of internship programs, and the encouragement of volunteer community service all represent an extension of those aspects of the University mission that relate to experiential learning and social service.
Today, Norwich University still closely adheres to the purposes and precepts laid out by its founder Alden Partridge in 1819. The system of education articulated by Partridge was so broad, sensible, flexible, and visionary that it continues to have extraordinary currency.
From History of Norwich University—Images of Its Past by Gary Thomas Lord, Charles A. Dana Professor of History (Louisville, KY: Harmony House, 1995). Written for Norwich University’s 175th anniversary. Used with permission.