Rensselaer School and the Rise of Scientific Education

  • Education
  • 1824

Stephen Van Rensselaer was heir to one of the most valuable landholdings in the United States. Comprised of over a thousand farms, Rensselaer’s New York estate and the requirements of its maintenance acquainted him with the need for efficiency and technical expertise in agriculture. Rensselaer had benefited from the best education his country had to offer, but in the years following his college graduation rapid economic development produced demands for practical skills not furnished by the classical curriculum provided by the leading American schools.

So Rensselaer turned his attention and his wealth to the promotion of more practical education. He funded the work of Amos Eaton, a prominent geologist and zoologist, and the relationship the men struck up laid the foundation for Eaton’s request the following year that Rensselaer support a school centered on instruction in the sciences. Thus emerged the Rensselaer School in 1824, an institution dedicated to “the application of science to the common purposes of life.” Stephen Van Rensselaer underwrote the college to the tune of $25,000 in its first decade. Under Eaton’s supervision, it grew quickly and within a few years was responsible for educating a remarkable number of the nation’s naturalists and engineers (for a period, a majority of all the engineers in the United States held a degree from the Rensselaer School). The college awarded the first civil-engineering degrees in the English-speaking world, offered the first courses in advanced agricultural studies, and led the shift from passive to hands-on learning in science education. The success of the Rensselaer model led to many other similar colleges, and the original continues to thrive in upstate New York as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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