February 16, 2010

Russell Dennis, assistant professor of education.

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By Sam Alcorn

LEWISBURG, Pa. — From its founding as the University of Lewisburg in 1846, when a group of Baptists deemed it "desirable that a literary institution should be established in Central Pennsylvania," to its becoming one of the nation's top liberal arts institutions, Bucknell University has experienced many changes all while remaining true to its beginnings as an academic "beacon."

"Remember, it was almost the frontier," Russell Dennis, an assistant professor of education, said of Lewisburg in the mid-19th century, when Stephen Taylor, a Bucknell founder, first spied the hill upon which the University would be built.

"From Philadelphia, you came in by canal — four miles per hour — to Montandon," Dennis added. "Then it was a crosscut across the Susquehanna to Lewisburg. When you looked up, you saw Roberts Hall sitting on the highest piece of real estate in Lewisburg. It was a very symbolic placement of the University. It was the intellectual city on the hill. You were looking up to knowledge."

Capstone course
Bucknell's history, culture and traditions, which have guided the University through the years, are captured this semester in Dennis' capstone course, "Bucknell of Yesteryear and Today." This is the seventh and final time Dennis, a 1964 graduate and resident Bucknell historian, will teach the course. He is retiring.

To preserve and share Dennis' knowledge of Bucknell's history, each session of the class is being videotaped and posted online at Bucknell History and Traditions along with dozens of documents and other materials Dennis has assembled for the course. This is the first time Bucknell has provided a course online in its entirety.

"The major objective is to understand the continuity and change in the intent and meaning of a Bucknell education over the 19th and 20th centuries into the beginning of the 21st century," Dennis said.

Four time periods
The course is divided into four time periods: University of Lewisburg from 1846 to 1886; growth and transformation from 1887 to 1929; the Great Depression, World War II and its aftermath, 1930 to 1949; and Bucknell in the second half of the 20th century, 1950 to 2000.

"In some ways, it is quite typical of a denominational liberal arts college," Dennis said of the University's 164-year history. "However, in other ways it is quite different."

For example, Bucknell was far ahead of its peers in admitting women, becoming co-educational nearly a century before other universities such as Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard.

"Bucknell first admitted females as first-years in 1883, but had the Female Institute from its beginning," Dennis said. "Also, beginning in the 1890s, Bucknell began to develop into a small university that combined both liberal arts and professional programs, which made it quite unique."

First-hand meaning
Dennis uses architecture, campus walks and digital archives to give the class first-hand meaning. Students are asked to reflect on how the architecture and physical nature of the campus at different times influenced the form and meaning of a Bucknell education.

He can point to the first two buildings on campus, now called Taylor and Roberts Halls, and note that they were built in an imposing classical Greek style. Both were designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, who was responsible for adding the Senate and House wings and the central dome to the U.S. Capitol building.

In contrast, the Female Institute was built downhill in an Italianate style, reflecting in part the charge of the institute at the time to be a sort of finishing school for women.

Nonetheless, men and women did share classes in the University's earliest days, Dennis noted. The classes were in the basement of the Baptist meeting house in downtown Lewisburg and in Taylor Hall, when it was completed in 1849. Of course, the men and women sat on opposite sides of the room.

Dennis will ask class participants throughout the semester to "reflect on how their Bucknell education is similar to as well as different from the intent and meaning of a Bucknell education in the past," he said. "As a senior-year course, this is probably unique."

Contact: Division of Communications

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