JCB Library opens new exhibit on higher ed

Crumbling and aging pages from institutions around the globe draw visitors to the John Carter Brown Library’s exhibit, “Off to College: Higher Education in the Americas, 1551-1825.” While the documents are written in various languages across different historical eras, they collectively initiate a conversation about the role and goals of education.

The exhibit follows the theme of the University’s 250th anniversary and “puts Brown into a larger context, gives it a place within the western hemisphere as a whole,” said Jeremy Ravi Mumford, lecturer in the department of History, who guest curated the exhibit.

Written documents, such as books and charters, dominate the collection, but diagrams, maps and other visual representations are also present. The items are organized to compare and contrast different aspects of higher education in North America, Latin America and Western Europe.

The exhibit’s structure allows the viewer to infer that views towards higher education in North and South America had much more in common with each other during the colonial period than today, Mumford said. Recently, North America has focused on small private colleges and Latin America on large public ones, but early institutions in these two regions both emphasized religion and the traditional seven liberal arts, he said.

The exhibit most closely examines the link between education and religion, demonstrating the ways in which early institutions struggled to strike a balance between the two.

Exemplifying these tensions is a translated text from the University of Guatemala, which questions secularity versus sanctity. According to the exhibit’s website, the document interrogates whether the university was “royal for (the university’s) many good services to the Commonwealth, or Pontificial, for the noble deeds for the church?”

Meanwhile, a charter published from the College of Rhode Island, which later became Brown, shows that though the University was one of the first to shed its religious affiliation, it originally required the college’s board to have 22 Baptists, five Anglicans, five Quakers and four Congregationalists as representatives.

The exhibit similarly investigates the exclusivity of colleges and education as a right. An essay by James Ramsay, an 18th century abolitionist, promotes literacy classes for African slaves in the Caribbean. Mary Wollstonecraft, a women’s rights advocate of the same period, reasons that women have the same capabilities as men and thus should have equal access to education.

The exhibit will be up on display at the JCB through October.

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