From Special Collections/University Archives: Literary Societies at Bucknell

In the early history of the University at Lewisburg, former name of Bucknell University, the faculty and the student-body was small and university life and the curriculum would have hardly resembled anything that we would recognize today. Students were drilled in Greek and Latin, the curriculum contained a deep religious overtone, and there was not much to being a student outside the academic setting. One cornerstone of the contemporary life of a college student—a plethora of extracurricular activities—was noticeably absent from the daily schedule of students enrolled in the University at Lewisburg.

One of the first extracurricular programs established at the University was a debating society known as the Philomathian. Founded just two years after the establishment of the University at Lewisburg in 1846, the records of the Philomathian are few in the university archives collection except for the brief diary records of students that were enrolled in the 1847-48 academic year.

However, two successors to the Philomathian, the Theta Alpha and Euepia literary societies, had much greater presences on campus and seemed to carry on the function left over from their predecessor. Their main role in academic life was to have students work on their oratory and rhetorical skills and blend their studies into areas that were of current interest in politics, national events, or in philosophy and literature.

The main function of these societies was to produce lively debate in a social setting—each meeting, a topic would be chosen that the students would research for and debate over. The university archives collection in Special Collections/University Archives has the ledgers from these early literary societies, giving us an interesting glimpse into the thoughts and interests of the students in the context of broader national history. One topic debated by Theta Alpha, signed 28 May 1852 reads “Is Republicanism more ordained to Social Order than Monarchy?” Another from later that year asks “Is the immediate abolition of Slavery advisable?” An odd prescience and concern over the country’s future pervades many of these questions—one asks in June 1861, just after the outbreak of the Civil War, “Should the President of the U.S. have the right to suspend a writ of Habeas Corpus in time of war?”

Later on, these societies would take on a greater literary role on campus. In 1870, the two societies worked jointly to publish the College Herald—dubbed by the editors as the “organ of the University.” This monthly publication, publishing essays, fiction, and poetry was the University’s first student publication. It later took on a more generalized role, publishing a short history of the university as well as some short news pieces on student life and the athletics clubs on campus. The College Herald also covered many of the topics that the literary societies debated, including the national debate over coeducation in colleges and universities and the inclusion of women, the role of the Greek language in the modern education system, and whether or not students should be able to pursue electives as a part of their studies.

Both the Theta Alpha and Euepia societies lasted on campus until the early part of the 1900’s. By the time they disappeared, there were numerous other student focused organizations on campus including multiple student publications, theological and Christian societies like the Y.M.C.A, and a weekly student newspaper. The value of the literary societies to the development of student life at Bucknell is significant. Their legacy is evidence that a college education should encompass more than classwork. Today, students receive educational value by participating in what we now call extracurricular activities, just as students long ago derived value from student run activities such as the literary societies at the University at Lewisburg.



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