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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1827 Letter

Asa Smith Colton

Delivered: 1877

As I am expected to say something of our alma mater as she was 50 years ago, I must say what I can, and be excused for not saying more. Of particular occurrences while I was in College, from 1824 to 1827 (having entered sophomore), I can recall but little. A deficiency of memory for details is, I believe, partly due to my study of mathematics in my junior year, under the vigorous teaching of Professor Strong — nomenclarum et venerabile. General principles, I found it afterward easy to grasp and retain; but this advancement was accompanied by a corresponding decline of memory for particulars, in history and the common events of life. Nor do I find that 50 or more additional years have done anything to replace the seeming deficiency thus occasioned.

Of the faculty, I can think of nothing to say that has not been said in the annalists' letters of the last two or three years, unless in the single case of Professor Strong. We knew that we had in him a man of extraordinary genius; but did not all know the power that he was to put forth in mathematical investigations of an original character.

As a mere teacher of young men, and especially those who had no time for the studies of his department, he could never have excelled; for his original power of thought forbade his readily coming down to the slow process of the ordinary unmathematical mind. There was always one comfort for those who came to his recitations unprepared; if they could not recite, he could; and whenever he set off to give us a little help, we were pretty sure of getting as much as we needed; and so adroitly given as to leave the sense of failure much less than if we had been compelled fully to exhibit our own ignorance. For one thing in his teaching I have always been grateful. He said to us when we entered upon the studies of the junior year—especially conics and spherics — "Young gentlemen, study subjects, not books."

This in fact is the one thing that I have distinctly left in mind, of all that was said to us during our college course — the one thing that stands as a beacon light there vouchsafed to me. I soon learned to supplement the injunction with this: "Put books under your feet, and ask their help, when you want mere information, or are compelled to answer questions without time to devise solutions for yourself." But, as I have said, we did not know the man we had among us. Nor did anybody know, save here and there one who kept up an acquaintance with him and his studies, until he published his algebra in 1859. Then we learned that he had done what, as Bonnycastle said in 1820, had baffled the efforts of the best mathematicians of Europe for 350 years. I refer to the case of cubic equations left "irreducible " by Cardan; and which to this day, as I suppose, no one can touch by a purely algebraical process, unless in virtue of what Professor Strong has done.

Again, no one before had devised a method for the direct extraction of all roots of numbers. This he has done, and in the Mathematical Monthly (some number in 1860) applied it to the extraction of the one hundredth root of 10. At other points too, he has added to the science of algebra things that otherwise might have waited long for their accomplishment. Let me add, one who thoroughly peruses this algebra is affected as by the writings of Sir J. S. Newton, La Place, and some few others, with a new sense of the powers of the human intellect, and the worth of the human soul. Of this work I am sorry to say that, not meeting ready sale, the whole edition, saving a few copies, was destroyed by the booksellers in New York, into whose hands it fell after the failure of its publishers. Little did they know what they were doing. A copy of the book ought to be in every college library in the country, if not in the hands of every genuine mathematical student. I have myself sent some copies to Japan, one to the great Hindoo algebraist, Ramchundra, at Calcutta, and one to the late Professor De Morgan, of London.

The College curriculum of those days was considerably less than it is at present. Several branches, now established in the most of our colleges, were then left for later and presumably more mature years. Some of them were only hinted at as possibly requiring attention somewhere in the course of our professional studies or in after life. It seems to have been assumed, though some of us were not boys, that we were to survive graduation, and possibly have some time for study after we left the knees of our alma mater; and perhaps the faculty members were wise in this matter. For example, how could we profit by the history of speculative philosophy before we well knew the elements of the science of matter and mind, which give rise to the simplest questions of what of late is alone called philosophy. I believe that our masters thought that in order to spread our wings for flight through the whole empyrean, we should cultivate them a little, and try them first on sublunary excursions.

Turning to the catalogue of 1825, I find that our seniors attained to Hedge's Logic, Blair's Lectures, and Locke on Human Understanding in the first term; and, in the course of the year, reached Paley's Evidences, Kame's Elements of Criticism, Stewart on The Mind, and Butler's Analogy. Speculative philosophy, and the history of philosophy in general were left for our more mature years and capabilities.

The catalogue of 1825, including the title page, has eight leaves, and looks like the work of a rather primitive period.

Of my own class, while others would deserve honorable mention, I shall speak of only two by name. James H. Eells stands before me in the bright colors of a hardly grown-up young man of uncommon abilities and a character of unusual loveliness, though among the very youngest in the class. Graduating at the age of nineteen, he stood high in every branch of learning, and altogether had hardly his equal among us. I remember especially his enthusiasm about the "Lake poets," Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. I then knew nothing of poetry, and since I have learned to appreciate its means of teaching moral and spiritual truth, I have looked back with admiration upon his superiority to most of his college companions. For a year Mr. Eells was a tutor in the college; then he studied theology, became a Presbyterian minister, and in 1836, at the age of 28, was drowned in the Maumee river, in northern Ohio, lamented among men, welcomed by the blessed above.

I would also refer to Marcus Catlin, who afterwards became a professor of mathematics and astronomy. It was a spectacle to be remembered, to see him sit and twist a lock of hair near the crown of his head, and then, in the course of a day or so, set down an original proposition (in algebraic terms) from which almost the whole system of conic sections was but a series of corollaries. His was a true mathematical genius, and we might say of him, as did Sir Isaac Newton of his friend Horrox, "Had he lived, he would of told us something." This reminds me of our astronomical apparatus at that time. We had for a telescope (and I remember nothing else), a Newtonian reflector, of say 18 inches in length, and, perhaps, an aperture of four inches. This was in my own possession for a long time, and, while it gave us no new planets or planetoids, it gave an account of the moon's surface, and of the sun's spots, for which I have always been thankful. In watching the shadows in valleys, and as cast by eminences, I saw, as it were, the very motion of the moon in her monthly round.

Our present observatory, with Professor Peters to give us a new asteroid almost any day, is an exhibition of progress in this line worthy of special regard. How the good professor can recognize and keep in order so many frisky dames — frisky in name at least — one can hardly conjecture.

At one point I think our instruction, at that time, as perhaps in all our colleges to this day, was defective. I refer to the study of languages. We were not taught the fundamental principle, that the ear (for the study of languages) is the root of the memory, with the corollary that the constant repetition aloud of the language that we are learning should be esteemed essential to any rapid progress. The eye is but a feeble instrument for this purpose. Hence in all exercises, on vocabularies and forms, the words and phrases and sentences of the language studied should be repeated aloud to the teacher and in private. Reading aloud, declaiming, and reciting aloud memorized passages—all such practices are far more effective than merely giving our own language (at recitations) for the new one under the eye. Teaching based upon such ideas would be far more efficient than it can be in the usual method.

In conclusion, I offer a word of special commendation. Our College has not erred, as some have of late, in greatly increasing the branches of study. Where there are too many objects of attention, the result is a smattering of many things, with but little real knowledge of any. Too many courses and too many lectures distract the mind, and rather enfeeble than strengthen its power. Our faculty of attention is very limited; and where its limits are not duly respected the work of education is very imperfectly performed.
And now, thanking the Alumni Association for the honor of representing the Class of 1827, and wishing that I could take all by the hand, I must say to them, and to the honored faculty, Valete et pax vobiscum.