A Marginal Student

It is hard to say what would have become of him had he stayed in theNorwegian settlement. As it was, his father, now relatively well-to-do, decidedthat the road to self-improvement was through education. He would notexploit his children on the farm, as was the wont throughout the community,but he sent them to the higher institutions of learning of alien America. In1874, when he found that the local preacher considered his son Thorstein asuitable candidate for the ministry, he decided that the boy should enternearby Carleton College. Thorstein himself was not consulted. He was sum-moned from the field and placed in the family buggy with his baggage alreadypacked. The first he learned that he was to enter Carleton was when he arrivedthere; then he was told that he was to live in a log cabin his father had builtfor his children on the edge of the campus. For seventeen years, ThorsteinVeblen had lived in a cultural enclave, speaking little or no English; now hewas suddenly being projected into the surrounding American culture fromwhich he had been almost completely insulated.

Carleton College had been founded just a few years before Veblen'sarrival by Congregationalists who attempted to build on the prairies of Minne-sota a replica of New England gentility. It was a thoroughly Christian andearnestly evangelical school where intemperance, profanity, and the use oftobacco were strictly forbidden, as was "all Sabbath and evening associationbetween the sexes, except by special permission." In teaching, the classics,moral philosophy, and religion were stressed and the natural sciences wereslighted. English literature was taught during one quarter of the senior yearonly, and American history was not taught at all. The really importantcourses were those in moral philosophy. The reigning doctrine was ScottishCommon Sense, as first expounded by Thomas Reid and developed by SirWilliam Hamilton. This safe philosophy cast no doubts upon the literal in-terpretation of the Bible and religious orthodoxy and was meant to counterthe scepticism of Hume and his school. Reid taught that fundamental andself-evident truths were enshrined in the common sense of mankind and that"anything manifestly contrary to them is what we call absurd."

Quite predictably Veblen, already a village sceptic at home, took badly tothe spirit of Carleton. He spent six years there, but the education he acquiredstemmed in the main from his voracious independent reading rather than fromhis teachers. The only faculty man who seems to have impressed him wasJohn Bates Clark, in later years a major figure in economics at Columbia, butat that time a professor of odds and ends who taught everything from Englishcomposition and moral philosophy to political economy. Clark, whose melioris-tic and mildly socialist ideas appealed to Veblen, was probably the only teacherwho liked this youth with a "mind clothed in sardonic humour," as a facultymember described it. That Norwegian bull in the genteel china shop of NewEngland culture disturbed his elders no end. Refusing to take seriously all thepieties he was supposed to absorb, he defended himself by mordant wit, cor-rosive satire, and just plain cussedness.

The dignitaries of Carlton were undoubtedly relieved when Veblen gradu-ated in 1880. Although he is probably Carleton's most famous alumnus, to thisday there is no hall or building named in his honor--not even a plaque com-memorating him on campus. Veblen, in his turn, was glad his Carleton dayswere over. While he had fun delivering a "Plea for Cannibalism" before thefaculty and students earnestly concerned with the conversion of the heathen,or pronouncing an "Apology for a Toper" before scandalized teetotalers, suchprankishness was really only a desperate defense against his repugnant sur-roundings. He left Carleton with a fine, mainly self-acquired, education, andwith an enduring love of his fellow student, Ellen Rolfe, the niece of thepresident, whom he was to marry a few years later.

From Coser, 1977:276-278.


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